Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Rising Tide Of Mediocrity

My headline, a phrase made famous by a presidential commission's report on education in the 1980s, is perhaps too kind.

It's not often I agree with Bob Herbert, the arch-liberal lion of the New York Times op-ed page. But he penned a compelling column yesterday that cites a new book based on a recent study indicating that more and more students are getting less and less out of their college experience.

Among the findings:
According to [the] analysis of more than 2,300 undergraduates at 24 institutions, 45 percent of these students demonstrate no significant improvement in a range of skills — including critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing — during their first two years of college.
And there was also this:
As troubling as their findings are, Arum and Roksa argue that for many faculty and administrators they will come as no surprise — instead, they are the expected result of a student body distracted by socializing or working and an institutional culture that puts undergraduate learning close to the bottom of the priority list.
As regular readers of this blog know, I have been sharply critical of colleges and universities for their confiscatory tuition increases over the last 20 years. But in this case, it's not so easy to point the finger at them.

For several decades at least, college has been characterized by a surfeit of distractions: thousands of teens and young adults who have never been away from home for an extended period of time; the easy availability of drugs, alcohol and sex; academic and social supervision that is, in most cases, far less vigilant than students were accustomed to in high school; and a nationwide educational culture that increasingly emphasizes entitlement and self-esteem over actual achievement.

I do agree with the report's conclusion, however, that in larger universities undergraduate education is often devalued. What message does it send, for example, when so many undergraduate classes are led by teaching assistants while the credentialed professor is off doing research?

And I suspect that colleges are not terribly inclined to get tough with the student slackers because of the risk involved. After all, as a fundraiser, I think's it's safe to say that students are, in some ways, a lot like donors: it is far cheaper to retain an existing one than to find a new one.

All I can do is hope things improve by the time my son enters college in September 2014. Wow, did I actually say that?


  1. Yay! Sarah Lawrence welcomes your son with open arms, Terry! We have no teaching assistants -- it's all about real undergraduate education. Our students learn to write, think critically, and do complex reasoning -- AND they also take responsibility to be independent thinkers and pursue their own passions (no "entitlements" here!, though I confess your son might leave us with a feeling of self-esteem, sorry!).

    That's why we cost so much, get it? But don't worry, we offer extremely generous financial aid! SLC Class of 2018 awaits!!

  2. I'm afraid SLC's $51k per year is way, way out of my league. As for financial aid, we're too poor to be rich and too rich to be poor.

  3. More than 60% of our students receive financial aid. I wouldn't count yourself out, and there's no harm in trying, right? If you want the kind of vanishing eduation you are talking about....

  4. With all due respect to Fred, there are many excellent colleges, with a broad spectrum of options and costs. We're nearing the end of the experience for our two, at a cost of over $400K (after tax!), and it has been well worth it.

    There is something almost misleading about average statistics - talking about the typical college is sort of like talking about the typical wife or husband or child. Your own experience can vary enormously. In my opinion there is no trick to the college selection process. One has to do a lot of research and personal evaluation.

  5. Peter, you are correct that it's very difficult to draw conclusions about individual students and colleges based on averages.
    But I think these types of stats do tell us something about where we're headed generally. Speaking of which, it's time for me to start my "research."