My current university has numerous top-tier graduate programs but is sometimes the butt of jokes about the quality of its undergraduates. The criticism is not entirely without merit, but broad generalizations about any university with 20,000 undergrads are inherently unfair. In reality, every school has some mixture of brilliant students, students who are just along for the ride, and students who absolutely do not belong in a college environment. The ratios may be different (Yale vs Community College) but all three types are present at every university. From the Ivy League to the local night school, there are a lot of people in the higher educational system who utterly lack the skills necessary to succeed and should not be there.

That's a harsh, elitist thing to say in America 2008, isn't it? Well, "Professor X" at the Atlantic Monthly lays out the argument quite nicely in "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower." This essay should be mandatory reading for everyone involved in the business of higher education. If you've ever taught courses beyond high school I think you'll identify with his committment to teaching and frustrating realization that he is dealing with students who are devoid of some very fundamental college-level skills.

I've had students who are more than intelligent enough to write their own ticket in life, students whose eagerness and ability to understand complex arguments exceed that of some of my colleagues. They're both smart and committed. And they're not terribly rare. At IU, I'd estimate that they are about 25% of the undergraduate population. The next 50% are the people who are just shuffling through. They are easy to deal with, because either they will do the work and pass (they're capable of doing what we ask – if they bother to do it) or they will do nothing and fail. They don't participate in class, know why they are here, or care; they're thrilled to slide by with a C-.

The remaining 25% are Professor X's students. I mean this with the utmost respect toward undergraduates and none of my characteristic condescending prickness: about 25% of the students I deal with are, in the words of Nigel in Spinal Tap, "not exactly university material." Like Prof. X, I am not talking about people with a few learning or academic problems. I'm talking about students who are utterly devoid of the basic math, writing, research, communication, and problem-solving skills required. They do not know how to write a basic research paper. They don't understand the difference between fact and opinion, sentence and fragment. They often lack basic computer skills. Frankly, they don't merely lack college-level skills; some do not even have high school-level skills.

Like Professor X, I can spot these students immediately. And no matter how many times I explain what a research paper is, I inevitably get a sprawling, poorly-researched, barely-in-English summary of their opinion. Of course I do not hate these students or think they are incapable of learning. In most instances they simply have not been taught these skills (or were taught poorly). It is beyond frustrating for me, because I cannot turn political science classes into High School English 101. I do not have the time (or the training/expertise) to teach them how to write.

Who is to blame? Well, I'm glad you fucking asked.

High schools and parents play a role. The former pass students who lack basic skills, often because the latter have taught those students to do shitty work and then complain/negotiate their way to a B. But a far larger burden rests with the colleges. We are culpable. The admissions criteria in most colleges these days (with elite exceptions, of course) revolve around the means to pay. If you (or Mom and Dad) can write out the tuition check and you meet some ridiculously low standard (21 on the ACT), you're in. The universities goddamn well know that a relevant portion of the students they accept – especially in borderline-fraudulent moneymaking scams like "distance learning" or "extension" programs – can't hack it. They aren't prepared. They will not succeed. And we take them anyway because they can write the checks.

This is a serious ethical dilemma for universities. The folks in the state capitol cut the budget and the schools respond by admitting lower and lower tiers of applicants to make up the revenue. Rather than honestly telling some applicants "I'm sorry, but you are not ready to succeed in this environment" we smile and take a few semesters of tuition from them before they fail out. We take students – usually white, upper- or middle-class kids who lack college skills but have well-off parents – to subsidize other students. And the people who teach have to deal with the fallout – the emotional pleas, the poor nights of sleep, and the profound sadness that accompany handing a D- to a student who tried but simply isn't able to produce at the required level. The $12,000 per year grad student on the bottom of the food chain is left to deliver the bad news. As the author says,

Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns. … (the students) are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college. I am the man who has to drop the hammer.

Bill Clinton and that dude from the West Wing like to say "Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything." Some vague, unspecific "education" for "everyone" is the key to solving our problems. In the reality-based community, postsecondary education simply isn't for everyone. But what is the alternative? As we've seen blue collar employment disappear or settle into the $10/hr-no-benefits trough, the futility of one commonly proposed "solution" – that we should expand vocational or technical education as a college alternative – becomes clear. Why sink money into training people for jobs that will be in Mexico or Indonesia when they graduate?

No, instead we have financially able families sending unprepared people to college in the desperate hope that doing so will turn Billy into a lawyer. As working class jobs disappear in droves, people panic and buy into the delusion that the world needs an infinite number of engineers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, and pharmacists. Even if that were true (hint: it isn't), the ability to pay for an expensive education isn't going to turn some of these students into white collar professionals any more than buying an expensive set of golf clubs will turn a talentless, uncoordinated person into Tiger Woods.

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11 thoughts on “CASH COWS”

  • Hoo boy! Quite a downer, this post. Entirely accurate, but a downer nonetheless. I'm just up insomniac-ing my precious nighttime hours away, so my reply may be rambly.

    My little brother may fall into the category of people who probably just aren't quite meant for college, at least most of the time. He absolutely eked through his first two semesters, when his major remained undecided and he was taking a lot of general courses that were extremely difficult for him. However, in his sophomore year, he decided that he was going to major in "hospitality management" and started taking courses that worked directly toward that end. Suddenly, he went from having a 2.0 GPA to a 3.3 or so. I'm really glad he found something that he wanted to do, and that he's turned out to be pretty good at learning how to do it. He doesn't have to write any research papers, by the way.

    But each student is different. He's lucky that he was able to find the thing that he wanted to do before he ran out of semesters. And I'm sure that some students just can't find the thing that they're looking for at a university. I don't know what the solution is!

  • Reflecting back on my 4 years of college I found that most undergraduates were simply not motivated. Not only did it frustrate me but it also became somewhat depressing. One thing I really hate seeing is people who are stagnant, those individuals who show no intension of progressing with what they have learned/experienced. When I came to Indiana University I was no where near prepared. The high school I went to in Florida pretty much taught me "write flowery, write as much as you can, and you will do great!" and that was it. I quickly learned when I entered college that my high school "method of writing" was absolute crap. I ended up working extra hours to get a writing tutor and spent my first two years of college working my tail off to catch up. I may not have had the same college experience as a lot of kids (wake up, go drink, go to sleep, go to Village Deli, go to sleep, repeat), but I don't regret it one bit. I guess what I am trying to say is I wasn't prepared for college one bit, but my desire to learn and progress pushed me to succeed in college. I just wish a lot of people my age actually cared about moving forward, but what can you do? Most of my friends are like that so I guess I can't complain.

  • and in my rant I realized I spelled "intention" wrong. So I am going to go to sleep now, haha.

  • Anecdote: I went to a Memorial Day party this weekend; this issue of The Atlantic was on a coffee table. At some point, I snatched it up and went upstairs to quickly read it. Several minutes later, I came down, and several people simultaneously asked me what in the world was wrong, because I looked, in one person's words, "like you've just been told a loved one is going to die." "Funny you should put it that way," I said. I could have written that article–and one doesn't like to be reminded that one's job is that of wielding the air-gun in the slaughterhouse of academia.

    And hey, I'm lucky I'm unsentimental. I'm known among my teaching colleagues as the Cynical Prick of the department. (Every Liberal Arts department has one, just as every one has a Wide-Eyed Ex-Hippie Determined To Redress Historical Grievances.) Whenever the subject of student retention is raised, as it often is, and solutions are proposed, I always shrug and say "Well, we can try, but face it: not all the baby turtles are going to make it to the ocean." And people gasp at how cruel and heartless I am, while confessing to me privately later that yeah, I'm right, and they've got a few 'baby turtles' whom they know are going to flunk out pretty soon.

    I fend off despair by reminding myself that I can teach most of them a little something–that whatever may happen, they will leave my class *knowing* a bit more than they did when they came in–that a 2% improvement is still an improvement. But I'm shocked that we don't have more burn-out in the profession, and I suspect that we'll start to–those numbers are overdue for a spike.

    Oh, and in the spirit of Clinton/that guy from "The West Wing," allow me to offer my own sweeping, ham-fisted generalization: exportation of employment will kill this country. I don't say that in the subjunctive, but in the grim future imperfect. It *will* happen, and it *will* kill this country.

  • I'm one of those $12,000 a year grad students at the bottom of the food chain. And my students perpetually act like I'm the first person in their lives to ever tell them "no" or say they've done poor work. I'm not even out of my PhD. and I find myself almost worn down by the constant frantic emails, grade appeals, poor teaching evaluations that are based more on my grading expectations than my actual teaching, etc.

    The sad truth is that the standards are being lowered to accommodate these unprepared students. Often students have to do something extreme to fail a class (like never show up), and I've found my department and the brooder university reluctant to enforce academic honesty policies and standards. (To prove plagiarism, I have to show the student's paper alongside the original. And even then, the student usually says it's an "accident" because they didn't understand how to cite things properly, and they are allowed to re-write the paper for credit.)

    But, the real tragedy isn't that the university takes wealthy students who don't belong in college in order to simply bring in tuition money. The serious moral failing of our educational system is that we allow middle and working-class people take out tens-of-thousands of dollars in student loans to either come to college to fail or graduate still unable to write a coherent paragraph.

  • Mike, I agree that good old fashioned Not Giving a Shit is the most common problem. Everyone comes into college and realizes that their skills are inadequate, but I think the real difference is between students who know how to acquire them (you) and those who won't, don't want to, or can't.

    Sarah, your story sounds very familiar. It's entirely likely that you and I really *are* the first people to say "No, this is shit. Do it right." to the average freshman. I don't know what the hell goes on in high schools these days, but it's very, very obvious that students are being given passing grades (and in some cases, high ones) for doing very substandard work. I often get the argument "I got all A's in high school" or "I have a 3.7 gpa!" And I patiently explain that it's not my fault or problem that their other instructors hand them a B just for signing up for the class.

  • This essay is really good. One thing of note:

    The admissions criteria in most colleges these days (with elite exceptions, of course) revolve around the means to pay…The folks in the state capitol cut the budget and the schools respond by admitting lower and lower tiers of applicants to make up the revenue.

    That's certainly true of many private schools, but is it true of the midwest land grant universities in general (and the Big Ten in particular)? UIllinois, as far as I understand it, has little-to-no leeway to adjust tuition to let in more deserving students. Everyone in state pays the same fee.

    Is it an issue with out of state students (who pay more)? To whatever extent that is lowering standards, admission criterion across the Big Ten (at least from what I know of at UofI) has increased a fair amount over the past 10 years. If only cause there are many more applicants.

    (This is seperate from the Atlantic Monthly article of course and other threads here, but you brought up your school and funding issues – which I think are a huge undiscussed topic in this election.)

  • It feels like was one of the few fortunate to go to a high school that was not afraid to tell me that I couldn't write for shit very early on. By very early on, I mean I nearly failed my first freshman year English essay about some mundane piece of crap summer reading. I am not afraid to admit that that essay was terrible, and I'm glad I had a teacher who wasn't afraid to say that. Luckily, I was able to grow as a writer, and one day, I took Ed’s class and wrote a pretty nifty presidential research paper. But as my friends’ resident proofreader, I can definitely see which of my friends had high school teachers who either thought they were very kind souls or were halfway illiterate themselves. In lieu of spending time with Richard Neustadt, I have spent many hours trying to explain the finer points of quote integration, thesis statements, etc. It sucks being someone’s peer and telling them “Oh, by the way, my high school sister can write a better paper than you in 20 minutes.” So I can sort of sympathize with having to read shit and then telling people it is shit. (However, I don’t have the power to dirty up nearly pristine gpas. Frankly, I’m glad about that one.) I do realize that some of my friends who are in college aspire to be things that don’t require very many written skills, but they do need to have basic research and communication skills to be them. So we’ll see where they end up, because I really have no idea.

  • And this is what I DONT like about No Child Left Behind. A lot of students who just "aren't University material" are now having to sacrifice vocations that they may actually have a chance at in order to focus on standardized testing. For example, someone who may not be cut out to be a lawyer may be better off as an artist. If the art program at a high school is cut because of funding constraints, this person might not pursue this opportunity (even if they get a 1010 on the SAT instead of a 940…big deal)

  • I always got a feeling that "satellite" campuses and community colleges were solution for those students who couldn't cut it.

    American high schools aren't preparing students for college – but I'll also say this I've met many a college graduate with what I would consider remedial skills…

  • As one who was a horrible student but isn't a complete fucking idiot, I can tell you my problem is that I was raised by parents who just expected me to go to college as a foregone conclusion [perhaps due to their own vocation as educators], but educated in an environment so devoid of any challenge that I never had to develop a lot of essential skills that suddenly seemed bafflingly necessary on the college level. Obviously the former led to some motivation issues, as I found myself [briefly] in college with no idea why the hell I was there, thanks to others' presumptions that being an intelligent person would automatically be enough to allow me to 'know what I wanted to do' there. Let's see… no study skills to speak of, few social skills to speak of [I'm hardly the world's biggest introvert, I just didn't have any interest in socializing with anyone available for such in the aforementioned place either, so…] – SOUNDS LIKE A RECIPE FOR SUCCESSFUL INTEGRATION TO ME.

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