A Perfect Storm in Undergraduate Education, Part 2

Brian Taylor

April 03, 2011

What is keeping undergraduates from learning? Last month, I speculated from my perspective as a college teacher about a set of interlocking factors that have contributed to the problem.

In that column (The Chronicle, February 25), I referred to the alarming data presented by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press, 2011) in the context of President Obama's call for more students to attend college in order to prepare for the economy of the future. Why, I asked, should we send more students to college—at an ever greater cost—when more than a third of them, according to Arum and Roksa, demonstrate "no improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills" after four years of education?

This month I want to speculate on why students (and, to a lesser extent, their parents) are not making choices that support educational success. What could they possibly be thinking?

The student as consumer. Surely adolescent expectations of Animal House debaucheries have been with us since the decline of college as preparation for the ministry. But, in the past few generations, the imagery and rhetoric of academic marketing have cultivated a belief that college will be, if not decadent, at least primarily recreational: social activities, sporting events, and travel. Along the way, there may be some elective cultural enrichment and surely some preprofessional training and internships, the result of which will be access to middle-class careers. College brochures and Web sites may mention academic rankings, but students probably won't read anything about expectations of rigor and hard work: On the contrary, "world-renowned professors" will provide you with a "world-class education." Increasingly, students are buying an "experience" instead of earning an education, and, in the competition to attract customers, that's what's colleges are selling.

Changing forms of literacy. A generational shift is taking place in which longer forms of writing are being replaced with shorter ones, and sustained thought with shallower forms of multitasking. Those skills have value, but a growing percentage of students are arriving at college without ever having written a research paper, read a novel, or taken an essay examination. And those students do not perceive that they have missed something in their education; after all, they have top grades. In that context, the demands of professors for different kinds of work can seem bewildering and unreasonable, and students naturally gravitate to courses with more-familiar expectations. Without a carefully structured curriculum with required courses and regulation of standards across comparable courses, it's possible to graduate without acquiring foundational skills. Lacking proper preparation for college-level work, it's no wonder that so many students resort to plagiarism and paper mills, particularly since untenured college teachers—more than 70 percent of the faculty and growing—do not have the support needed to counter rampant cheating. And students know it.

Declining academic engagement. Students increasingly are pressured to go to college not because they want to learn (much less become prepared for the duties of citizenship), but because they and their parents believe—perhaps rightly—that not going will exclude them from middle-class jobs. At the same time, much of the academic program, particularly general education, seems disconnected from the practical skills needed to secure those jobs. In order to maintain that Potemkin Village, faculty members and students have entered into a "disengagement compact," in which they place fewer demands on each other so that other interests—research for the professor and social activities for the students—can be pursued with fewer distractions. Professors pretend to teach, students pretend to learn. That results in the cultivation of students' instincts, guided by checklist rubrics, for doing the least amount of work necessary to receive the desired level of distinction, in a context in which the A- is the new C. Even the brightest students have doubts about whether they should work toward genuine accomplishment if they're getting the same A as someone who barely tries.

Alienation from professors. Many students cannot imagine going to speak with a professor in his or her office. At most universities, a student is likely to be unknown to the professor and would expect to feel like a nuisance, a distraction from more important work. In addition, many students arrive believing that professors, especially in the humanities and social sciences, are mostly political radicals who will try to convert them to some outlandish belief system from another era. (It doesn't help that professors are now so much older, on average, than their students; ironically, the baby boomers now preside over the widest generation gap academe has ever seen.) It leads to the suspicion among students that any criticism of their work that is not objective (2+2=4) might be based on some kind of political or personal bias. At the same time, students recognize that most of the teachers with whom they have more personal contact—graduate students, adjuncts, and other part-timers—are not well regarded by their institutions. Their lack of income, benefits, and job security are an insidious advertisement for the low status of some kinds of learning. Moreover, transient faculty members can't help your career, since they may not be around next year and their recommendations carry little weight.

Expanding social and extracurricular commitments. As academic expectations have decreased, social programming and extracurricular activities have expanded to fill more than the available time. That is particularly the case for residential students, for whom the possibility of social isolation is a source of great anxiety. Moreover, the status hierarchies of college come primarily from nonacademic activities that often translate directly into career opportunities after graduation through the power of alumni networks. For those reasons, it is not uncommon for students to expect to be formally excused from a substantial portion of scheduled classes in order to participate in some nonacademic activity. In some respects, that is a positive sign, because much—perhaps most—of the achievement to which students direct their energies is now in activities (like sports) where competition is the norm, excuses are not accepted, and the authority of experts has been preserved. Excessive involvement with academic pursuits—beyond what is required to earn unexceptionally high grades—has become a marker of low status, social isolation, and lack of orientation toward the most important way that postgraduation success is achieved, via networking and connections in which professors do not figure prominently.

The escalating cost of education. Students' fears about unemployment after graduation are compounded by the awareness of the debt they are accumulating in pursuit of their degrees. College has become unaffordable for most people without substantial loans; essentially they are mortgaging their future in the expectation of greater earnings. In order to reduce borrowing, more and more students leave class early or arrive late or neglect assignments, because they are working to provide money for tuition or living expenses. It is also true that many students are working longer hours in order to afford social activities, cars, and consumer goods, and shortchanging their education as a result. Whatever the reason, more students are coming to classes exhausted and distracted by concerns about money, coupled with greater anxiety about whether their future earnings will compensate for the cost of their education. It's a kind of vicious circle: The more you have to borrow to attend college, the more likely it is that you lack social capital that, more than anything else, determines access to careers.

Anxiety about future employment. As students' anxiety about the future increases, no amount of special pleading for general-education courses on history, literature, or philosophy—really anything that is not obviously job-related—will convince most students that they should take those courses seriously. The job market seems to demand increasing specialization, leaving less time for intellectual exploration. As a result, more students are majoring (or double majoring) from the beginning of college in subjects that do not especially interest them but seem to offer some promise of employment. The trouble is, advance information about the economy is often wrong; the curriculum can barely keep up with technological changes, and faculty members are generally isolated from the job market. But it is hard for a young person to understand that higher-order thinking skills—those most needed in a turbulent job market—can come from courses that are not obviously job-related: Shakespeare can be more useful, in the long term, than a course about last year's software. Students may be receptive to that possibility—and to the chance of studying something that truly interests them—but uncertainties about the future have ushered in an era of grim pragmatism and short-term planning.

Students feeling disillusioned, bored, apathetic, scared, and trapped. Perhaps the most memorable response I received to the previous column was from a college junior who recalled that she "really thought college would be an incredible experience. ... I expected a series of heated debates in class, and meeting for coffee to discuss classroom topics. But all I hear is 'I'm bored' and 'I just don't care.'" A lot of students have worked extraordinarily hard to get into the "right" kind of college, only to wonder what all the hype was about. The common experience is that getting admitted is the most exhausting part. After that, the struggle mainly is financial. But at the major universities, most professors are too busy to care about individual students, and it is easy to become lost amid a sea of equally disenchanted undergraduates looking for some kind of purpose—and not finding it.

Academically Adrift ends on a depressing note: "A renewed commitment to improving undergraduate education is unlikely to occur without changes to the organizational cultures of colleges and universities." Institutions are inherently conservative; they do not change easily. Many leaps of faith are necessary, and the people involved—teachers, students, parents, administrators, lawmakers, and others—have so many fundamental disagreements about the purposes of higher education that it is hard to know where to begin the conversation. It's far easier to make cuts to an inherently broken system than to begin building something new.

One hopes for an emerging consensus—another Sputnik moment—that will affirm Arum and Roksa's position that we need to make "rigorous and high-quality educational experiences a moral imperative." Whether that means college in a traditional sense is a different question. But that's a topic for another column.

Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich.