In the December issue of University Affairs, Clive Keen and Ken Coates outline their vision of “Universities for the 21st century.” Paraphrased, their central message is that the era of “mass education” is here, and faculty should quit complaining about falling standards and professionalize their teaching to cope with this new reality. The authors go on to say that workshops in study skills, math and writing are not symptomatic of falling standards, but rather are put in place to help maintain them.
Unfortunately for Drs. Keen and Coates’ position, there is abundant evidence that intellectual standards among university students are declining. For instance, according to the National Centre for Education Statistics, fewer than 31 percent of American college graduates in 2003 could “read a complex book and extrapolate from it,” a decline of nine percent in 10 years. This sad conclusion is backed up by abundant anecdotal evidence. In talking to friends and colleagues from a wide range of university settings, I have heard the same comments repeatedly: students write ungrammatically, they are unable to mould information into coherent arguments, they expect to be spoon-fed, and are reluctant to take responsibility for their own education.
As for myself, I have taken great pains to professionalize my teaching, address myself to different learning styles, produce challenging assignments, make lectures available online, and reach out to students of all abilities. Nevertheless, there remain three hardcore student minorities whom I seem unable to reach.
The first of these groups seems to lack any vestige of intellectual curiosity. These students don’t ask or answer questions, appear completely disengaged from the subject, and produce assignments of marginal quality. Another group of students attend class because they “just want a grade.” Their motivation is to get a job; their coursework and associated GPA are merely the means to that end. Neither of these first two groups has any prior or current interest in the subjects that I teach, and they are not shy to say so on course evaluations.
A third group of students are enthusiastic and work hard, but still underperform. This group can be further subdivided into those who are poorly prepared, have few study skills and are often (to be blunt) bone-idle; and a subgroup who are hobbled by the demands of their extracurricular life. The latter are often poor kids with no recourse to parental support. They may be working up to 30 hours a week and trying to carry four courses. They may be caring for sick grandparents or be single parents themselves.
Is university the right educational setting for these minorities? Students who are single parents or classified as working poor are often highly motivated and bring valuable experience into the academy, but we cannot expect them to achieve their potential while holding down almost full-time jobs. The answer is to provide non-repayable grants to students of ability whose means are limited.
The other groups – the disengaged, those who care only about jobs, the very poorly prepared – should be identified early and encouraged to seek educational alternatives to university. Community colleges and apprenticeships can also offer job seekers a route to the types of job security and income enjoyed by university graduates. News items about manpower shortages in the skilled trades are common, yet the myth that university is the only route to highly paid professions persists in the minds of parents and students alike.
As for students who lack curiosity, are poorly prepared, or who lack direction, we are not doing them any favours by admitting them to university. These students are often adrift, both intellectually and personally, and are unsure of what they want from either education or life. A cursory trawl of the Internet turns up many complaining blogs written by these folks, who finish university with few marketable skills and piles of debt, having learned very little.
Poor preparation, disengagement and laziness among the minorities I have identified can account for much of the decline in average standards among incoming students. In a CBC interview, David Olsen of the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education opined that recent increases in enrolment have permitted unprepared people with poor reading and writing skills to attend university. Contrary to the opinion of Drs. Keen and Coates, occasional writing workshops will not help these students, who (experience shows) are likely to struggle with learning deficits throughout their education.
Drs. Keen and Coates believe that elite programs targeted at “motivated and well-prepared” students are the answer to falling standards. This idea amounts to boutique education for some and devalued “Walmart” degrees for the rest. Instead, we should be counseling students far more carefully before they enter university and, when necessary, turn them away for their – and our – own good.
Andrew Park is a professor in the department of biology and the Centre for Forest Interdisciplinary Research, University of Winnipeg.