Reforming Higher Ed #2: Demand Rigor

Mathematics Lecture

Mathematics Lecture

In a previous post, “Adrift without a Paddle,” I noted “an ever deeper descent into an anti-intellectualistic, narcissistic culture in which students pursue pre-employment, technical training with single-minded purpose while, nevertheless, they expect to be rewarded with high grades and degrees apart from real achievement.” This phenomenon of empty degrees worries government officials, business and community leaders, and the general public. What should be done to restore real achievement on the part of college students generally? My first response: Demand rigor!

Eroding Standards

Several cultural factors work together to erode academic standards:

  • Lack of college-level preparation in secondary school.
  • Low expectations by students themselves, based on prior experience.
  • Insufficient academic support for students who exhibit academic deficiencies.
  • Low expectation of student performance by faculty.
  • Unwillingness of administrators to encourage or enforce even minimal academic standards.
  • Institutional concern over students who drop out due to academic difficulty.
  • The myth of multitasking (or the “cell phone follies”).

The most pernicious of these factors—low student expectations and low faculty expectations—tend to reinforce one another. Based on their high school experience, many students come to believe (1) that they cannot achieve at a high level, or (2) that what they can achieve matches the level that will be required of them in college. For their part, faculty become discouraged by dealing with unprepared students and lose faith that such students can ever measure up. When 80% of all entering college students require remedial instruction in basic skills, it is difficult for faculty not to become disheartened.

Over the entire scene, moreover, lies the cloud of financial anxiety. Except for elite, well-endowed institutions, colleges and universities are acutely aware of their dependence on student enrollment. Administrators spend a lot of time and money on improving “retention,” since keeping existing students enrolled is more cost-efficient than recruiting new students. Horror stories show that some for-profit institutions carry such concern to extremes, even to the point where administrators unilaterally raise student grades just to keep them enrolled. But all institutions feel the economic pressure and try to avoid for financial reasons failing too many students.

Even if the financial pressure is not overtly crude, faculty members become sensitive to it. Departmental budgets are often directly related to enrollment: declining enrollment = declining budgets and faculty lines. Instructors, therefore, cannot be too hard on students and expect to remain employed. This sets up a strong, financial disincentive toward maintaining high academic standards. No wonder expectations and actual learning disappoint!

Demanding Rigor

In their much-discussed volume, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa conclude (p. 93):

Having faculty members who are perceived by students as being approachable and having high standards and expectations is associated with greater learning. . . . A prominent sociological tradition of status attainment over the past forty years has highlighted how expectations of significant others, including teachers, are important for facilitating students’ educational success. This still holds true on college campuses today: when faculty have high expectations, students learn more.

Academic administrators, including presidents, must recover their courage and begin to support and encourage faculty in maintaining high expectations. There is no other way. The fear of financial collapse because of massive student failure or because students who seek an easier path will vote with their feet must be resisted. Indeed, institutions that insist on high standards can and should turn that into a marketing advantage, with regard both to student recruitment and to relationships with business and community organizations. Let’s face it: institutions of higher learning sell education; if they don’t produce it (if students don’t learn), they will be ignored in favor of institutions who can produce it.

To the ears of many faculty members, that sounds crass. All talk about selling is crass. But we are at a point where institutional effectiveness is widely doubted. Expecting students to learn more, thereby helping them to learn more, is the first step toward ending our collective drift. To take this step requires courage—the sort of courage that refuses to bribe politicians and the sort that insists no tuition dollar is worth destroying an institution’s principal mission.

And what of multitasking and the “cell phone follies?” Check back!

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