Fixing Higher Ed

August 24, 2010

The press and the blogosphere have devoted significant coverage recently to a report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce that predicted that the United States is on "collision course with the future." The report estimated that within a mere eight years, the nation will suffer a shortfall of at least 3 million workers with college degrees and 4.7 million workers with postsecondary certificates. The authors of the report concluded that to meet the challenges of a global economy in which 59 to 63 percent of domestic jobs require education beyond the high-school level, America’s colleges and universities "need to increase the number of degrees they confer by 10 percent annually, a tall order."

Although numerous commentators have responded to the report by echoing its call for increased access to higher education, it seems to me that few have focused on a key term in the report’s call to "develop reforms that result in both cost-efficient and high quality postsecondary education." Producing millions more baccalaureate-educated workers will do nothing to address the competitiveness of the U.S. workforce if those degrees are not high quality ones. Sadly, it is pretty clear that far too many college degrees aren’t worth the paper on which they are printed.

In 2006, the Spellings Commission reported disturbing data that more than 60 percent of college graduates were not proficient in prose, document, and quantitative literacy. In other words, significantly more than half of college degree holders in the United States lack the “critical thinking, writing and problem-solving skills needed in today’s workplaces.”

Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, cited these findings in his recent Huffington Post essay, "The Failure of American Higher Education." He shared stories about recent college graduates, many from prestigious universities, who had applied for jobs at his think tank who were unable to complete basic tasks such as summarizing a person’s credentials into a short biographical sketch or calculating an average using a spreadsheet. Atkinson argues that one of the primary reasons for the inability of so many college graduates to think, write, speak, argue, research, or compute proficiently is that colleges “are focused on teaching kids content, not on teaching them skills.” His explanation for this is that members of the professoriate are not interested in teaching these important skills, but rather are interested in exploring the content of the subject matter in which they specialize. Atkinson then advocates several "solutions" to his perception of the problem, which include a requirement that all college graduates take a national test to measure skills competencies and “radical experimentation” in college design that focuses “on teaching 21st century skills, not 20th century subjects.” These ideas are typical of the well-intentioned but misinformed suggestions that abound these days about higher education.

The commentators are correct that there is a mismatch between what faculty members are doing and could be doing to teach students. But the problem isn't a lack of faculty interest in students, but a broader set of staggering challenges facing professors – challenges that deserve more attention.

First, college and university faculty members often lack the ability to teach basic reading, writing, and math skills. Why? Because most professors are not trained to do so. With few exceptions, doctoral programs focus on teaching disciplinary content and methods of inquiry, not pedagogy. Even in universities that provide their doctoral students with a "preparing future faculty" program to help Ph.D. candidates develop some teaching skills, such programs focus on teaching and learning at the college level, not on basic reading comprehension, the fundamentals of composition, or elementary quantitative skills. The K-12 educational system is supposed to teach these abilities. By the time students get to college, faculty members rightfully expect that they will already know how to calculate an average or summarize the main points of a newspaper article, a book chapter, or a journal article. Accordingly, faculty members see their role as then honing students’ critical thinking abilities within the context of analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information, often within a disciplinary framework.

These assumptions were fair ones once upon a time. Sadly, though, far too many students who have earned a high school diploma are unable to meet such expectations. Absent a handful of specialists in English departments, most college faculty members are simply ill-equipped to know how to teach students how to begin writing coherently. Professors expect to provide students with feedback on writing more efficiently and persuasively, not teach about tenses, subject-verb agreement, or basic punctuation. Yet, these are types of problems with which faculty routinely try to cope, at least for a while. And that leads to my second point.

Given the woefully inadequate preparedness of high school graduates to engage in college-level work, many professors quickly become burned out attempting to teach skills that they never expected they would need to teach at the postsecondary level. I have heard dozens of colleagues from across the country at different types of institutions of higher education say, "I didn’t earn a Ph.D. to teach what should have been taught in elementary and high school." Many such instructors give up; rather than teaching the skills that should have been learned before students arrive in college, they focus on content because it’s easier to do so. There is only so much that can be done over the course of a college quarter or semester. Worse yet, they fear holding students to high standards for a myriad of reasons, which is the third problem I wish to discuss.

College faculty members, especially those who are untenured, often fear setting course expectations too high, challenging students’ comfort levels too much, or being rigorous in their assessments of student performance. If students perceive a professor as being too hard, they will avoid that person's classes, which can lead to under-subscribed classes being canceled. Full-time faculty whose courses are canceled may be reassigned to less desirable duties; part-time faculty members whose classes are canceled often find themselves without any courses to teach. In addition, students often "punish" faculty members they perceive as being too demanding by evaluating them poorly at the end of a course. Because low student evaluations can lead to both tenure-track and adjunct faculty being fired, untenured professors may keep workloads at levels that students perceive to be reasonable and assess their performance more generously than may be actually deserved. Much has been written on this phenomenon as one of the leading factors contributing to the nationwide problem of grade inflation, the fourth issue I will address.

In one of the most comprehensive studies of college grading practices, Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy documented that the average grade point average at U.S. colleges and universities rose from 2.35 in the 1930s, to 2.52 in the 1950s when a bifurcating trend in public and private institutions emerged. After sharp increases in the 1970s and 1980s, GPAs currently average an astonishing 3.00 and 3.30 at public and private schools, respectively. This trend could be explained by better students achieving at ever-higher levels. But, as discussed above, that is simply not the case when more than 60 percent of college graduates are not proficient in basic reading, writing, and math. Rojstaczer and Healy contend that grade inflation surged in the 1980s with “the emergence of a consumer-based culture in higher education.” And the growth of the for-profit sector of higher education has only compounded this problem in higher education since corporate-based education is built upon the faulty premise of delivering a product (an "education" or a "degree") to paying consumers (what we used to call "students").

Professors who resist the pressures of grade inflation find themselves in the position of having to defend their rigorous teaching in a variety of forums, ranging from resolving complaints lodged against them with their department chairs to participating in pseudo-adversarial grade appeals proceedings and formal grievance hearings. Contemporary college students hold intense senses of consumer-based entitlement in which they see the default grade as an “A.” Recently, I defended a professor who had awarded a “D” to a student who, by my assessment, should have failed the course. During the heated discussion, the complaining student obnoxiously referred to the professor as “incompetent” and “unrealistic.” At one point, she said, “I pay your salaries!” I replied to her, “Then we want a raise for having to deal with snotty, entitled brats like you.”

Notably, the professor involved in this grade dispute was a tenured member of the faculty. For the reasons summarized above, untenured faculty (who comprise more than 70 percent of college instructors nationwide) may have caved in to the student’s demands and changed the student’s grade to avoid a confrontation in which the department chair became involved. But even when faculty members stand their ground, administrators often cave in to student demands because they are concerned with retention rates, time-to-degree completion statistics, complaints from helicopter parents (some of which escalate into lawsuits), and angry students who may turn into alumni who want nothing to do with their alma maters instead of happy alumni who become donors.

The recent case of Professor Dominique Homberger illustrates how college and university administrators contribute to grade inflation. The dean of her college recently removed Homberger from teaching an introductory biology course at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge in the middle of semester after students complained about her harsh grading on the first exam in the course, even though grades on subsequent quizzes and exams were higher (students appear to have gotten the message that they really needed to up their levels of performance).

What do we do about the sad state of affairs in higher education? There are changes we could make at the college level that could go a long way in improving the quality of higher education. First, no one should be able to earn a Ph.D. and secure a faculty position in an institution of higher education who has not taken graduate-level courses that prepare them to teach effectively at the college level. Graduate education must provide the next generation of college instructors the pedagogical toolkit to be more effective teachers, as well as more effective assessors of student learning. This is especially important with regard to teaching prose, information, and quantitative literacy.

Second, professors who rely exclusively on textbooks must change their ways. Of course, there are many fine textbooks out there, but no college course should rely on a textbook exclusively. Primary source materials from scholarly books and peer-reviewed journals, as well as material from popular culture media (newspapers, magazines, blogs, films, television shows, etc.), when applicable, should be assigned to complement textbook readings. But even more importantly, professors must jettison the “supplements” provided by textbook publishers. Today, many textbooks come with canned lecture notes, study guides, exams, PowerPoint presentations, and other supplementary materials designed to make professors’ lives easier. With few exceptions, most of these materials are targeted at the lowest common denominator.

For example, canned PowerPoint presentations and study guides boil down the information in a textbook chapter to a series of bullet points. But “test bank” questions are the worst offenders. These question focus exclusively on content and are targeted at low levels of cognitive achievement in Bloom’s taxonomy of learning domains: mere recall of data or information. These assessments do not provide any basis for professors to test students’ ability to analyze, synthesize, or evaluate information in a manner that demonstrates critical thinking, writing, or problem-solving abilities.

Third, we must get serious about confronting grade inflation. College professors are not just teachers; they also should be serving as gatekeepers as generations of professors did in the past by awarding grades commensurate with student performance. For this to occur, the consumer-based culture that pervades higher education must be changed. Professors, parents, and administrators must stop coddling students. If a student is not performing satisfactorily, then college instructors must be able to award “D”s or “F”s without worrying about whether doing so will cost them their jobs. Moreover, faculty rewards policies (e.g., reappointment, tenure, promotion, merit raises, etc.) must be changed to reward professors who teach and grade with rigor.

Such assessments must focus not just on the content of professors’ courses, but also on how they develop critical thinking, writing, reasoning, and problem-solving skills. Conversely, professors who give away high grades that are not actually earned by students should not be retained. This is not to say, however, that only those professors who award As to 10 percent or fewer of their students are necessarily effective teachers. Rather, we need to develop better ways of assessing a college instructor’s performance than student evaluations and grade distributions. Reappointment, tenure, and promotion decisions should be based on holistic assessments which include qualitative evaluations by several peers who have observed the instructor teach and on teaching portfolios containing exams, writing assignments, grading rubrics, cooperative learning exercises, and the like. Rigor and transparency should be rewarded.

Finally, to effectively combat both grade inflation and a consumer-based culture in the college student–professor dynamic, politicians, accrediting bodies, and senior administrators must stop worrying about graduation rates and time-to-degree-completion. These artificial metrics miss the mark. The obsessive focus on what percentage of students graduate in four or six years only reinforces grade inflation and a consumer-based culture in higher education. If it takes a student eight years to graduate because professors actually hold that student to high levels of achievement before certifying that student as worthy of a degree, so be it! That, at least, would help to restore the value of a college degree rather than perpetuating the disturbing trend of the past few decades in which the value of the baccalaureate degree has deservedly diminished.


Henry F. Fradella is professor and chair of criminal justice at California State University at Long Beach .


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