All posts by Jackson Toby

Jackson Toby is professor of sociology emeritus at Rutgers University, where he was director of the Institute for Criminological Research. He is an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Do College Graduates Need Soft Skills?

It does not surprise anyone that graduates of four-year colleges have lower rates of unemployment – or employment in jobs that do not require a college education – than high school graduates or high school dropouts.  What has occasioned mild surprise are the tens of thousands of graduates of four-year colleges who cannot find full-time jobs that pay enough to keep up with the installments due on their student loans. Why can’t graduates of four-year colleges find good jobs? An obvious explanation for college graduates getting dead-end jobs or no jobs at is that they can’t write well or lack computer or other academic skills. Maybe they majored in subjects of no interest to potential employers or spent their college years pursuing fun instead of trying to acquire knowledge. Furthermore, the economy hasn’t been very good.

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A Tradition of Mindless Protests at Rutgers

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Universities have two contradictory traditions: one of searching for truth and, alongside it, one of mindless, self-righteous protests. The Rutgers University protests against giving Condoleezza Rice an honorary degree at the 2014 Commencement belongs to the second tradition.  Having served on the Rutgers faculty from 1951 to 2003, I know that this demonstration was not an isolated incident.

On November 10, 1971, 2,000 students, faculty, and delegates from other universities, including foreign universities, crowded into the old gymnasium on College Avenue in New Brunswick to witness the inauguration of the 17th President of Rutgers, Edward Bloustein.  On the podium with Dr. Bloustein was Governor Cahill of New Jersey and some of the invited dignitaries.  A crowd of about fifty student demonstrators interrupted his speech with repeated shouting, clapping, and whistling from two balcony sections.  I heard one protestor shout, “Stop Route 18!” and another shout, “Shame!”  After Dr. Bloustein took his seat, a European university president whispered to him: “What’s Route 18?”

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Why Asian Students Are So Important on Campus

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Asian and Asian-American students, an increasing presence in our college campuses, are carrying a crucial message that the rest of Americans have trouble hearing: that college costs too much time and money to be devoted predominantly to fun and games.

Americans generally underestimate the salience of education in most Asian cultures. Take Korea. South Korea raises perhaps the highest academic hurdles for high-school seniors hoping to get into a “good” college. On one Thursday in November 2008, 590,000 high school seniors went to one of about a thousand exam centers throughout Korea to take a nine-hour test consisting mainly of multiple-choice questions. Answers to these questions would determine who got into the best colleges, and later, who would likely get the good jobs in business and government. The questions had been constructed by 400 carefully selected professors and teachers isolated for weeks at a resort surrounded by police. Examination day is taken very seriously in Korean society. The stock market and many businesses open an hour late to keep the roads clear for students traveling to the testing centers. During certain hours, planes are forbidden to take off or land so the noise won’t interfere with the listening portion of the test. Buddhist temples and Christian churches are filled with parents praying for their children’s success on the test. The Korea Electric Power Corporation placed about 4,000 technicians on duty to monitor power lines feeding the test centers. At the end of the day, the evening newspapers published the questions and the correct answers. More than 80 percent of high school graduates go on to college. Those who did poorly on the test may have waited a year to retake it.

 China and Japan

Like South Korea, other Asian countries emphasize the importance of education.  China screens high-school seniors for college admission with a National Higher Education Entrance Examination similar to the Korean system. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, Mao Tse-tung closed Chinese universities and exiled intellectuals and professionals to the peasant hinterland; but in 1977 Chinese universities reopened and entrance exams were reestablished. However, the reopening of universities and the rebuilding of faculties took time, and meanwhile enrollments were small and consequently even more highly selective than they had been before the Cultural Revolution.

Japanese culture too values education very highly. Nevertheless, Japan did not expand its system of higher education after World War II to the same extent that the United States did, so most Japanese colleges, with less space, can demand considerable academic achievement from applicants. As in Korea, Japanese high-school students are selected for admission by long and difficult entrance examinations. However, in Japan each university has its own examination, so students who wish to apply to several institutions must take several different exams.

 Family Support of Education

The main transmission agent of Asian stress on the value of education is the family and, more specifically, Asian mothers.  Although this is changing as women take jobs in factories and offices in Asian countries, women have traditionally stayed at home and devoted a great deal of time and effort to encouraging their children to do school work. In Japan, for instance, pre-adolescence hardly existed after World War II in the American sense of playing baseball or other games with friends in the neighborhood.  The business of childhood was to do well in school, and that meant virtually full-time studying either at home or at cram schools where their families paid for their enrollment in order to supplement the education provided by the official schools.  Mothers supervised homework preparation of their children relentlessly so that their children, particularly sons, could compete successfully on examinations, ultimately in university entrance exams. On the evening before the day when numbered applications for the entrance exams of a prestigious university are to be given out, some mothers line up in the cold and spend the night waiting for a low number on the exam application form. The anxious mothers understood that a low number on the application form did not occupy a formal place in the grading system, but they hoped it might make a marginal difference to the grader.

Although a great many Americans also regard education as important, the typical American attitude toward educational achievement is obviously far more relaxed than it is in Asian cultures and Asian families.  Consequently, whatever the innate abilities for intellectual achievement of American kids, some make massive commitments to basketball, football, or more exotic sports like surfing instead of gradually developing the reading skills and the cultural literacy they ought to have by the time they reach college.  Recovering from these deficiencies later is very difficult. Those who aspire to become professional baseball players know that they have to practice from an early age–hitting, throwing, running and fielding– to develop the capabilities that they will need to be a professional player. Due to a more relaxed cultural view of educational preparation, most American youngsters do not seem aware of the analogous connection between learning academic skills thoroughly at an early age and doing well in college. Why not? Many American children lack the parental supervision in academic matters that Asians children receive. Young children do not have a long time horizon. Without the encouragement of parents, they find it much more pleasant to watch television or play with friends than to do boring homework. The younger the child, the harder it is to learn to defer gratification. The parent has to become a supervising nag, and this has to go on for years.

A recent New York Times story about SAT coaching shows how close the adult monitoring can be–a junior at Niskayuna High in suburban Albany, who willingly enrolled in an outside coaching class that required homework, somehow learned that only on six consecutive days of failing to turn in his homework would his delinquency be noticed. So he turned in his assignments only on the sixth day. To his surprise, a vigilant staff member of the tutorial service detected his ploy, telephoned his mother, who scolded him, and he resumed doing the work.

 Asian Students and Diversity

Despite the alleged benefits of “diversity” in the American educational system, in the actual behavior of pre-adolescents and adolescents, diversity does not appear to be the most important characteristic that youngsters themselves use in their choice of friends and companions. If you observe college students walking, eating or choosing where to sit in a large lecture hall, you are far more likely to see males with other males and females with other females, blacks sitting with blacks and Asians with other Asians. But Asians, despite their reputation for remaining aloof on campuses, seem good at finding commonalities based on shared interests. They are visible, not segregated in Asian enclaves by prejudice against them or by choosing friends exclusively from their own ethnic group, and they excel, on the average, on academic accomplishments.  It is almost inevitable for them to be role models for less academically single-minded students to emulate.

As a group, Asian students are clearly destined to become middle-class, whether or not they came from low-income, poorly educated family backgrounds. In New York City, Asians, mostly from working-class immigrant families, account  for 14% of  public school children, but for 50% of the students at the city’s eight elite public high schools that grant admission by tests. The resulting upward mobility is obvious. As PJ Media columnist Daniel P. Goldman wrote last week, “My own solidly middle-class neighborhood in Manhattan is slowly becoming Asian, as the successful children of the last generation of Asian immigrants reach the income levels to buy Manhattan apartments-not the plutocrats’ pads on Park Avenue to the west of my corner of the island, but still within walking distance of many of the city’s best-known private schools.”

Sociological discussions of the social class of college students often miss the crucial point that education is a social escalator when they stress where students came from as children rather than where they are headed as adults. Similarity of class destinations is the glue that draws together youngsters of different genders, ethnicities, colors, heights, and weights. The Asian impact on college cultures will occur slowly, but as that impact becomes clearer, the culture of fun at all costs, including alcohol and drug abuse, will likely recede.  Devoutly to be wished, no?

Confronting the Binge-Drinking Campus Culture

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The Boston Globe reports that at least one college, Dartmouth, is making real progress against binge-drinking on campus. Freshmen are banned from fraternity parties for their first six weeks at school. Student-led “Green Teams” circulate at campus parties in groups of four, sober, to watch out for and steady partygoers who may be on the brink of getting drunk. Dartmouth has moved to greater enforcement of rules against drinking and students with alcohol infractions get a confidential chat about heavy drinking. The result of the new emphasis: the number of Dartmouth students hospitalized with blood-level alcohol levels of more than 0.25 percent fell to 31 this past academic year from 80 two years earlier.

One problem in imposing reforms is a simple one–a great many students do not tend to consider alcohol a danger. It is just harmless fun–the worst that can happen is getting arrested for drunken driving or underage alcohol consumption. But that is not really the worst. The worst is losing self-control and behaving in ways that jeopardize your future, your life or the lives of others.

A Boozy Decision–Was It Rape?

Rape for instance. Party drunkenness is the context out of which college rape charges usually arise.  Everyone loses track of how much alcohol is being consumed. A female may be too drunk to know whether she has consented to sex or not, and she may decide–fairly or unfairly–that it was rape the next morning.  Or, she is intoxicated to the level of unconsciousness, and whether her companion is aware of her intoxication or not – he is usually drunk himself, and hormones take over. Although criminality usually is not intended, alcoholic partying facilitates what statutes prosecute as crimes. Future job prospects of everyone involved will be damaged.

When students regularly drink too much, they cut classes and fail to study for tests. Consequently, majoring in substance abuse usually blemishes one’s academic record beyond repair and thereby damages career prospects– one of the main concerns for enrolling in college.

What’s a Party without Binging?

Anecdotal accounts as well as statistical data show that many students spend a great deal of time consuming alcohol. For a significant proportion of students, “partying”–a euphemism for long weekends of continuous alcohol consumption and occasional recreational drug use–competes successfully with academic obligations. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School wrote the following comment about partying in a letter to the New York Times:

To understand the severity of this problem, all you have to do is walk by a fraternity party at an average college campus. Partying starts on Thursday–and you must understand that partying and getting drunk are synonymous to a college student. The answer to “What did you do last night?” that is most likely to get someone to smile and pat you on the back is, “Oh man, I got so drunk.”

A surprisingly large proportion of students play drinking games such as “beer pong.” Drinking games have been around since Dionysus. But a whole new industry has taken off around them, making the games more popular, more intense and more dangerous, according to college administrators. Each year, college students spend $5.5 billion on alcohol (mostly beer).

What Harvard Found

The Harvard School of Public Health conducted rigorous statistical studies of alcohol consumption among a random sample of 14,000 college students in 1993, 1997, and 1999 financed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; 128 nationally representative four-year colleges in 39 states and the District of Columbia participated in the studies. The studies disregarded the abstainers (15 to 20 percent of students) and focused mainly on binge drinking, defined as five or more drinks in a row for men and four or more for women, at least once in the two weeks before the surveys.

The researchers asked whether getting drunk was very importantimportant, or somewhat important, or not important.  The goal of getting drunk was  surprisingly popular: about half the male bingers and 40 percent of the female bingers said they drank to get drunk.

Some findings were not very surprising. More binge drinking occurred among students living in fraternity or sorority houses than in other living arrangements, more among males rather than among females, more among students who binged in high school than among students who didn’t, more among younger students than among older students, and more among single than married students.

Drinking to Get Drunk

Some findings were surprising. The prevalence of binge drinking among white students was twice as great as the prevalence among black students. Although there were some unsurprising and surprising differences in the prevalence of binge drinking, what was remarkable was that binge drinking was fairly widespread; moreover, about a third of all male students who drank had been drunk at least three times in the month prior to the survey as were about a fifth of all female students who drank. Surprisingly, the competitive, very competitive, and highly competitive colleges had similar prevalence rates and markedly higher rates than those of the noncompetitive schools. Perhaps this was due to a higher proportion of commuter schools among the noncompetitive schools, and commuter schools had lower rates, probably because the students lived at home under parental supervision.

Nevertheless, a great deal of self-destructive drinking behavior occurs among American college students at almost all colleges, including religiously oriented ones and highly selective ones. When the samples were divided into occasional binge drinkers–those who binged only once or twice in the two weeks preceding the surveys–and frequent binge drinkers–those who binged three times or more in that time frame, the frequent binge drinkers reported more problems: missing a class, falling behind in school work, doing something they regretted, arguing with friends, engaging in unplanned sexual activities and not using a condom, damaging property, getting in trouble with the campus or local police, getting personally injured, drunk driving, and requiring medical treatment for an alcohol overdose. Of the frequent bingers, 57 percent drove vehicles while drunk, and 54 percent were so drunk that they could not remember where they had been or what they had done while binging. In addition to the problems that their binging behavior created for themselves, secondhand binge effects were experienced by non-binge drinkers and abstainers who happened to live in the same dormitories or fraternity or sorority residences with the bingers: being interrupted while studying or being awakened at night (58%), having to take care of a drunken fellow student (50%), and being insulted or humiliated (29%). About 77 percent of the non-binge drinkers and abstainers experienced at least one secondhand effect.

A Majority of Bingers

Consider only the 11,160 college student drinkers–that is, ignore abstainers. Among college student drinkers, about 45 percent did not binge and were probably mostly moderate drinkers, although some may have gotten drunk occasionally. A majority of the student drinkers in the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study were binge drinkers, either occasional (2,962) or frequent (3,135). It is difficult to comprehend how these frequent binge drinkers could have gotten much intellectual education while at college.

Hoping that students today will pursue knowledge single-mindedly at college is unrealistic. They are entitled to some fun. Unfortunately, however, many students enroll in college believing that attending college is similar to going to a summer camp. Orientation sessions for incoming students should provide two pieces of crucial advice:

  • It is almost impossible, even for highly intelligent students, to amass an academic record impressive to corporate recruiters if they are intoxicated during days when they should be attending classes or evenings when they should be studying.
  • When students becomes so drunk at a party that they are no longer in control of their own behavior, hormones take over.  They may engage in sexual behavior that destroys their career prospects irrevocably.

The Market for College Grads Keeps Changing

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Indebted college graduates have recently begun
to ask whether a four-year college education is worth what it costs.  According to an article in the Wall Street Journal on February 11, for
example, 23-year-old Bryce Harrison, who graduated last May from Goucher
College with a political-science degree and about $100,000 in student loans to
repay, is now unemployed and is considering joining the National Guard.  He had spent the summer working for his father,
power-washing houses. “Was college worth getting in the amount of debt I’m
in?” he asked. “At this point, I can’t answer that.”

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Majoring in Fun

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When Isaac Newton went to the University of Cambridge several centuries ago, he studied seven days a week, at least ten hours a day, and actively avoided the revelry that some Cambridge undergraduates engaged in even then. No one expects American undergraduates to work as hard as Isaac Newton or as medieval monks. However, what seems to be happening on many American college campuses is the development of such a powerful “fun” culture that a quarter of the students or more arrive thinking that having fun is the main reason they are at college and that the pursuit of knowledge should be resorted to only when they have nothing better to do.

Unlike students who work for pay during the academic year, where they must submit to employer supervision, students who do not take paid jobs have a great deal of freedom. Although they are supposed to study, they are not compelled to study. Moreover, if they live in campus dormitories or in off-campus housing rather than commuting from home, they do not have parents supervising their comings and goings. American college students were never subjected to the rigorous discipline administered to recruits at the Marine boot camp at Parris Island. Yet before the campus rebellions of the 1960s, most colleges supervised not only classroom behavior, such as attendance, but also student life, including behavior in the dormitories. Administrators and deans, if not professors, believed that they were acting in place of parents. However, student life changed in the 1960s and 1970s.  The doctrine of in loco parentis was discarded in deference to student rights. Nowadays, those students who live at college are free of most external constraints. No one will interfere if a student invites a member of the opposite sex–or the same sex–to sleep with him in his dormitory room. If a female student wishes to party on a Thursday evening, get drunk, and sleep through her Friday classes, nothing except her own conscience prevents her from doing so. This freedom enables many students to pursue “fun” relentlessly during the academic year.

Grade inflation usually saves fun-seekers–as well as other academic underperformers–from being forced to leave college. In order to fail, a student has to work hard at defying academic norms. Not attending classes is usually not enough, because many professors stopped taking attendance and those who do rarely use attendance as a basis for grading. In addition to online services that offer for a fee custom-written papers that students can buy and hand in to their professors, most colleges have local-note taking services whereby students can buy notes taken by academically excellent students hired by the services to attend courses and make detailed notes. Thus, students can obtain the material from the lectures without attending them. Not taking any tests, including the final exam in the course, and not handing in required papers, may do it.

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Sending the Wrong Students to College

 

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As a professor of sociology at Rutgers University, I taught large lecture courses for years, basing grades on multiple-choice tests. So only after retiring, and offering to teach a small seminar for free, did I discover something important about student writing: it was awful.The short weekly papers turned in by my seminar students showed overwhelming shortcomings in the structure and expression of basic ideas, plus a Niagara of errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Perhaps a third of the students averaged five to ten errors per page. They had computers equipped with spell-check, but that function couldn’t prevent wrong word usage. Many couldn’t keep straight when to use “there,” rather than “their” or “they’re,” “threw” instead of “through,” “sight” instead of “site,” “aloud” instead of “allowed,” “Ivy” instead of IV (intravenous), and “stranglers” instead of “stragglers.”

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