Degrees of Incompetence

Posted: Jun 20, 2008 12:01 AM
Degrees of Incompetence

Well, it’s that time of year again. Students are pouring out of high schools across the country, with most getting ready for the next natural step: college.

In one sense that’s good. Today’s economy requires more people than ever to have college degrees, and studies show those people make more money and enjoy their jobs more than people without college degrees.

However, as politically incorrect as this may be to say, not everyone should go to college. Think of it this way: Many elementary schools hand out bumper stickers saying “We honor all our students.” But what that means is that they, in fact, honor none of their students. In a society where almost everyone goes to college, a bachelor’s degree will quickly lose its value.

In the June issue of The Atlantic, “Professor X,” an instructor at what he calls “colleges of last resort” described his frustration as an introductory English teacher. “Students routinely fail; some fail multiple times, and some will never pass, because they cannot write a coherent sentence.”

Why are they even in the class, then? They’re pushed. “I teach young men who must amass a certain number of credits before they can become police officers or state troopers, lower-echelon health-care workers who need credits to qualify for raises, and municipal employees who require college-level certification to advance at work,” Professor X writes.

This teacher has no problem failing students who don’t measure up -- sometimes as many as nine out of 15 students fail the class. But that misses the larger point: They shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

“No one is thinking about the larger implications, let alone the morality, of admitting so many students to classes they cannot possibly pass,” Professor X writes. “The colleges and the students and I are bobbing up and down in a great wave of societal forces -- social optimism on a large scale, the sense of college as both a universal right and a need, financial necessity on the part of the colleges and the students alike, the desire to maintain high academic standards while admitting marginal students -- that have coalesced into a mini-tsunami of difficulty.”

This professor is doing everything possible to maintain the value of a four-year degree by failing anyone and everyone who doesn’t measure up. However, not every teacher is going to be as vigilant. Some will be tempted to let marginal students slide through. And many will undoubtedly feel pressure from their superiors to pass unprepared students.

In the May 14 edition of Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik wrote about one such professor, biology teacher Steven Aird, recently fired by Norfolk State University.

“Aird has released numerous documents prepared by the university about his performance -- including the key negative tenure decisions by administrators – [and] it is clear that he was denied tenure for one reason: failing too many students,” Jaschik writes. “The university documents portray Aird as unwilling to compromise to pass more students.”

That gets things backward, of course. Teachers don’t pass students; students pass themselves by learning what they’re supposed to. If they’re unwilling or unable to learn what they need to, they’ll fail.

A Norfolk State spokeswoman blamed Aird. “Something is wrong when you cannot impart your knowledge onto students,” Sharon Hoggard said. “We are a university of opportunity, so we take students who are underprepared, but we have a history of whipping them into shape. That’s our niche.”

But a niche that’s going unfilled. Jaschik notes that, “According to U.S. Education Department data, only 12 percent of Norfolk State students graduate in four years, and only 30 percent graduate in six years.” The problem, again, isn’t with a professor who refuses to pass unprepared students. It’s with a system that delivers unprepared students to the professor’s class.

If a college degree is going to have any meaning, it needs to stand as proof of an achievement -- showing that a student has worked hard over several years and learned important lessons.

As a friend who teaches at a community college writes, “once the college places students into freshman-level classes, we as professors have to assume they have a certain baseline of ability and skills, and hold them all to the same standards. Failure to do that renders the degree meaningless.”

Exactly. As a society, we do need more people going to college. But we also need to make sure that only those who are ready -- able to commit the time and learn the material -- get a degree. Lowering standards may make us feel good in the short term, but will only harm society in the long run.