I went to college a long time ago, in fact it was during the sixties that I first entered college. In those days college was rigorous, and there were few easy courses. I remember wondering why the faculty would just come to class and present material, not bothering to really explain much. I thought there was a problem in that the faculty was expert in a subject, but inept, or at least that was my perception, at teaching. Eventually I have come to realize college is supposed to be different, and accumulating facts is not all that important. College is supposed to be about developing thought processes, and learning how to research topics. Unfortunately, no one explained that to us, but in retrospect I now know what was happening. We were being taught to think, and I appreciate not having professors just hand out information and check our short term memories.
College Has Changed
Change has been going on for many years. I have watched colleges change over fifty years, and observed some factors that have brought this change about.
I Watched College Change
I begin teaching college about thirty years ago, and at first I was oblivious to any changes. In the beginning it had some semblance to what is had been years earlier when I was a student. But, then things changed, and continue to do so.
Colleges started to look at success rates. The idea of being in the top thirty percentile in order to reasonably expect to finish college began to be discounted. In this area some colleges are open admission, but soon administrators thought perhaps that could be changed to everyone passes. Now many colleges have gone that route since administrators are under pressure to have higher success rates. So, we went from everyone can try to distilling degrees so more people would pass, a fact that administrators might not realize. Requirements, such as two years of a foreign language, were dropped. Degrees were watered down in many instances. I suspect this did not happen unilaterally at first, but at least some colleges went that route early on. Today even many prestigious institutions have made degrees easier to obtain.
I am appalled that such courses as English were reduced to courses lacking rigor. When I went to college, any error no matter how minor in an English class cost a letter grade on a paper. One comma out of place, one misspelled word, or anything else was a letter grade reduction, and we had no computers. We had to rely on dictionaries, which had to be carried to class every day. My friends in the English Department tell me no one would pass under such conditions, but we did.
Research papers were our responsibility as students. I watched a colleague with whom I once shared an office take students one at a time and tell them which journal to read which article out of and write a report which the student called doing research. Paraphrasing an article that a student did not find independently is not really doing research.
Students want everything in class. In the past we were not allowed to be full time students and work, except part time work on campus. We were expected to spread our schedule so we could study between classes, with extended presence on campus. Today, students take classes one right after the other, come only on two or three days, and work a full time job. They have little time to do coursework outside of class. And, many have children that they must tend to as single parents. College has to fit everything else, as opposed to college being the focus of a student’s time.
Cheating is widespread at many colleges, as I have witnessed. Some think only copying is cheating. Phones have to be off limits during tests or some will photograph the test for a friend in another class, or email a friend who will send in the answers after looking things up. One student told me extending time was not cheating, and she insisted on finishing a test by not handing it in. In fact, it is cheating, and I had the final word.
One college insisted the classes have group work so the better students could carry groups of weaker students. The rational was the better students will want to pass, and the retention rate will be higher with weaker students benefiting from strong students’ work. So, what value is a degree held by a student who passes on others’ ability? Yet this was the philosophy of a department chair. Fortunately, the faculty ousted the chair after I left, but severe damage had been done. I got the impression this was a practice being promoted by an education meeting and spread over many institutions.
College professors are expected to have a high retention rate. This is a term I did not know until I changed colleges some years back, and at first I was confused. I thought retention meant having the student stay in the college, so a failing grade in a single course might be acceptable, especially of the student was not ready to While it may not be the intention of the administration, it is the perception many professors have. And that perception will manifest itself in weaker degrees.
And in many colleges the students are allowed to evaluate professors, so many professors are inclined to make courses so easy they should be embarrassed to call the course college level. Yes, an easy course result in high evaluations. A weak professor once got a high evaluation while professors at another college to which his students often transferred raised questions on how unprepared his students were to take additional courses.
Some people just want everyone to succeed, even if it is not in the person’s best interest. There is an attempt to take “No child left behind” to the college level. It has to be tempered with credibility remaining important, but the danger is in looking past the second part. I have observed some colleges seek credibility, but others have abandoned it.
The real underlying reason is money. Colleges need money. In this area public colleges get money from the state based on enrollment, and tuition from each student. Keeping a maximum number of students is to increase revenue to the college, and one college even told the faculty they had to operate like a business with the students being the customers. And financial aid often is tied to grade point averages, so even grades like C might be a problem if it causes a student to lose financial aid.
Still another problem is that many students will lie to get an advantage. I had one who was caught in traffic and missed a test. When that proved inadequate I was told she could get a friend to write a doctor excuse. This was after she indicated she was not sick.
Parents must share blame. Before getting to college far too many parents challenge any low grade, and many even do the work intended to be done at home for the students. So, when a student does not have the background needed due to having work provided by a parent, that student often mimics the parent in challenging the grade. One student turned in a plagiarized paper, and when my colleague confronted him the response was that it was not plagiarized, his mother and aunt wrote it for him, not realizing that itself was cheating.
Lack of respect is getting worse, and it is spiraling every year. Students have less consideration as time goes on. One case, cell phone usage, is a real problem. Messages to friends while distracting a classmate with the bright screen indicates respect for others is on the decline. Tardy students who make excessive noise entering class, and those leaving and returning to class for phone calls make it difficult for others to pay attention, yet they have no remorse as they interfere with other students. And there is little respect for faculty. Students often use first names when addressing faculty. I had an incident in class whereby two students were disruptive on a regular basis, and others were complaining. I ordered them to sit apart, and they stormed out of the classroom and complained to an administrator that they were being disrespected. Fortunately, I had involved an administrator with the situation before I acted, and was following instructions.
A report recently indicated companies are now requiring a test prior to employment. A college degree no longer indicates enough about a potential employee.
Some younger faculty are now entering colleges underprepared, and this perpetuates the problem.
What Is Needed
We must challenge thinking, not feed a list of facts. Lists of facts are important in early grades. Students should have been moved forward before getting to college, and should be told before starting college what is expected. They need to come to college knowing how things are different, and what is considered real learning.
Is It Like This Everywhere?
I cannot say. I have been at several colleges and have made friends with people who are at other colleges. And I have paid attention to what is going on nationally. It appears to be a problem in the United States, which could help explain why we are falling behind in education. But what goes on in other countries is not something I can comment on.