A Perfect Storm, Part II

As mentioned in an earlier post, The Chronicle has a fantastic series of articles on the problems with the undergraduate education system. The first article seemed simply to list problems–my own comments and suggestions for what is wrong were offered in the same post. The second article, hot off the internet presses, begins to address some of the reasons “why students (and, to a lesser extent, their parents) are not making choices that support educational success.”

While I have not been one in the past to defend the student, I will call bull-crap on some of these “choices” the author claims the student makes. Bolded are the comments of the author in the Chronicle, along with personal commentary as to whether the students really are to blame:

  • The student as consumer. The author’s point here is that students are not selecting colleges based solely, or even primarily, on academic rigor. Instead, they are selecting colleges based on the “overall experience” they promise. Extra-curriculars including sports teams and social fraternities/sororities are making as much, if not a greater, impact on the prospective students as the educational requirements and regulations. At the end of this bullet point, the author barely touches upon the fact that most colleges do not emphasize educational expectations in pamphlets and brochures. Why is that? The student is a consumer! The colleges need to attract students in order to stay in business! This is not a “choice” the parents and students make–this is a fiscal reality. Colleges open the door to treating students as clients, and colleges pull out any or all advertising stops to attract the students they want. I hate to quote a “media psychologist,” but “you teach people how to treat you.”
  • Changing forms of literacy. The general point here is “most kids are not prepared for college.” Specifically, many students upon entering college have not had experience writing long papers, taking essay exams, and things of that nature. Hence, they resent professors who give these types of assignments and assessments; moreover, they will gravitate towards courses that do not have such strict requirements–sometimes all the way to graduation (that’s right: there are college graduates out there who NEVER have written a 20-page term paper). Last but not least, many students who are “stuck” in these writing-intensive courses are prone to cheating, and plagiarism in college is a rampant, growing problem many professors are unprepared to face. Again, though, this does not wholly seem like the student’s problem, or the student’s choice. The fact that students are unprepared for college is a problem with the current secondary-education system and society as a whole–let’s not put all the blame on the students (between high-school and the sugar-coated college pamphlets, it’s a wonder any of them know what to expect). As for the claim that students will gravitate towards classes with less (strenuous) work: OF COURSE THEY WILL! This is almost a fact of nature. Again, if colleges want to increase the quality of the student and the quality of the student education, quit allowing those courses to run and quit admitting unprepared students! The only point the author raised that is 100%, no-questions-asked a choice of the student is the choice to cheat. Why students cheat has always been a wonder to me, but if they can continue to get away with it–or think they can get away with it–they will continue to do it. The choice may belong to the student, but the option was granted by the college.
  • Declining academic engagement. Here the author argues a myriad of semi-claims. First, he claims that many students in going to college are merely “going through the motions”–that their parents and/or society expect them to go to college when they have no idea what they want to do. He then argues that students want to partake in extra-curriculars, and professors want to partake in their own research activities, and so students “pretend to learn” and professors “pretend to teach.” He then argues that in order to keep “everybody” happy, grade inflation occurs. Wow. Okay. So presumably since students are usually legal adults when they step foot on campus it is their choice to go to college when they have zero clue what they want to be when they “grow up.” Also it is the choice of the parents to pressure their children to go to college at all costs; however, it still seems like there is some extra blame to go around…Whose “choice” is it to inflate grades? Whose “choice” is it to allow employees and clients to “pretend”?
  • Alienation from professors. Here the author argues that many students do not have contact with their professors outside of class. Reasons why: (1) students do not realize they can have contact with their professor outside of class (2) professors give the impression of not wanting to be bothered with students outside of class (3) students believe that the only professors they do contact outside of class are not highly regarded by the university (i.e., are graduate students, post-docs, and others of that ilk). I fail to see any “choice” the students or parents make at all in this bullet. My personal comments: (1) while it is the job of the student to realize office hours are required of any professor teaching any class at any university, it is the job of the professor to inform the student when those office hours are and it is the job of the university to ensure that the professor informs the student (2) considering the “student-as-clients” arguments that seem popular, this certainly cannot be the fault of the student. We could also argue that the students are behaving logically: “If this dude is in charge of my final grade, and he doesn’t want me to bother him, I probably shouldn’t bother him.” (3) whether or not this is correct is not relevant; what is relevant and perhaps curious is that this statement even factors into the equation. Again though, not seeing any choices of the students.
  • Expanding social and extracurricular commitments. The easiest way to summarize this bullet-point would be to quote the author: “As academic expectations have decreased, social programming and extracurricular activities have expanded to fill more than the available time. That is particularly the case for residential students, for whom the possibility of social isolation is a source of great anxiety….Excessive involvement with academic pursuits—beyond what is required to earn unexceptionally high grades—has become a marker of low status, social isolation, and lack of orientation toward the most important way that postgraduation success is achieved, via networking and connections in which professors do not figure prominently.” Again, my immediate reaction is “Wow.”
  • The escalating cost of education. This seems relatively self-explanatory. The author argues that with tuition costs rising along with average (student) debt, students procrastinate on schoolwork in order to go to jobs to make tuition payments and “more students are coming to classes exhausted and distracted by concerns about money.” I can see very easily that students are coming to class exhausted; however, I sincerely doubt it’s due to concerns about money. Perhaps my experiences are limited to cases where parents are making more (frequent) tuition payments than students; however, most times I have seen students exhausted in class, it is not because they were working a part-time job late into the night. Moreover, having been a student myself, I know that students are fantastic at financial denial–it is usually not until senior year that students sincerely start worrying about money and how to pay back loans. Regardless, I suppose the author’s point is that the students choose to go to debt? That they choose to gamble thousands of dollars of high-interest loans in exchange for a piece of paper that will open doors to better, higher-paying jobs? Technically, that is true; however, it not only seems like a logical gamble, but one that is not new. Surely the problems in higher education do not come from students doing what they have done for ages?
  • Anxiety about future employment. Again, this is self-descriptive, and again, I will argue this really only kicks in with upper-classmen. The freshmen and sophomores who are worried about future employment are probably so anal-retentive and studious that they don’t need to worry. This bullet point, however, also offers that faculty members are not well-versed in the current trends in the job markets. Perhaps this is true. Perhaps this is also why most colleges and universities have departments within student services which provide help in writing resumes, applying to jobs, and interviewing. Perhaps this is also why most colleges have opportunities–strongly advertised–for internships. The great thing about universities is that if one person does not hold the answer, then someone else does.
  • Students feeling disillusioned, bored, apathetic, scared, and trapped. This almost sounds like a problem with society and not just with students. Surely if a student feels disillusioned, bored, apathetic, scared, or trapped it will be difficult to learn anything. But let’s really stop and wonder if (1) this is a choice of the student and (2) if this is only something of which the student is guilty.



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