'No One Rises to Low Expectations'

November 28, 2008

Higher education is haunted by a formula, which goes something like this: P/R=G.

The P stands for student preparation, broadly defined — the combination of innate ability and elementary-school and secondary-school preparation that students bring to college. Imagine those attributes normalized on a scale going from 0 to 1, with 1 describing the smartest, most well-educated student in the world.

The R stands for rigor, defined by individual colleges and universities — academic requirements, placement-exam cut scores, and the general difficulty of the work. R increases as standards become more rigorous, with the top values at places like the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The G stands for the odds of a student's earning a degree. An intelligent, well-prepared student attending a college with typical standards would be very likely to graduate. An ill-prepared student who enrolls somewhere with unusually tough standards would not.

The P/R=G formula dominates the way people think about college graduation rates and student success. And, not coincidentally, it puts colleges in the position of having no real responsibility or efficacy when it comes to making G higher. They can't make P higher, because raw ability is what it is, and the elementary and secondary schools are someone else's problem. And they can't make R lower, because that would betray their scholarly ideals and dumb things down for the best students. A low G is regrettable, but really, what can be done?

It's a pretty depressing conclusion. So I was glad to read a report on the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, known as Cessie, which says that the formula is all wrong.

Cessie has been administered at roughly two-thirds of the community colleges in America, and the 2008 survey was released this week. The results are made public at

Among other things, the survey asks students about the difficulty of their college experience: How hard did you have to work? Did you need to spend significant amounts of time studying? How many textbooks and readings were you assigned? How many long papers did you have to write? Were you asked to accomplished complex tasks like applying theories to practical problems and synthesizing ideas and information in new ways? The answers are combined into a composite measure of "Academic Challenge."

Cessie has carefully tracked the progress of thousands of students who took the survey. And there turns out to be a significant, positive relationship between academic challenge and the likelihood of students' getting good grades, earning credits, and graduating — even after controlling for students' income, prior test scores, and other factors. The same is true for things like student-faculty interaction and student support. The more colleges ask of — and give to — students, the better students perform.

In other words, the real formula actually looks like more this: Px(E+S)=G. The E stands for expectations, a more constructive way of defining rigor. The S stands for support: the many things that colleges do, within the classroom and without, to help students learn.

The conventional wisdom has reversed the actual relationship between expectations and student outcomes. The operator on the left side of the real formula is a multiplication symbol, not a division line. The idea that lots of students are necessarily washing out of college because faculty members are bravely adhering to high standards, come what may, is mostly a myth. Instead, students are leaving because colleges and faculty members don't ask enough, and don't provide the kind of high-quality teaching and support services that students need to meet the challenge. Cessie research suggests, moreover, that the strength of the multiplier varies inversely with the size of P. Academically at-risk students, in other words, are most sensitive to the quality of higher education they receive.

Unfortunately, expectations and support in colleges and universities are all over the map. Consider some of this year's Cessie results. While 13 percent of full-time students were assigned more than 20 books during the year, 30 percent were assigned fewer than five. Similarly, 29 percent wrote fewer than five papers or reports. Only 28 percent made class presentations. Some community-college students are being given the expectations and support they need — but many are not.

The new Cessie data also show a disconnect between students and faculty members. The view from the front of the classroom is generally rosier. Thirty percent of faculty members reported that they "often" or "very often" discussed ideas and work with students outside of class. Only about 15 percent of students said the same.

And lest you think the problem is confined to the two-year sector, consider the results of the National Survey of Student Engagement, a similar survey of four-year institutions. Those data, which were also released this month, show that undergraduates spend only about half as much time preparing for class as their professors expect. Even at prestigious Research I institutions, most seniors report having to write few papers of significant length.

The good news is that colleges and universities can fix these problems. Academics aren't caught in an irreconcilable tension between high standards and student success. That realization should profoundly change — and increase — our societal expectations for institutions and students alike. Colleges can have both — indeed, they can't have more student success without asking students to do more.

The specific types of programs and practices that would benefit students are long established. A number of institutions have developed intensive academic advising, small learning communities, and summer bridge programs, for example. As Vincent Tinto, a professor of education at Syracuse University, has said, "There is no great secret to successful retention programs, no mystery which requires unraveling."

It's more than reasonable to ask most colleges to do much better. In fact, we should insist on it. Higher education needs greater expectations all around.

Kevin Carey is research-and-policy manager at Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington. Section: Commentary Volume 55, Issue 14, Page A99