Friday, May 24, 2013

More Students Deserve to Graduate? Who Says? A Rant from Magnus.

I saw the title of this column in USA Today, read the article, and had to put in my two cents.

First, the title: More Students Deserve to Graduate

Say what?  I never knew I deserved a degree ... I thought I earned one!  This sends a very wrong message to youth and their parents. Here is my own philosophy on the whole education-diploma concept:

Knowledge is attained through hard work, and an education is an opportunity to pursue knowledge with assistance. When someone pays for an education, they are purchasing access to people with specialized knowledge who in return provide information(e.g., lectures, course notes), guidance (e.g., instructions, grading, advising). What any student does with this access is up to them. Paying tuition gives them opportunities to better themselves, but does not guarantee the successful transfer of knowledge.

By enrolling in a institution of higher education, a person agrees to subject their level of understanding to the judgment of those with specialized knowledge in particular areas.  A diploma indicates that a person has demonstrated a certain level of knowledge in a certain field, again as  judged by specialists in that field. 

You may be able to buy education, but you can never buy knowledge - it is earned.  Here is a
better title: More Students Deserve Access to Education.

In this article, the author points out the need to accommodate both working and non-traditional students, which I agree with -- kudos to the profs willing to teach at unusual hours, as mentioned in the article. There are two issues that come up, however.  From an administrative viewpoint, this can affect the graduation rate because most non-traditional students may take an extra year or two to graduate because they work full-time.  Schools should not be penalized because the average student takes 4.75 years to get a degree instead of 4 years.  The second issue is a bit controversial in some circles: students need to realize there are only so many hours in a day, and it is just not smart to work 40+ hours a week, have a family, and try to take a full course load.

The author also encourages better use of statistics to pinpoint students at risk.  Any one of us can identify traits of students at risk without statistics because there are certain facts that come into play.
  • Fact: you will not do well in college if you do not study, do not turn in homework, think about the material, attend class, spend the entire lecture texting, fail to ask for help, etc.
  • Fact: you will not do well in college if mommy and daddy have forced you into a major you have no interest in
  • Fact: only a very select few can work 40 hours a week, be president of two student associations, be an athlete, and make straight As -- and you are not one of them
  • Fact: the entire responsibility for whether or not you learn the material rests upon you, not the professor
I could discuss this further, but I will end with this observation:  some -- but not all -- academically at-risk college students need to struggle out in the real world without the benefit of a college diploma before they will be grown-up enough to no longer be at-risk. We can provide them every resource and every opportunity, but it is like the old saying:

You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink,
You can lead a boy to college but you can't make him think.

If  we are going to identify at-risk students, we owe it to them to have a system in place that accurately identifies the root problem, makes it known to the student, and makes them responsible for deciding how to deal with it. The school should provide support as needed, but the student must remain responsible for the outcome.

Next, the author discusses the new strategies on place at some institutions that rewards the institution for student course completion or degree completion. If this becomes widespread, then an undergraduate education will be devalued and the students will not be the only ones cheated.  Administrators under pressure to quantify the quality of education by graduation rates will be tempted to reach for an easy solution of lowering the standards of education. Faculty seeking tenure and promotion may begin to let students pass who shouldn't to avoid the ire of (or gain favor with) administration. Finally, students with any savvy will figure out how to work the system to get a diploma with a minimum of effort ... and graduate with a minimal level of knowledge.  At that point, our business and industry sectors will begin to degrade under the influence of an ignorant workforce. 

I am not an elitist. My education was paid for by scholarships and grants, supplemented first by work as a grader and later as an adjunct lecturer.  No one in my family had a college degree, but they valued education and knowledge. My mother told me that to support myself I needed an education.  She taught me study, and my father taught me struggle with a problem until I had it whipped. I was led to believe that an education was a wonderful opportunity that should not be wasted.  If they had not prepared me for college like this, I would have been the Magnus, Snowflake Queen of (insert own worst nightmare job here), instead of doing something I truly love.
It is, in my opinion, a rude to criticize a solution without offering an alternative. Here are my suggestions for improving the American education system:
  1. Be willing to admit that institutions of higher education are not the sole source of the problem.
  2. Emphasize that the students themselves, and not the American educational system, shape their own future.
  3. Admit that we cannot be anything we want to be,  but should be given the opportunity to become what we can be.
  4. Research better measures of an institution's success in education, focusing on things that cannot be easily manipulated by stakeholders or exploited by students.
  5. Recruit and support non-traditional students while at the same time keeping standards high enough to "weed out" those not quite ready to commit to a college education (be they freshman or senior citizens)
And my rant is over. I have to get some rest. That mermaid tank needs cleaning tomorrow ...
Dr Magnus out.


  1. I said much the same thing when I started my teaching job over 20 years ago and was promptly branded an elitist and a snob.

    Some people had the impression that I was born to privilege. I wasn't. I was an immigrant kid born into the working class and English wasn't my mother tongue.

    My education wasn't handed to me. I worked for it. I couldn't understand why other people weren't willing to do the same.

    1. Oftentimes, when you rally look at those sorts of critics, you find they are actually the snobs who were born to privilege. They often feel guilty and are blinded by their own privilege.

      Lots of well-meaning older white men have this problem. The flip-side of patriarchy that has a tendency to reproduce itself (to reference the post from earlier this week).

    2. I'm not sure about the critics being snobs.

      Instead, I'm reminded of people who, because I was nearly a straight-A student in Grade 12, alleged I was--you guessed it--a "teacher's pet". Then there was the allegation that there only a certain numbers of As given out each year in a course and the reason my accusers didn't have many, if at any at all, was because I hoarded them.

      The fact was that those people generally goofed off in high school, didn't do much work, and found out that sometimes one actually has to earn one's rewards. They were reminded of that when they had to write departmental exams at the end of term. On the other hand, people like me, who studied during the rest of the year and got a respectable grade point average, were given those exam days off.

  2. Point number 3 needs to be emphasized.
    I've heard too many administrators addressing groups of students and telling them they can be anything they want to be.