Sending the Wrong Students to College

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.”

Don’t Worry about Spelling

Some students disregarded spell-check warnings and used the misspelled words anyway, probably because spelling correctly took too much time, and they were not ashamed to let wrong spellings go.  The underlying problem I believe, is that a lot of students did little, if any, reading outside of course requirements, emails, and social media communications.   And since language is a crucial tool for thinking, they tended to be sloppy thinkers.  My students in the spring of 2003, were majoring in sociology or psychology; some were planning to become teachers.  The economy in 2003 was still quite good, so they probably got jobs despite their spelling, grammatical, and punctuation deficiencies and began paying off their student loans.  Then the economy worsened, so employers could afford to be more choosy

Earlier this year, the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University found that half of college graduates under 25 last year were either unemployed or underemployed — that is, working part-time or in lesser jobs than they expected after college graduation, say, as a waiter.  Wall Street Journal columnist, Daniel Henninger, summed up this point satirically with a fictitious self-introduction of a waiter in a posh restaurant, “Hi, I’m Marty and I’ll be your waiter for the next 40 years.”

Though the economy may be ticking up a bit, the combination of poorly prepared graduates, crushing student loans and employers with an upper hand amounts to a perfect storm for large numbers of the young.

According to a Wall Street Journal article of September 28,

Kristopher Kenny, a 25-year-old underemployed graduate of the University of Miami hadn’t made a payment on his roughly $38,000 in federal student loans in five months.  He said he couldn’t keep up with his monthly student-debt tab of $1,370 because he earns just $1,800 a month working part-time in pharmaceutical sales.  

Kenny is not unique.  The U.S. Education Department reported that more than one out of eight student-loan borrowers scheduled to start repaying their loans between October 1, 2008, to September 30, 2009, defaulted within three years.  The three-year default rate, 13.4 percent, was the first time the Department had released data for three years.  Previously, the Department calculated the default rate only for the first two years after payments were due to start.  The two-year default rate–9.1 per cent for students whose loan payments became due after October 2009–  was misleadingly lower than the three-year default rate, because student defaults spike in the fourth year. In short, student borrowers so impaled on their loans that they default are more common than earlier reports indicated.


Why Some College Graduates Are Trapped

President Obama’s advocacy of expanding federal grants and student loans to high school graduates may be leading some of them into the same trap that Mr. Kenny is in.  Mere attendance at a college or university – or even graduation — is no longer enough to place the student on the escalator leading to interesting careers with high pay.  Nowadays, college graduates have to have learned something in the course of higher education.  As the late scholar Jacques Barzun put it, “It is not going to college that matters, but studying when one gets there, wanting to study and liking it.”

Recent college graduates who did not take curricula relevant to an occupation, such as engineering, pharmacy, or computer science or at least have studied diligently enough to receive outstanding grades, are at a strong competitive disadvantage in the job market. If a year goes by without their finding a suitable job, a new cohort of graduates arrives with fresh skills.  Enthusiasm and charm, although attractive, are also possessed by many competing applicants with higher qualifications.  Because the market for college graduates has shifted in favor of employers, borrowing a large amount of money to attend college is risky, even if the interest rate is low. Furthermore, only 57 per cent of freshmen enrolled in four-year colleges graduate within six years.  For students who drop out of college without graduating, their employment prospects are worse, and repaying their unpaid student loans is difficult, if not impossible. For students like the ones in my seminar who could not spell or punctuate very well, borrowing money to attend college may be buying a ticket to nowhere.


The Need to Take Education Seriously — Early

Why should so many students drop out of college instead of persisting until graduation and thereby improving their job prospects?   Typical college dropouts leave college because they are bored trying to learn things they cannot understand or don’t want to understand.  Like some of the students in my seminar, attending college won’t help them read or write better and thereby make them more employable. Certain problems they faced in earlier educational settings –such as a lack of family encouragement or ineffective instruction —  are insurmountable. 

In some cases, however, their deficiencies were self-inflicted.  They did not pay enough attention in classes; they sometimes cut classes.  Their most important misstep was that they probably did not read books outside of school unless they were required to read them for school assignments — and often not then.  Instead, they watched TV programs, played sports or computer games and socialized with friends. It is unlikely for such students to profit intellectually from going to college.  Remediating deficiencies in college is enormously difficult. It requires a commitment from underprepared students for self-improvement that most are unwilling to make.

Contrary to the mantra that everyone should go to college and that the main obstacle is inadequate financial support from governments, students have to be fairly well prepared for higher education by the time they arrive on the college campus.  Such preparation must begin much earlier in students’ lives, including convincing them that education has to be taken seriously if they aspire to interesting, well-paid jobs.  Parents are more effective than teachers at instilling this message.  Unfortunately, not all parents have their children’s education at the top of their agendas, especially parents with meager educations or serious personal problems.  Poverty alone does not prevent parents from promoting high educational aspirations in their children. 

However, even parents deeply concerned about their children’s education must find programs in which their children can learn the skills they will need.  The Rainier educational program in Seattle, Washington, illustrates how parentally encouraged educational effort in the early grades pays off later. Rainier Scholars – 60 to 65 fifth graders selected from nearly 600 applications from low-income families —   make a commitment to graduate not only from high school but also from college. It initially requires two years of full-time summer school as well as weekend classes.   Helen Janc Malone of Harvard University studied year-round enrichment offerings around the country.  Here is how she described the Rainier Scholars program on the PBS News Hour:

So, they take students in low-resource areas, and they really take them from the fifth grade all the way until college. And in the first few years, they intensely focus on academic preparation and making sure that kids are on par and achieving at the grade level or even above of where they should be.  And over the course of 14 months that they run the first phase of their program, children receive between 1,800 and 2,100 extra additional hours of learning. That is very significant.

In short, kids from low-income families as well as middle-income and high-income families can profit intellectually from a college education and can graduate and obtain good jobs.  But they have to start taking education seriously early. President Obama believes that with enough federal money in grants and loans, anyone can qualify for an interesting, well-paying job.  Not so. In the real world, some circumstances in addition to poverty stand in the way – failure to read and study in primary and secondary school, truancy, substance abuse, unsupportive, troubled parents.  Whatever the reasons for inadequate preparation, it is usually too late for remediation in college.  Late-bloomers are mostly a myth.  That being so, it is cruel to tempt all high school graduates to take out large loans to pay for college educations; for underprepared students, loans can be traps.  For underprepared students compelled to default on loans they cannot repay, such loans in the one-trillion dollar portfolio of student loans are a disaster.  The loans are an obstacle to becoming adults, to marrying, buying a home, and raising a family. 

It’s better to emphasize vocational training and job preparation at community colleges rather than Pell grants and low-cost student loans.  It isn’t a quick fix, but it’s more realistic.  



  • 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.

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2 thoughts on “Sending the Wrong Students to College

  1. The issues with college students and graduates is deep and chronic. Unfortunately, it begins long before they enter the hallowed halls of higher education. College, for many students, is simply a continuation of a failed elementary and secondary educational system.
    Many universities continue to pour valuable resources into frivolous courses and degree programs that are defined as culturally inclusive but, ultimately, are utterly worthless outside of academia. In their relentless search to be inclusive rather than practical, our universities fail to teach their students how to think critically, to communicate clearly, and to understand that a college degree is not an end in itself. Rather, it should be a means by which they can methodically frame the problems they will face in a complex world and its ever-evolving challenges.
    For many graduates, the first challenge will be to translate what they learned into a productive job; one that may not necessarily be in the field for which they spent four years studying. More likely the job search will require creativity and an ability to communicate how their skills can be of value to an employer more focused on profits and survival than on academic frivolity.

  2. As an undergrad I had a little side-business typing papers for other students. I charged $1/page to type exactly what they handed me, and $2/page to fix misspellings and grammar mistakes. The ones who went the cheap route learned quickly that the extra dollar per page was worth it. I was pretty taken aback by the consistently poor writing. The one paper with the best grammar and no spelling mistakes came from a non-native English speaker! Sad.

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