The Bar, Part I

(Warning: this post is a long one. And related to education policy. As always, it contains my personal opinions on this topic, and does not in any way represent the views of my employer. Feel free to debate!)

Is there a conflict of interest in having a more accessible system of higher education, and having a system that produces the world’s best graduates? We have national goals (and state goals) to have two-thirds of the population with a postsecondary credential of some sort by the year 2020. It’s coming up fast, and I’m kind of up in the air about this.

Side A: Open Access to College

There are all kinds of excellent reasons to promote more accessible higher education. Correcting longstanding inequities rooted in gender, ethnic, and racial bias; leveling the tiers of socioeconomic status; upholding the ideals of meritocracy – all of these have arguments in their favor. And I strongly believe that those who want to go to college should have that chance.

Despite ongoing debate about whether or not college is “worth it” (usually conceived of in a very narrow, financial-only analysis),  research has shown that the average holder of a college degree will enjoy higher economic gains and less unemployment than the average holder of a high school diploma.

There are non-economic benefits, as well. College graduates are more likely to volunteer, donate blood, vote in national and local elections, and be satisfied with their lifestyle. And I’m of the philosophy that there’s no such thing as an over-educated person.

Of course, there are exceptions to the general trend. We all know someone who didn’t graduate from college but has been financially successful through luck, entrepreneurial spirit, or sheer willpower. And there are certainly those who did have the benefit of a college education but for some reason or another (lack of luck or sheer willpower, perhaps, or maybe poor choices along the way) has not been financially successful. They are the outliers of the mathematical equation. For most students, investing in college is a safe bet and a wise choice.

Whether or not we should measure the wisdom of a choice to invest in college by the cut-and-dry economic benefit directly to the student is a topic for another post (or twenty). As I said earlier, I do agree that students with the inclination to pursue higher education should be given the opportunities to do so.

Here’s what worries me: if students aren’t ready for the challenges of college, but politically and culturally, they are being pushed through the doors of higher education, how much will everyone in society suffer from the lowering of the bar?

There’s a reason that college is supposed to be challenging. Learning doesn’t take place when we’re repeating stuff we already know, or whining because we have homework and the college professors really do expect you to know everything in the textbook. It takes place when we engage ourselves and put in the hard work. I hear from my friends who teach that students aren’t only unprepared academically, they often aren’t adjusting to a culture of independence and responsibility, and quite frankly, that freaks me out. If parents are calling college professors demanding higher grades for their adult children, there’s something wrong, and it probably isn’t just the teacher’s abilities.

Side B: Selective Admissions Criteria for a More Challenging Academic Environment

If it really is one of our goals to have a more educated society, part of that must be raising the bar for education rather than lowering it. I am more convinced every day that the standards of education are slipping, helped along by the apathy or overwhelmedness of parents, the lack of resources dedicated to the public K-12 education system, and policy forces that prefer simplistic standardized test results over more complex and nuanced analyses of learning.

I think that if this is truly something WE (not just policy makers and legislators) care about as a country, we better get our acts together and do some hard work to get kids ready for a more competitive, more difficult, more demanding world. One of the first things that I think should happen here is to stop placing the blame elsewhere.

We are all culpable. ALL OF US. Everyone from the students themselves to the teachers to the parents to the policy makers. Let’s go ahead and accept that we all had a part in creating the problem, so it’s time to put that behind us and focus our efforts on finding solutions.

Maybe a good second step would be for the policy makers to spend a day job-shadowing a teacher. There are definitely some people in education who aren’t really cut out for the job, who don’t enjoy it, and don’t take pride or find passion in teaching well. But that’s no reason to vilify and denigrate an entire profession; the majority of teachers are good at their jobs. A lot of them go way, way beyond the call of duty and inspire the students that they teach and mentor.

Another helpful step: get the parents and teachers on the same page. It may just be that the squeaky wheel gets the oil, but if teachers are spending a lot of time dealing with parents complaining about their little dumpling not having a high enough grade for X scholarship or Y sports team or whatever else, those educators are being taken away from the important stuff. Like teaching students. Perhaps if the Little Dumpling turned in his or her assignments, that would result in a higher grade. Personal responsibility is important, not just subject material. Little Dumpling is going to remember a hell of a lot more by failing than they will by having the parents swoop to the rescue. (Note: this may sound kind of ranty, but I do realize that there are plenty of terrific, engaged parents out there who support teachers’ decisions in educating their children.)

The bottom line is, if colleges are spending time and resources getting students up to the point they should be at when they first enter college, those are resources that could be devoted to furthering excellence elsewhere.

Thoughts? Part II will probably be coming along soon.

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