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It’s Not Just the Athletes Who Can’t Read and Write

Heel alums may be embarrassed over the scandal involving the amazingly low
academic standards for “student-athletes” at the University of North Carolina,
but for the rest of America, it is the gift that keeps on giving for its
insights into the true priorities of our higher education leaders.

in the Raleigh News & Observer nicely summarizes the mess at
Chapel Hill. We learn among other things that Mary Willingham, a “reading
specialist” employed by the university to help athletes, says that she knew
from their diagnostic tests that many of them simply were not able to do
college-level work. Some admitted “they had never read a book and didn’t know
what a paragraph was.” Yet one of America’s “public ivies” so felt the need to
pile up wins on the gridiron and basketball court that it admitted students who
by objective standards ought to have been returning to about fifth grade after
graduating from high school.

other student-athletes were better prepared for college, but just wanted to
save time on academic work to have more time for their sports. When Willingham
told one student that a paper she wanted to submit in a class was a plagiarized
“cut and paste” job, she was told to look the other way. The student “earned” a

would be a serious mistake, however, to think that the problem of ill-prepared
students who don’t want to be bothered with reading and writing is confined
just to athletes. Evidence abounds that this phenomenon is widespread.

recently finished reading The
Shadow Scholar
by Dave Tomar. He admits – without any apparent remorse
– that he wrote thousands of college papers for students over the span of a
decade. His business of enabling students to cheat began while he was an
undergraduate at Rutgers, a university that U.S.
rates as “more selective.” But Tomar found many of his classmates to
be pathetically weak in their basic academic abilities.

of his first clients was “Rich Kid Sid.” Sid regarded himself as better than
Rutgers. He intended to transfer as soon as possible to a more prestigious
school with the long-run goal of getting into law school. He didn’t want to
waste his time with the expository writing course required of all freshmen. The
problem was that his initial in-class writing assignment had been graded as No
Pass. Sid needed to do better, but wasn’t interested in accomplishing that
himself, so he paid Tomar to rework the assignment.

bad was the writing of this typical (and non-athlete) student? Tomar writes,
“It was a jumble of words slapped together uncomfortably, standing next to one
another with an air of remoteness, like strangers in an elevator…. Punctuation
dotted the landscape of his work almost randomly, as though he had written the
paper first and then gone back through it indiscriminately inserting dots and

thought he was a good writer. Tomar observes that no teacher had ever told him
otherwise. That’s a common problem with young Americans. Many of them coast
through twelve years of schooling without ever learning how to write, as Ellen
Finnigan, an online writing coach, explains here. In
college, a few improve their writing, but many others get by with cheating or
just because professors don’t want to take the large amount of time necessary
to work with students on their writing. Professor Murray Sperber made that point
during a Pope Center event last year.

leaders say that they’re committed to educational excellence, but their actions
speak otherwise. They admit many students who are hardly ready for high school,
much less college, and then allow them to graduate even though they have made
scant progress in basic skills like writing.

The Rankings Will Always be Gamed

Trying to rank hundreds, if not thousands of colleges is obviously foolish, but this foolishness has consequences beyond supplying iffy advice to clueless shoppers. To the extent that potential enrollees take ratings seriously, institutions may be tempted to game the system and these tricks may well undermine education. To use Malcolm Gladwell’s illustration from Car and Driver, a car manufacturer can probably figure out the little gimmicks that magazine critics over-value and then accommodate these preferences even if they add zero to the car’s value.
Manipulating a rating will not push a third-rank school into the Ivy League, but in the mushy middle a few points can separate, say, 35 from 57. The temptation is to scam the system, regardless of the educational value. And what school can resist a little tinkering to leapfrog over rivals? So, if the rating formula stresses graduation rates, a few obscure bureaucratic adjustments—regular credit for what were once remedial courses, creating easy no-fail majors, allowing “Fs” to be expunged among similar ploys—can work wonders. Reed College refuses to participate in the U.S. News ranking, a wise choice given its low retention rate—hundreds of youngsters enroll in the mistaken belief that Reed is a sex and drug paradise, but most of these would-be hedonists flee almost immediately after encountering a hard-nosed take-no-prisoners freshman curriculum. Yet, this overly-generous admission generosity may benefit some high-potential under-achievers who might eventually flourish in a school of Reed’s intellectual caliber. If ratings were paramount and included retention, however, Reed would just play it safe and slip into staid conventionality.
And if average faculty compensation is the yardstick, any clever administrator can diddle the numbers. Just recruit expensive “star” talent who barely teach while “non-faculty” graduate students handle classroom instruction. Better yet, hire only those whose hefty salaries are paid by outside grants—get all the benefits of high salary compensation without any of the cost. Need more library holdings to impress the raters? No problem—buy cheaper paperbacks instead of expensive scholarly monographs. Need a reputation for “good teaching”? Since some raters use the internet to establish instructional “quality,” keep tough graders away from large required courses and watch ratings soar on ratemyprofessor.com.
My own favorite tactic for juicing “scholarly reputation” (at least in the social sciences) is to hire faculty who specialize in mathematical analysis and its variants like rational choice. These professors are amazingly productive and can quickly build a department’s disciplinary reputation where, as often the case, only publication volume counts. No matter that these professors teach gobbledygook to undergraduates who prefer history-rich accounts of WW II versus, say, a lecture on why country A attacked country B using the Prisoner’s Dilemma format. But don’t even think of hiring more substantively oriented adjuncts to compensate for these content-free courses—having too many part-timers, regardless of their backgrounds, especially if they lack doctorates, typically kills a school’s reputation among raters regardless of how much students learn.
This is a tail-wagging-the-dog problem—journalist outsiders, many of whom barely understand university life, shaping university policy by deciding what is academically important and even then, only using readily available crude information. That so many administrators happily defer to these ill-informed outsiders so as to up their rank a few notches is perhaps the most depressing feature of this foolishness.

Rituals Performed for the Elite

The U.S. News & World Report rankings of America’s “best” colleges and universities amount to nothing more than an annual ritual, a predictable coronation of entrenched wealth and power.
Even more importantly, for aspiring students and parents who hope to transcend their present class status, the yearly “guide” serves as the handmaiden to the elite. U.S. News rankings are like a public relations agency, a public persona standing at gates of admission to our “best” colleges, conveniently reminding aspiring Americans of the well-guarded paths to wealth and power.
Does anyone really believe that the students, parents and counselors at elite, mostly private, high schools pay any serious attention to the U.S. News rankings? Of course not. These schools and these families understand deeply how the system works and, especially, how to make the system work for them. They do not need U.S News to tell them which schools matter, and they follow the rankings with bemused disinterest.
That is not to say that the rankings are unimportant to elites. The annual ritual is a vital source of propaganda disguised by a pseudo-scientific calculation reminding our aspiring classes to “get in line and follow the rule” if they want a lottery chance at passing the gates. While the rankings purport to demonstrate to the public what separates good colleges form ordinary ones, the rankings are also the equivalent of the strict school marm, wagging her proverbial index finger at the strivers, the unwashed students and families who seek admission to the elite.
While the aspiring classes slavishly believe in its informative power, the rankings tell us little besides an institution’s wealth and prestige and position in the higher education hierarchy. According to U.S. News’s world view, a college or university is to be judged, not by what they actually do for students during their years on campus, such as how much chemistry, math, sociology and economics students actually learned while there.
Rather, in this upside-down world, colleges are judged by the “quality” of students they enroll. Quality, in essence, is measured by institutional selectivity – the percent of applicants who are accepted for admission. For the bulk of institutions in this universe, the direct correlate of selectivity is the average SAT score of entering freshman. The direct and powerful correlate of individual SAT scores is the cultural, educational and social capital which students acquire from their families. Families pass this human capital from generation to generation, and the so-called meritocracy is more than happy to oblige these privileges.
And so it goes, like a cascading river of wealth and power that obliterates all other considerations that bear on what higher education should mean in a democratic society. If one appreciates the status of inherited privilege, then let’s congratulate U.S. News on a job well done.

The Trouble With Rigor

The big news in higher education last week was the issuance of findings from Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, a scientific study of how much college students progress intellectually during their four years on campus. Two researchers, Richard Arum, professor of sociology and education at New York University and director of the Education Research Program of the Social Science Research Council, and Josipa Roksa, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, charted scores on the Collegiate Learning Assessment to determine changes from the time of their arrival to senior year. The CLA isn’t subject-based, so the study couldn’t gauge changes in domain knowledge, but it does aim to calculate abstract thinking and analytical “competencies.” The results were abysmal. (An excerpt is here)
For nearly half of the students (45 percent), no significant improvement took place during the first two years of college.
For more than one-third (36 percent), no significant improvement took place over four years’ time. They are, in the authors’ words, “academically adrift.”
Why the poor showing? Several reasons, the authors say.
One, more and more students “report that they spend increasing numbers of hours on nonacademic activities, including working, rather than on studying.” For all too many of them, the classroom is a part-time thing.
Two, more students “enroll in classes that do not require substantial reading or writing assignments.”
Three, they “interact with their professors outside of classrooms rarely, if ever.”
And four, “they define and understand their college experiences as being focused more on social than on academic development.”
The response to Academically Adrift has been voluminous and mixed. One common negative reply is to challenge the methodology (the CLA is limited, etc.), while a common positive reply is to agree and denounce higher ed corruptions. (See here and here and here and a video of one of the authors here.
But colleges are in a bind either way. They are under pressure to open access and keep retention rates high. But the obvious solution to the low-learning problem—raise standards, assign more reading and writing, increase rigor—might improve test scores, but the other rates will fall. That is, if homework goes up and assignments get more rigorous, dropouts and flunk-outs will rise as well. At the very least, grades will plummet. Reaction will follow. Colleges are under intense pressure to get kids in the door and keep them there. If the retention rate falls, they have a lot of explaining to do in public.
So keep that dilemma in mind. The more you make students work, the fewer students will cross the finish line.

Seeing Ghosts in Class

The Chronicle of Higher Education has just added a new nail to the coffin of American Academia. Lax admission policies, politically correct texts, underpaid assistants who do the teaching in place of the big name professors busy on their next books, incompetent management, to name just a few liabilities, are wrecking the once-proud reputation of many U.S. colleges and universities.
As if these were not enough, the Chronicle highlights another scandal in Academia. Using the nom de fraud Ed Dante, the author of “The Shadow Scholar” reveals himself as a man who “makes a good living” ghostwriting papers for a “custom essay company.” In plain English, this means coming up with papers on a variety of subjects, which are then peddled to lackluster students. Those students then attach their names to the essays, get good grades, and move on jobs in the private or public sectors.
Dante says he has “written toward a master’s degree in cognitive psychology and Ph.D. in sociology.” He has also contributed papers for courses in history, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, maritime security, marketing and ethics (!). In the midst of a deep recession, he burbles, “business is booming. At busy times, during midterms and finals, my company’s staff of roughly 50 people writers is not large enough to satisfy the thousands of students who will pay for our work and claim it as their own.”

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Let’s Hear More About Teaching

In my last essay here, “This Is A Bold Plan For Higher Ed?”, I commented in passing that most books on higher education these days – including Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’s Higher Education? – fail to address the real crisis in higher education: poor teaching. That prompted Ms. Dreifus to ask if I had actually read her book. In an e-mail to her – to which she never replied I told her that I had, with great eagerness and interest. I also told her that I agree with most of what she and Professor Hacker say. What they describe not only matches my experience, it voices what many of the younger generation in the profession actually think but almost never say. It also supplies invaluable data to enable us to generalize our personal experiences with more confidence.
True, Chapter 5 (“Teaching: Good, Great, Abysmal”) identifies the conflict that exists between teaching and research (and we all know that research is winning out, resulting in lots of bad teaching). But it doesn’t change the fact that overall Higher Education? says almost nothing of practical value that will benefit professors who are in the trenches on a daily basis.
The book contains thirteen chapters (271 pages) but only one (a mere seventeen pages) is devoted to teaching. Within that chapter, only eight pages discuss the activity of teaching – the others address the need for good teachers to be active researchers, how the emphasis on publishing subverts teaching, and how some schools have tried to remedy the teaching problem.
Teachers exist “to stir intellects and imagination, to open students to universes they had never known before,” but “far too few students are being encouraged to discover and develop their talents.” Michael Sandel of Harvard, an example of someone who does, observes that teaching “is about commanding attention and holding it.” Great teaching, add Hacker and Dreifus, is “a rare talent, partly cultivated, and to some degree innate.”

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The Attack on Legacies

In every Marx Bros. movie, there occurs a moment when Harpo works himself up to a frenzy, hyperventilating, jumping up and down and crossing his eyes. These interludes never fail to beguile the viewer, even though they have nothing to do with the plot.
I was reminded of these Harpovian shenanigans when I came across Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admission (Richard D. Kahlenberg, Editor, Century Foundation , 304 pps). This a collection of essays expressing outrage at a practice, common to many first-, second- and third-tier colleges. These institutions have for decades (centuries in some cases) allowed underperforming high school students to be admitted to the freshman class because one of their parents was a graduate.
Manifestly this was unfair. Students with higher grades had been turned away because they didn’t have the advantage of a father or mother with an Ivy or Big Ten sheepskin. Yet the institutions of higher learning offered no apology for their autocratic ways; instead they presented a rationale. It was called Follow the Money. A prosperous parent was likely to make a generous donation to the place that allowed Junior to enter the hallowed halls, even though he failed geometry and had English SAT scores that placed him in the bottom third of his class. And since every school is always bemoaning its increasing debt, rising professorial salaries and benefits, and other fiscal responsibilities, what was wrong with welcoming a few “legacies” in order to pad the bottom line?

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Not Just Another College Ranking

Forbes has issued its 3rd annual College Rankings, delivering its crown to Williams College. Comparison to the U.S. News and World Report list is inevitable so let’s not delay in getting to it; this result, and most of the top 20 rankings on the Forbes list aren’t that dissimilar from the similar U.S. News list (when accounting for the fact that Forbes elides the distinction between the “liberal arts college” and “university” categories). This is unsurprising; a number of the factors in their ranking formula are not much dissimilar from the US News and World Report list; student debt, loan default rates, four-year degree completion rates, and the like. Any sensible list would feature these factors, and it’s a testament to the objective value of certain colleges that they place highly on multiple lists.

The Forbes list is distinctive, however, for its focus on results; its “ends-oriented” ranking, despite its similarities with U.S. News at the top of the scale, seems worlds different once venturing lower in the listing. On this list Whitman College in Washington and Centre College in Kentucky outrank Dartmouth; Colgate University stands many spots above Brown. It is a different measure with clearly different results.

Forbes‘ initial formula two years ago proved the results-focused ranking simpler said than done; in granting a quarter of its weight respectively to an enrollment adjusted appearance of graduates in “Who’s Who in America” and to aggregated RateMyProfessor rankings, Forbes deserved the numerous accusations of rankings ham-handedness it received. Happily, their worthy goal has acquired a more substantial statistical foundation in this iteration.

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