On Pigeons, Pells and Student Incentives


Jackson Toby, professor emeritus of sociology at Rutgers and author of the new book, The Lowering of Higher Education in America, delivered this speech yesterday (April 7) at a luncheon in New York City. The luncheon, at the University Club, was sponsored by the Manhattan Institute’s Center for the American University and Minding the Campus.

“Is College Graduation Enough for a Good Job or Do College Graduates Have to Know Something?” That’s the title of one chapter of my new book. And in an effort to illustrate the problems of evaluating what contemporary college graduates know, I began the chapter with the lyrics of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” from Cole Porter’s 1948 hit musical Kiss Me Kate.
Broadway audiences didn’t necessarily have to know that the musical was based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, but it helped. Porter graduated from Yale nearly a century ago. In that era a Yale graduate—or a graduate of any American university—had to have had some exposure to the plays of Shakespeare, because it was an era during which a college education referred to a corpus of common intellectual experiences. Colleges usually had a core curriculum that all graduates had to take, whatever their major or their interests. “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” contained references to Homer, English poets, the Greek playwrights Aeschylus and Euripides, a mention of the “Bard of Stratford-on-Avon,” the town where Shakespeare was born, and puns involving titles to several of Shakespeare’s plays: Othello, Anthony and Cleopatra, Much Ado about Nothing, Coriolanus, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Members of the audience who did not know at least the titles couldn’t understand fully Porter’s witticisms. Consider a few lines from the lyrics:

Brush up your Shakespeare,
Start quoting him now.
Brush up your Shakespeare
And the women you will wow.
Just declaim a few lines from “Othella”
And they think you’re a heckuva fella.
If your blonde won’t respond when you flatter ‘er
Tell her what Tony told Cleopaterer,
And if still, to be shocked, she pretends well,
Just remind her that “All’s Well That Ends Well.”

The reason why today’s college students wouldn’t find “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” funny is that they have no Shakespeare to brush up. Shakespeare was not the only casualty of more permissive curricular requirements. What used to be called the core educational curriculum — what every college graduate ought to know—has faded away. Here is how the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) described the disappearance of a core curriculum in a different report issued in 2004:

Despite widespread lip service to the importance of a general education, a new survey by ACTA finds that a solid core curriculum in higher education has gone the way of the dodo. At a time when most colleges endorse the importance of a general education—a set of courses required of all students—in fact, colleges have virtually abandoned a solid core curriculum in favor of a loose set of distribution requirements. As a consequence, college students are graduating without the basic knowledge that was once considered the hallmark of a liberal education.

ACTA’s report of a survey of 50 colleges and universities, including all of the Big Eight and Big Ten universities, the Ivy League, and the Seven Sisters Colleges, plus an additional grouping of 13 colleges to provide institutional and geographical breadth. Each school was given a grade from A to F, depending on the number of core subjects it required.
The core subjects, according to the report, were composition, U.S. Government or American History, economics, foreign language, literature, mathematics, and natural or physical science. If a college required six or all seven of these subjects, it received an A grade; if it required one or none of them, it received an F grade. Only one of the fifty schools whose curriculum requirements were examined received an A (Baylor University), whereas twelve of the fifty received an F, including Northwestern, Penn State, Wisconsin, Brown, Cornell, Mt. Holyoke, Smith, and Vassar. Whatever students were learning at these colleges, the subjects were not those traditionally considered the core of a college education. To put it another way, knowing that a person has a college degree no longer indicates what that person knows.
The purpose of my book is to devise incentives that may motivate students to learn more in both secondary schools and undergraduate colleges. I will digress a bit but eventually I will return to incentives for student learning. In 1948, the year Kiss Me, Kate opened, Professor B.F. Skinner was conducting experiments with his favorite experimental animal, pigeons. Skinner demonstrated that by using the right incentives he could induce pigeons to behave in ways that seem to most people unpigeonlike. My key word is “incentives” which presumably apply to students as well as to pigeons. Students are more complicated and cunning than pigeons. And we want them, not to peck, but to learn as much as they can in primary school and in secondary school in order to profit from a college education. How can we get students to learn about Shakespeare instead of more natural pleasurable activities like cruising the malls, having sex with one another, and getting drunk? My book assumes that students are at least as responsive to incentives as pigeons. Here is what Albert Shanker, late president of the American Federation of Teachers, said about student responses to incentives:

Whatever colleges pretend, their influence over high school standards and student achievement is decisive. Kids are just like adults: they will work to get what they want. If they know they have to work hard, listen in class, and come to school every day with their homework done
in order to get into college, they’ll do that. If they know they can get by with less and still get into college, that is what they’ll do.

Shanker was pointing out that it is unfair to place most of the blame for the weak performance of American high school graduates on primary school and high school teachers. If students know that they can get admitted to some college no matter how little they learn in their primary and secondary schools, they lack an incentive to study hard – unless they wish to attend a highly selective college like Harvard. He implied that more of the blame should go to flabby college admissions policies than to incompetent or uncaring primary school and secondary school teachers. If colleges established tougher admissions policies, students would study harder in order to get admitted since a majority of American students want to go to college.
Shanker was about half right. He was right that students would study more conscientiously if they needed to in order to gain admission to college, any college, and he was right that the majority of American adolescents want to go to college for all kinds of reasons: social, economic, athletic, sexual, even to get an education. But he greatly exaggerated the leverage of colleges through raising admissions requirements. Raising admission standards is feasible for the 100 or so selective colleges with many more applicants for admission than they can take. These selective colleges can impose any admissions standards they wish, but most cannot. Since 3,700 colleges and universities in the United States compete with one another for students, colleges that unilaterally attempt to raise admissions standards would not be able to fill their classes and their dormitories: a financial catastrophe. To avoid this catastrophe they maintain admissions standards suitable for students who simply want to go to college and for whom almost any college will do. Such students need not learn much in high school. Nor in college later.
A New Approach: The Pocketbook
My book suggests a different way from Shanker’s to mobilize incentives for enhanced studiousness at all educational levels: money. Begin by thinking about Department of Education Pell grants, enacted in 1972 to provide access to higher education for kids from low-income families, gifts from American taxpayers that students do not have to repay. (Keep that date in mind because it is relevant to a well-intentioned disincentive enacted in New Jersey four years earlier.) The seemingly simple idea, providing access to higher education for kids from low-income families, was much more complicated than Congress realized. Demonstrating financial need requires all students applying for grants or loans to fill out a form in every institution every year: The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The Commission on Higher Education set up by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings described the FAFSA form as “longer and more complicated than the federal tax return.” Once students and their parents fill it out, students must mail it to a federal processing center where some experienced staff person evaluates it according to uniform standards. Then it is sent back to the college attended—or to be attended—by the student, indicating the extent of parental financial responsibility, how much the student is expected to earn during the summer, and how much the student is eligible for in grants and loans. The college is entrusted with the task of verifying the information that the student submitted on the FAFSA form by means of documents, such as the income tax returns of parents and placing copies of these documents in its files.
Some of the information that the student must obtain to fill out the FAFSA form for 2008-2009, taken from the official worksheet of the Department of Education, is as follows:

– Your Social Security Number and your parents’ Social Security Numbers if you are providing parent information;
– Your driver’s license number if you have one;
– Your Alien Registration Number if you are not a U.S. citizen;
– 2007 federal tax information or tax returns (including IRS W-2 information) for yourself (and spouse if you are married) and for your parents if you are providing parent information. If you have not yet filed a 2007 income tax return, you can still submit your FAFSA but you must provide income and tax information.
– Records of untaxed income, such as Social Security benefits, welfare benefits (e.g., TANF), and veterans benefits, for yourself, and your parents if you are providing parent information; and
– Information on savings, investments, and business and farm assets for yourself, and your parents if you are providing parent information.

This generous idea of grants to kids from low-income families to help with college expenses had three serious problems. The first problem is that Congress underestimated how many students would apply for these grants and how difficult it would be for them to demonstrate financial need. All students applying for grants or loans must fill out a FAFSA form in every institution every year. In addition to a federal bureaucracy to process these applications, colleges set up Offices of Financial Aid to help students cope with the forms. Many students regard the Office of Financial Aid as the most important office at the institution, more important than the President’s office, more important than the Registrar’s office, more important than the office of the Department in which they major.
The second problem is worse; Pell grants do not require any substantial academic aptitude or achievement for high school seniors applying to college. Maybe Congress was betting on “late bloomers,” but there is no attempt to determine whether the late bloomers actually bloomed as students proceeded through college. Consequently Pell grants are not incentives to study; they require evidence of financial need but no evidence of academic readiness for college. Acceptance at some college and a warm body is all that is necessary to get in and remain enrolled. Congress may have assumed, as Shanker did, that colleges would screen applicants for college readiness so that the enabling legislation did not need to provide for college readiness. But competition for student customers among the 3,700 colleges and universities prevents colleges from imposing stringent admission standards lest they go bankrupt.
The third problem is the worst problem of all. Individual Pell grants were never large enough to cover the tuition and living costs of students at a live-away college, much less graduate education, and the shortfall grew as college tuition and expenses rose. But rather than increase Pell grants substantially — $25 billion seemed like a lot of money in the old days – Congress established subsidized loan programs for college students, which constitute 70 per cent of the Department of Education financial aid that undergraduates currently receive. And with the rising cost of college tuition and living expenses, that percentage is rising. The trouble with financing education by means of loans is that loans are not gifts; they must eventually be repaid — with interest. They are even worse than sub-prime mortgages because there is no collateral at all for student loans except the prospect of jobs after graduation, the pay for which is presumably enhanced by education. But Congress ignored the academic achievements and aptitudes of student borrowers in the student loan programs, as it had before for Pell grants. This time, however, the unanticipated results were more serious. Marginal students unprepared for college by their pre-college educational experiences who dropped out of college before graduating or graduated without having learned enough to get jobs that would enable them to repay their loans were trapped by loans they could not repay. Consequently, many defaulted on their loans with catastrophic personal consequences for them and, concomitantly, an additional burden for American taxpayers. Recall that the loans are federally guaranteed. There are now about $750 billion of student loans from past and current students, and estimates are that about 40% of these will eventually end in default. Current unemployment rates have worsened this problem.
I assume that, like B.F. Skinner’s pigeons, students and their parents can anticipate the future. If students want to go to college and they know that they will need loans as well as grants in order to finance a college education and if they are aware that the loans will not be given to them unless they demonstrate by past and continuing good academic performance, they will behave like pigeons or like contemporary Japanese, Chinese, and Korean high school students and make an effort to learn what they need to know in order to obtain these loans. Incentives work – not for everybody but for enough students and enough parents to improve the academic atmospheres of contemporary high schools and colleges. Unfortunately, students are sometimes also exposed to well-intended disincentives to study that unwittingly undermine the incentives that we hope will motivate students to study conscientiously.
A Brief History of Incentives Not To Study
Let me mention one disincentive to study that we developed in New Jersey but which exists in other states as well. Here is a brief history of the Educational Opportunity grant program that provides college scholarships for substandard educational performance in primary and secondary schools rather than for than for excellent performance. How did this happen and why did it happen? Forty years ago in the wake of black riots in several New Jersey cities in the summer of 1968, a leading Democrat, Assemblyman Robert Wilentz, later the Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, and a leading Republican, Assemblyman Thomas Kean, later Governor of New Jersey and then President of Drew University, sponsored the New Jersey Educational Opportunity Act of 1968. The Act provided grants for low-income high school graduates to help them attend college in New Jersey. Few anticipated the effect of a provision in the bill establishing an Educational Opportunity Board in the New Jersey Department of Higher Education to implement the Act. Almost immediately, the racially diverse Board added a criterion for grants nowhere mentioned in the Act itself: “educational disadvantage.” What “educational disadvantage” was interpreted to mean in the eligibility guidelines issued by the Educational Opportunity Board is that the students given grants must be academically underprepared for the New Jersey college of their choice—in addition to being economically needy. In order to be eligible for an Educational Opportunity Fund grant—$500 for residential students and $350 for commuters at that time—the guidelines require that a student:

1. [has] not demonstrated a sufficient academic preparation to gain admission to an approved institution of higher education under its regular standards of admission…

2. [has] standard test scores…below the institutional norms; and
3. [has an] educational background [that] indicates a need for improvement of basic skills…

The EOF guidelines assumed that students who perform inadequately on measures of academic achievement are victims of bad schools, poor teachers, racial prejudice, or all three—and therefore deserve college scholarships based on criteria other than traditional academic accomplishment. In some cases this explanation of poor performance is correct; in other cases it is due to student rejection of studying at school as reflected in tardiness, truancy, and inattention in class. An empirical investigation could have tested this assumption, but as far as I know no test was ever conducted. Whatever the explanation, however, giving college scholarships for previous substandard academic performance does not give students an incentive to study conscientiously. The EOF program, which is still in operation, gives relatively small grants, but it has a large impact on public colleges in New Jersey because the State bureaucracy requires public colleges to include in their freshman classes a substantial proportion of EOF grantees (10 percent). In order to meet this requirement, admission offices try to attract the best applicants they can find who are economically and educationally disadvantaged enough to satisfy the EOF guidelines. For example, one out of ten New Jersey residents admitted to the Rutgers College of Engineering—as in all public colleges—is expected to be an EOF special-admit student. Yet the College of Engineering has difficulty finding needy students who want to become engineers, who meet the EOF “educationally disadvantaged” criterion, and who also seem likely to succeed in a demanding engineering curriculum. Consequently the College of Engineering has a much higher dropout/flunkout rate for EOF students than for non-EOF students—despite a great deal of remedial work. Other public colleges have lowered their grading standards in the face of bitter complaints from EOF students that the colleges were hypocritical to admit them and then to impose academic standards that they could not meet. Students enrolling at private colleges in New Jersey are also eligible for EOF grants, but these grants have much less impact on private colleges and universities, partly because the State does not mandate any minimum proportion of freshmen at its private colleges who must receive EOF grants and partly because the tuition at private colleges is so large compared to the size of EOF grants that the tail cannot wag the dog.
Let us return to B.F. Skinner’s student-pigeons. I am assuming that students and their parents are better able than pigeons to anticipate the future. The incentives I am proposing are designed to motivate students to approach education more conscientiously both in high school and college than they do now — and thereby raise rather than lower higher education. It helps if parents encourage their children to study from the early grades, and parents are better able than youngsters to understand that their children must learn enough in school to qualify for student loans.
To return to the question with which I started, the title to Chapter 5, “Is College Graduation Enough for a Good Job or Do College Graduates Have to Know Something?” Maybe that’s the wrong question. Even if college graduation is enough for a good job without graduates having learnt much, maybe we should want more from our college graduates.
In Chapter 2 of my book I quote an anecdote from one of Russell Baker’s columns in the New York Times that makes this point. He tells the story of asking a college-age Greenwich Village bookstore clerk for a copy of David Copperfield. “‘Who’s the author?’ the clerk asked. ‘Dickens,’ I said. ‘What’s his first name?'” Baker thought that a college-age bookstoreclerk should have known. I’m with Russell Baker. I’d like college graduates to know who Charles Dickens was and why “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is amusing.
Jackson Toby is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Rutgers University


  • 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.

    View all posts

2 thoughts on “On Pigeons, Pells and Student Incentives

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *