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.”