Declining Standards

in Higher Education

This column has been on my mind for some time, but, frankly, I didn't want to write it. 

There are enough people complaining about things getting worse—which, in general, they are not, in my opinion—without my adding to the din.

In the past I've tried to label the following examples isolated instances.  However, in recent months I've had to conclude that they are not.

One case in point: a professor came to me this week saying that in one of his classes students were asking that final exam questions and answers be made available to them—before the final.

" In the past this type of question would have elicited a big horse laugh from the other students."

  No so this time.  The rationale given was that other teachers were doing this.

I should have been shocked, but I've encountered this before with teachers who felt this was the only way that many of their students could pass their course.

The rationale given by one professor is that since his final exam questions are so detailed and comprehensive his students would learn the bulk of the class material by simply knowing all the questions and answers.

Another colleague recently said, "I've been teaching the same material in pretty much the same way for years.  In the past most exam results neatly divided themselves into a few A's, a couple of well deserved F's, with the bulk of the grades in between.

"Now, if I used those same questions I would end up flunking more than half the class. And that would hurt the university's retention rate, not to mention their PR."

Today, examples of "dumbing down" courses to pass and retain students are common. Textbook writers and publishers are well aware of the trend.

The U.S. has the reputation of having one of the finest systems of higher education in the world.  Students from other countries regularly study at our universities.

But, things have been changing. 

We can no longer ignore the fact that our standards have been slipping.  Courses and textbooks are being watered down, test curves are being adjusted downward to maintain acceptable pass rates, and teachers are lowering standards, bending deadlines and using upcoming exam questions as study guides.

The blame can be placed in several areas:   

  • on teachers for not keeping their materials fresh and engaging for a video and Internet savvy generation
     
  • on administrators for the emphasis on retaining students—even poor and unmotivated students
     
  • on parents for putting their faith in grades (which they understand) instead of learning (which they often don't)
     
  • and on students who increasingly feel that the goal of higher education can be reduced to  passing grades and an eventual diploma (which they feel is the key to a desirable job)

Personally, I don't feel that a college or university diploma should be everyone's automatic right.

" I would like to think that a diploma is related to intellectual ability, personal motivation, and what we used to call an 'educated person.'"

If we get to the point of awarding a college diploma to anyone who can afford the tuition and navigate a few academic routines, then college will end up only being a "holding pen" for young people before they enter the job market.

Having said all this, after serving on the graduate admissions committee of a large university for some time, I also know that the decline in standards varies with institutions. 

Our top universities, the ones that turn away large numbers of applicants every year, have not felt the  pressures to retain students to the same degree as some of the smaller private universities and colleges that depend heavily on tuition for their survival and growth.

Admissions committees quickly catch on to the fact that an A or B average from some institutions is equal to a C average from another institution. 

As I've noted in a previous column, since many employers no longer trust a college diploma, they now administer their own pre-employment screening tests in reading comprehension, writing and math.  

Results have indicated that some high school graduates (from specific high schools) out perform some college graduates (from some colleges).

The questionable abilities of students from specific colleges is fairly well known to admissions committees. 

Colleges and universities that sacrifice academic standards for immediate tuition gains may find that potential students soon get the message that a diploma from their college ends up being more of a handicap than a help.


"The commodification and marketing of higher education are unmistakable today, and we can't jolly dance along and not pay attention to them.  One hears constantly from parents and students: 'We are the consumer. We pay the tuition."

Hugo Sonnenschein, President, the University of Chicago



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