Friday, May 06, 2011

Not Everybody Belongs in College

In "Why Do I Have an F?", Eliana Osborn asks,
I got one of those e-mails I dread, the ones that come a few times a semester. “I thought I was doing great,” a student wrote, “but I see that I have an F. Can you explain?”

Sure I can explain, but students don’t seem to listen. Grades in my course, according to the nonnegotiable syllabus from the college, are made up of tests and essays. That’s it. All of the other things a student may be doing right will help them to get good grades on their tests and essays, but not always. A diligent student who reads the texts but refuses to turn in a full essay is out of luck.
That, of course, is not the end of things:
After midterm grades I hear from another batch of students. Those who feel like giving up. “Is there any way I can get my grade higher?” comes the plaintive e-mailed complaint. Yes, I reply. Come to class every week and do every assignment.

That is not the answer many of them want to hear. They want extra credit, chances to make up tests, magic points that appear out of nowhere just because they asked.
This from an instructor who gives lots of extra chances to students who simply make an effort:
I generally let students correct and improve their essays. I teach mainly low-level developmental English courses and the point is to get students’ skills to a place where they are able to complete regular college coursework. Students who don’t take advantage of the opportunity I offer to improve their essays, and thus their grade, have a hard time gaining my sympathy. I just gave a grade to a paper after the fourth set of revisions. I am sick to death of reading it. But the student was willing to keep trying so I figured I could only do the same.
I will grant, sure, there are some students who need that level of support due to extenuating circumstances - a limited understanding of the English language, or perhaps an atrocious high school experience that masks their potential - but in most cases I suspect we're trying to prepare kids for college who would be better served by either getting a different form of training or entering the workforce. A student who makes a sincere effort to revise and improve an essay, whatever it takes to pass the class, likely has a work ethic that will carry over more profitably to other areas.

But those students who lack the basic work ethic, whether or not they would be able to adequately complete their course work if they tried, simply don't belong in college. They contribute to a creeping "culture of dumb", the high school insecurity that keeps kids from correctly answering questions or participating in class lest they bee deemed "nerds", "eggheads", "brown nosers", etc., into college classrooms. And they waste everybody's time, including their own. Odds are they're not going to graduate, anyway, so (aside from the cynical view that the college is happy to take their tuition checks for as long as they're enrolled, and thus wants to stretch out the process, or that the student is happy to live a taxpayer subsidized life of partying as long as the student loan checks keep coming in) do everybody a favor and guide them toward options to which they're more suited - or simply kick 'em out.

One response might be to harken back to the era of the "gentleman's C", the college era in which a suitably pedigreed and connected student could coast through a college program and end up with a degree, albeit with an unimpressive GPA. But historically colleges were a lot cheaper, that sort of person was probably funding his college years principally or exclusively through a parental subsidy, and pretty much anybody with a college degree would find employment. Perhaps times haven't changed that much for the wealthy - the lowest performing children of the wealthy, after all, tend to earn more money than the highest performing children from poor families - but I don't think that anybody needs to be reminded that in the present world a college degree is anything but a guaranty of employment.


  1. Don't get me started on this! I loathe the push for college. I realized I was a cranky grown up when I looked back at my college days and realized that the classes were jokes, mostly. It was a great time in life, but the classes were ridiculous...nothing practical. (Law school was even less practical but that's another story). If you are having your college paid for, by all means, take Introduction to Human Communication & Japanese History like I was interesting, but did not ultimately help me in my careers. But as I tell the kiddos all the you want to take out $80k in loans for a $25k/year job? My point is--college should be ONE of the MANY options for after high school...not the default option.

  2. Especially if "college" means "a dubious certification program at a for-profit college that you will pay for by accruing massive student loan debt."

  3. I suspect that this push for everyone to go to college stems from some people's desire to have a more egalitarian society. This is America! The land of equal opportunity, right?

    But for the last several decades the divide between rich and poor has been growing and since people in more economically advantaged situations tend to have degrees, people sometimes assume that everyone with a college degree will have a good job with a good salary and that the way to make our society as a whole more egalitarian is to give everyone more higher education opportunities.

    Sadly, it isn't working. College really isn't for everyone. But what is missing is that good jobs for people who don't have college degrees are disappearing.

    Peter Theil has some interesting things to say about a college bubble. While I generally don't consider Theil to be someone worth listening to, he may be on to something here. I generally agree with him that for those who are hard working and bright, entrepreneurship might be a very viable alternative to college.


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