Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

It’s Time to Re-Engineer America’s Credentials-Industrial Complex

These days of May and June will find the 2,427 institutions in America that confer bachelor’s degrees holding their commencement exercises. We call the sheepskins handed out “credentials” because employers, graduate schools, parents and the graduates themselves are supposed to give them credence, to believe and trust that they correctly vouch for the recipient’s educational attainments.

Is this belief well-founded? Inside Higher Ed reports that Steven Aird, a biology professor at Norfolk State University, is now unemployed because he didn’t give out enough passing grades. The administration has a “clear expectation” that 70% of students should pass every course – even though other faculty members tell IHE that they could easily flunk a majority of the students in many courses just by adhering to the explicit rule that a student absent for more than one-fifth of class sessions may receive a failing grade on that basis alone. How much faith should we place in the credentials awarded by an institution that extends the social-promotion principle from grades 13 through 16?

“Professor X,” who remains anonymous to avoid joining Dr. Aird in the unemployment line, writes in the current Atlantic Monthly that his own teaching experience argues that our post-secondary institutions are enrolling many people who are simply “unfit for college,” because they “lack the most basic skills” and are “in some cases barely literate.”

Some might say that it is unfair to generalize from the stories of Aird and X. Aird taught at a historically black university. “We are a university of opportunity,” according to the official spokeswoman for Norfolk State, “so we take students who are underprepared, but we have a history of whipping them into shape.” X, meanwhile, teaches part-time at “colleges of last resort” – a small private college and a community college, each a place many of its students just “landed in.”

It’s hardly reassuring, however, to look at a much more representative institution, the University of Arizona. It was portrayed in the New York Times three years ago by John Merrow of the Carnegie Endowment for the Advancement of Teaching. Arizona is representative in the sense that more than 5 million American undergraduates go to universities with at least 15,000 students; with 37,000, U of A is one of the biggest.

Unless it’s also one of the worst, however, there must be lots of colleges that people respect, but where it is possible to get a bachelor’s degree without learning anything in particular. Merrow interviewed several Arizona undergraduates, including a 22-year-old majoring in Inebriation. He “stopped going to most of his classes after sophomore year and drank excessively four nights a week.” Despite rarely spending more than one hour per night on all his studies, the young man made the dean’s list. Such students, one educator tells Merrow, are “maze smart.” That is, “they have figured out what they have to do to get through: buy the book, find out what’s going to be on the exam and stay invisible.”

The dean of students admitted to Merrow that it is indeed possible to get through Arizona with such utter disdain for scholarship. “We have a lot of students whose motivation for coming here is to get a good job,” she said. “They think, ‘How do I get the grades?’ instead of trying to learn.” While the student in question may have been contemptuous of the educational opportunities he was squandering, he did appreciate the social ones: “These are the years that I’m not going to have back. And I don’t want to be 30, 50, looking back and wishing I’d partied then because I can’t do it now.” Three years out of college, he appears to have gotten a good job, his sole motivation for letting academic distractions interrupt his extended Mardi Gras. The young man is a senior associate in the southern California office of a commercial real estate services firm. He brightly assures visitors to his page on the corporate website that he “firmly believes that it’s not what you know, but who [sic] you know.”

What national purpose is furthered by encouraging such young people to waste four years of their lives in college? Colleges are glad to have more paying customers, of course, but the social and economic premise of the increased demand for credit hours and college degrees is dubious. “There is a sense that the American workforce needs to be more professional at every level,” according to Prof. X. “Many jobs that never before required college now call for at least some post-secondary course work. . . . There is a sense that our bank tellers should be college educated, and so should our medical-billing techs, and our child-welfare officers, and our sheriffs and federal marshals. We want the police officer who stops the car with the broken taillight to have a nodding acquaintance with great literature.”

The contempt for learning that results from forcing “Hamlet” on a captive audience leads to wider and more pervasive cynicism. One college president spoke to Merrow of the “mutual nonaggression pact,” in which “the professor goes into class and doesn’t ask much of students, who in return don’t ask much of the professor. The professor gives out reasonably high grades as a way of camouflaging that this bargain has been struck, his evaluations will be satisfactory, and students don’t complain about grades or about whether they’ve learned much.”

Even at very high levels of the credentials-industrial complex there’s good reason to regard the central activity as sorting rather than educating. In a Wall Street Journal article from 1995 the dean of USC’s business school laments, “We’re not exactly an employment agency, but it comes pretty close.” The recruiters from the big corporations that seek to hire MBA’s from the most prestigious business schools agree that the schools “sift through potential recruits more efficiently” than the companies can. The general manager of executive development at Microsoft says, in effect, we don’t hire people from Wharton and Stanford to avail ourselves of the wonderful, profitable things they learned in the classroom. “In fact, we usually have to unlearn them of some of the things they pick up in those programs.” The rationale, instead, is that anyone bright and motivated enough to get into and through a highly selective school is bright and motivated enough to be a good hire. The crucial service the business schools render to the corporations – and the students – is in the admissions office, not the classroom.

We might borrow some B-school jargon to recommend Wick Sloane’s idea that it is time to make post-secondary education in America “scalable.” In the same way that the iPod made it possible to unbundle the music business, so that customers can buy just the one song they want without having to pay for 11 more they don’t on an LP or CD, it’s time, he says, to disaggregate “the four-year, 36-course structure” that defines the bachelor’s degree. We should, in other words, stop forcing future police officers, commercial real estate brokers and investment bankers to pay for and sit through courses they correctly regard as nothing more than items in the artificial and indefensible obstacle course America has built between them and their career goals.

The problem is ultimately political, not educational. There is an inherent tension in the idea of universal higher education. As we approach universality, the reality of the higher gets lower and lower. We can imagine, as a thought experiment, an America where everybody over 26 has a post-graduate degree, and everybody younger is on the road to one. But some of those MBA’s and JD’s will still wind up working the cash register at Starbucks. “America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track,” according to Professor X. “We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options.” But we do our country and individual citizens no good if the American Dream becomes the American Fantasy. “Everyone wants to triumph. But not everyone can — in fact, most can’t. If they could, it wouldn’t be any kind of a triumph at all.”

Discussions - 6 Comments

All of this makes me feel much better. I always feel that I am stretched trying to "meet the needs" of the variety of students I get in my community college Freshman Composition classes. Last semester, I failed more than half the class because they did not show up or turn in enough assignments to pass. Not one student earned an "A" and I expect this all will be a problem in my future employment at the college. It niggled at me that the failure was mine. Now my conscience is clearer, even if my job prospects are not.


The state of Ohio is trying to make a "seamless transition" between state institutions of higher education. Tech schools are the same as community colleges are the same as Ohio State. How can this be? My college has students who are training for two-year certifications to be auto mechanics or hotel managers or practical nurses or radiologists or electricians. They take my course, as do high school graduates looking for a cheaper beginning to a college career. I also have post-secondary option high school students (as young as 16 years old) who might be going on to four-year colleges and beyond. Those latter may be brilliant and can be a pure pleasure to teach, though some ought to remediate middle school.

Still, why must my auto mechanic certificate student or dental hygiene student compete for a good grade with that brilliant student? If my computer tech student will never write a decent literary analysis, who cares? Why are these students all jumbled together in the same institution and how can I possibly be expected to deal with them as if they are all alike?

Professor X says, ...(T)hese colleges teem with students who are in over their heads. No kidding. My college doesn't even demand that those who do not pass the placement tests go to one of the incredible number of remedial classes available to them before attempting my class. They come and they fail. Many of them are in over their heads with life, which is why they are going to college, trying to find a way out of the mess they are in, currently. Life overtakes them and they stop coming to class. In the last weeks of the semester I get these pleas for understanding, "What must I do to pass your course?" Wind back time and attend, I say.

The president of my college is a lovely man who has referred to the community college as a great egalitarian institution. My fire-safety major who loved Crime and Punishment or my Iraq veteran who understood All Quiet on the Western Front are great and satisfying exceptions to the rule. I get about one a semester; all students were not created equal. The presumption seems to be that being good at academics is the definition of goodness. Truly, do we care if our dental hygienist can decipher Shakespeare, much less Aristotle? Yet, couldn't she be triumphant at being a dental hygienist and still be the political equal of Nancy Pelosi?

Amen to the Post and the Comment. I taught for 33 years at a community college in California and experienced the educational rot first hand. I was always under the gun, so to speak, for failing to be effective with "students" who were woefully unprepared for college, by lack of training and poor attitude. There is no more "religious" atmosphere than where teachers are supposed to produce miracles with unpromising material. (Things were only marginally better at the four-year college I taught at for one year.) Of course, the "success" that some teachers got required dumbing down the requirements, not to mention the level of reading material, assignments and exams. The trouble is that hordes of people make their living off of a lie, failing to credit excellence because there's no money in it--just as slaveholders could not see the word "equal" in the Declaration of Independence because a gold eagle covered it up! Their interest is in conflict with their duty.

I don't know. I'm of two minds about the colleges, and the students, and the teaching, that seem to evoke these reactions. It is easy to bemoan the "dumbing down" from a "liberal" point of view, yet applaud the opportunities to be found there from a "democratic" point of view. I worry less about spinning our wheels for democracy (which of course is frustrating and wasteful) than about our loss of confidence in elite or liberal values (which is demoralizing) -- using liberal and democratic in Mansfield's sense.


Many "students" simply don't belong in college. Those who whine about their right to an education, particularly at budget time, get no sympathy from me. Those who dare to discipline and flunk them should have sympathy and indeed honor from all of us. College is no place for idiots, thugs, and anyone else who won't respect the instructor and fellow students. Or anyone who won't work. If these kids end up in the gutter, that is where they belong.

Plain Vanilla Con, I get respect in the classroom, even from "idiots and thugs". After the first couple of weeks, students speak to me like I am some personable Athena, with answers for everything from the academic to the personal. They might come in with one attitude, but they leave with another, even if not with a passing grade. Maybe part of that respect is that I express respect for them even if they are not competent writers. Every one of my students is going to be good (or at least competent) at something, even if it is something other than what I teach.

Richard Reeb's point about students being unprepared and ill-trained is quite true. I do not see that increasingly centralized control of K-12 education has produced real success. If we are going to have public education, we ought to address the needs and capabilities of our students realistically, as many of them are drowning in our liberal ideals. The whole system dumbs down so we can pretend that all are equally capable in all areas. Think, to spend all of that time and have so little to show for it. We need to make some changes.

Thank you, Kate.

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