We Pretend to Teach, They Pretend to Learn
At colleges today, all parties are strongly incentivized to maintain low standards.
Geoffrey L. Collier
Dec. 26, 2013 7:24 p.m. ET
The parlous state of American higher education has been widely noted, but the view from the trenches is far more troubling than can be characterized by measured prose. With most students on winter break and colleges largely shut down, the lull presents an opportunity for damage assessment.
The flood of books detailing the problems includes the representative titles "Bad Students, Not Bad Schools" and "The Five Year Party." To list only the principal faults: Students arrive woefully academically unprepared; students study little, party much and lack any semblance of internalized discipline; pride in work is supplanted by expediency; and the whole enterprise is treated as a system to be gamed in which plagiarism and cheating abound.
The problems stem from two attitudes. Social preoccupations trump the academic part of residential education, which occupies precious little of students' time or emotions. Second, students' view of education is strictly instrumental and credentialist. They regard the entire enterprise as a series of hoops they must jump through to obtain their 120 credits, which they blindly view as an automatic licensure for adulthood and a good job, an increasingly problematic belief.
Education thus has degenerated into a game of "trap the rat," whereby the student and instructor view each other as adversaries. Winning or losing is determined by how much the students can be forced to study. This will never be a formula for excellence, which requires intense focus, discipline and diligence that are utterly lacking among our distracted, indifferent students. Such diligence requires emotional engagement. Engagement could be with the material, the professors, or even a competitive goal, but the idea that students can obtain a serious education even with their disengaged, credentialist attitudes is a delusion.
The professoriate plays along because teachers know they have a good racket going. They would rather be refining their research or their backhand than attending to tedious undergraduates. The result is an implicit mutually assured nondestruction pact in which the students and faculty ignore each other to the best of their abilities. This disengagement guarantees poor outcomes, as well as the eventual replacement of the professoriate by technology. When professors don't even know your name, they become remote figures of ridicule and tedium and are viewed as part of a system to be played rather than a useful resource.
To be fair, cadres of indefatigable souls labor tirelessly in thankless ignominy in the bowels of sundry ivory dungeons. Jokers in a deck stacked against them, they are ensnared in a classic reward system from hell.
All parties are strongly incentivized to maintain low standards. It is well known that friendly, entertaining professors make for a pleasant classroom, good reviews and minimal complaints. Contrarily, faculty have no incentives to punish plagiarism and cheating, to flunk students or to write negative letters of reference, to assiduously mark up illiterate prose in lieu of merely adding a grade and a few comments, or to enforce standards generally. Indeed, these acts are rarely rewarded but frequently punished, even litigated. Mass failure, always a temptation, is not an option. Under this regimen, it is a testament to the faculty that any standards remain at all.
As tuition has skyrocketed, education has shifted from being a public good to a private, consumer product. Students are induced into debt because they are repeatedly bludgeoned with news about the average-income increments that accrue to additional education. This is exacerbated by the ready availability of student loans, obligations that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.
In parallel, successive generations of students have become increasingly consumerist in their attitudes, and all but the most well-heeled institutions readily give the consumers what they want in order to generate tuition revenue. Competition for students forces universities to invest in and promote their recreational value. Perhaps the largest scam is that these institutions have an incentive to retain paying students who have little chance of graduating. This is presented as a kindness under the guise of "student retention." The student, or the taxpayer in the case of default, ends up holding the bag, whereas the institution gets off scot free. Withholding government funding from institutions with low graduation rates would only encourage the further abandonment of standards.
So students get what they want: a "five year party" eventuating in painlessly achieved "Wizard of Oz" diplomas. This creates a classic tragedy of the commons in which individuals overuse a shared resource—in this case the market value of the sheepskin. Students, implicitly following the screening theory that credentials are little more than signals of intelligence and personal qualities, follow a mini-max strategy: minimize the effort, maximize the probability of obtaining a degree. The decrement in the value of the sheepskin inflicted by each student is small, but the cumulative effect is that the resource will become valueless.
The body politic lately has become aware of the cracks in this game. With about half of college graduates under 25 currently unemployed or underemployed, the income advantage of a four-year degree may be on the decline. Employers are justifiably fed up with college graduates lacking basic knowledge, to say nothing of good work habits and intellectual discipline. Yet the perennial impulse toward bureaucratic command-and-control solutions, such as universal standardized testing or standardized grade-point averages, only leads in the direction of more credentialism.
If the body politic desires this, so be it. However, these are essentially supply-side solutions, in that they attempt to staunch the supply of poorly prepared students or increase the supply of well-prepared students. Such approaches are notoriously problematic, as in the classic case of black markets.
Better to address the demand side. To be sure, there is plenty of student demand for credentials, but there is little demand for the rigor that the credentials putatively represent. Rather than more attempts at controlling output quality through standardization, what are needed are input changes provided by creative alternative routes to adulthood that young people find attractive; a "pull" rather than a "push." It would be helpful, too, if faculty started viewing undergraduates less as whining boors and more as lost souls who have been scandalously misguided by a feel-good "everyone's a star" culture.
Dr. Collier is a psychology professor at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, S.C.