Debate: Will a Push to Increase College Enrollment Lead to Lower Standards?

Last week Ashley Thorne and Peter Wood debated Education Sector's Kevin Carey on Minnesota Public Radio's online forum Insight Now. The assertion posed by MPR was that "the drive to increase college enrollment threatens to lower standards." President Obama is leading this drive; he has enunciated a call for America to have the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by 2020. This may sound like an admirable goal, but what would it mean for the quality of our higher education - and the the ability of our rising generations to succeed?

Over the course of the week, Thorne and Wood debated Kevin Carey; each party submitted an opening statement, two rebuttals, and a closing statement (except for Carey, who never submitted a closing statement). Readers contributed their opinions, as did parents, students, and faculty members whom MPR polled on the purposes of college. 

Below are the debate statements by Thorne, Wood, and Carey. To read the additional comments and summary statements by MPR moderator Michael Caputo, click here

What do you think? Are academic standards jeopardized by the push to massively increase college attendance?


The Assertion: The drive to increase college enrollment threatens to lower standards. 

Opening Statements

Pro: Peter Wood and Ashley Thorne, the National Association of Scholars

The massive expansion of higher education called for by President Obama and others will seriously undermine the quality of American college education. Students will learn less, care less, and be able to do less as they enter the workforce. 

Key Points

1. To expand enrollment, colleges admit more students who are poorly qualified and poorly motivated. College thus becomes merely the easiest “next step” after high school. When getting accepted is easier, students don’t need to work as hard or do as well academically to get in. Many fewer go to college in order to become educated adults and productive citizens. They go just because they sense a cultural mandate to go, and because their friends are going.

2. To accommodate these students, college must offer more remedial courses, and remediation is seldom successful in getting students up to a genuine college level. If a student does not possess the aptitude to do college-level work, he should not be admitted to college. Students who would like to go to college but who fall short academically should catch up before they matriculate. This would better serve the students, who are often in danger of wasting time and money on a pursuit that isn’t right for them; and better for the colleges, which should focus on higher education, not hand-holding. 

3. The additional students who are marginal are at greater risk of dropping out, and to keep up retention rates, college administrations then pressure faculty members to inflate grades, dumb down standards, and pass students who shouldn't pass. When retention is more important than academic standards and it’s possible to pass courses without much effort, the college degree loses its significance. A recent study by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in their book Academically Adrift finds that a third of college students make no intellectual gains from when they enter as freshmen to when they graduate. That’s because learning in college has become optional.

4. All students, not just those who are poor performers, are affected by courses that have been diluted to accommodate weak performers. Instead of holding students to high standards, colleges cater to the lowest common denominator, bringing everyone down to that level.

5. To attract the larger number of students, colleges have to provide more and more new courses and programs of study designed around students’ "interests." Generally these student-centered courses (i.e. Tree Climbing at Cornell, Queer Musicology at UCLA) are intellectually weak. The abundance of such courses and the decline of more rigorous ones means that students often graduate lacking the command of important skills, such as the abilities to write and speak well, to analyze competing arguments, and to think beyond politically correct and self-esteem boosting platitudes.

More higher education does not mean more intellectual growth. Rather, quantity and quality have proven to have an inverse relationship. In striving to reach President Obama’s goal, American innovation and competitiveness will actually decrease, for in becoming the most-educated nation, we will have become the worst-educated. 

Con: Kevin Carey, policy director at Education Sector

The last half century has seen a huge increase in the number of Americans going to college. At the same time, academic standards in higher education are often lax. Some people believe, incorrectly, that the former caused the latter. This misreads history and leads to the wrong solutions for today’s undergraduates.

Fear of letting more people go to college is nothing new. When Congress was considering the G.I. Bill in 1944, University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins warned that giving returning soldiers a chance to enroll in college would turn the nation’s great universities into “educational hobo jungles.” Instead, the law helped create a thriving middle class and decades of unparalleled prosperity. When economic globalization shifted low-skill jobs oversees, America’s first-in-the-world policy of giving every student the opportunity to enroll in an affordable college helped produce the knowledge workers that kept our economy flexible and strong. 

The great expansion of higher education meant that colleges had to adapt to students from diverse social, economic, and academic backgrounds. Some were better prepared than others. But the time before mass higher education was hardly an academic paradise. As Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Dean Nicholas Lemann wrote in The Big Test, “At Harvard and other leading universities...up to the start of the Second World War, rich heedless young men with servants, whose lives revolved around parties and sports, not studying, set the tone of college life.” The idea that higher education was serious and rigorous before being overrun by lesser students is the worst kind of false nostalgia. 

That said, there are undeniably serious problems to address in higher education today. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s recent groundbreaking study, Academically Adrift, found that many students are spending four years of their lives and a considerable amount of money on college with little or no increased learning to show for it. The reason? Colleges aren’t doing enough to challenge their students. Student-faculty interaction is often cursory, expectations non-existent, serious reading and writing assignment all but unheard of. 

This is not a case of higher education regretfully lowering its standards to accommodate students who can’t do the work. Rather, it’s a case of a higher education system that is simply indifferent to teaching undergraduates well. The entire professional incentive system in higher education focuses around money, prestige, and scholarship. Colleges compete to enroll the “best” students, charge the most money, erect the nicest buildings, woo the most famous researchers, and field the most awesome semi-professional sports teams. Student learning is an afterthought, at best. Colleges are not held accountable for how much their students learn in any meaningful way. And so, unsurprisingly, they focus on other priorities.

The solution is not a return to educational hobo-phobia that would bar the doors of higher education to needy students. That would be a disaster. Instead, we need colleges and universities that are more focused on the needs of students and more accountable for the quality of the learning environment they provide. Better colleges for more students will provide a foundation of opportunity and prosperity for years to come.  

Rebuttals, Round 1

Con: Kevin Carey, policy director at Education Sector

 Peter Wood and Ashley Thorne base their opposition to President Obama’s plan to help more student go to college on several broad and faulty assumptions. First they believe that “To expand enrollment, colleges admit more students who are poorly qualified and poorly motivated.” This assumes that all of the smart kids are currently going to college. And it’s certainly true that nearly all of the smart wealthy students are in college (along with most of the dumb wealthy ones, too). 

But data from the U.S. Department of Education show that while less than four percent of high-achieving students from families making over $100,000 per year fail to go to college, nearly 20 percent of similarly high-achieving students from families making less than $20,000 per year fail to go to enroll. These students are college-ready. They just don’t have the financial and social capital they need. 

It’s true that many students have to take remedial courses in college. That’s because many students get a lousy high school education. High schools that serve low-income and minority students routinely get less funding and fewer qualified teachers. This is a terrible societal problem that needs to be addressed. But in the meantime, Wood and Thorne believe that students who have been victimized by our troubled K-12 school system should be denied the opportunity to catch up and learn the skills they need in a public college or university. This is counterproductive and cruel. 

Wood and Thorne believe that colleges need to dumb down courses in order pass underprepared students along. In fact, research suggests that the opposite is true. Data from the Community College Survey of Student Engagement show that there is a significant, positive relationship between the level of 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. 

Indeed, Arum and Roksa’s research, which Wood and Thorne cite approvingly, shows the same thing. Students fall short in college when expectations are too low. If standards and expectations are increased, graduation rates will increase, too. 

Pro: Peter Wood and Ashley Thorne, the National Association of Scholars

Kevin Carey says we commit a fallacy of the post hoc ergo propter hoc variety. Academic standards plummeted after the huge increase in the number of Americans attending college, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the huge increase caused the decline. Point taken. It doesn’t necessarily mean that, but we do have more than half a century’s experience of watching the curriculum thin out, grade inflation become epidemic, and remedial education swell—in tight correlation with each leap in college enrollment.

So the burden of proof is on Carey. We don’t argue that enrollment growth is the only factor in the decline in quality, just the prime factor.

We agree that Arum and Rosksa’s study shows colleges demand too little of their students. That’s largely because they are full of students who are ill-prepared, unmotivated, and mismatched to the opportunity. The main thing they will get from college is substantial debt. We’re more concerned for what this means for the students than the colleges. We’re not “hobo-phobic” – we want young people to thrive.

That will require some cultural shifts: high schools that promote worthwhile alternatives to college; national leaders who recognize diverse forms of success rather than insisting that college is the only path; parents with the humility to be open to other options; and employers who look beyond the college degree to see evidence of talent.

But we agree with Carey that colleges have to change too. They need to concern themselves far more with excellence in teaching and far less with campus amenities, faddish ideologies, sports, and faculty publication.   

Rebuttals, Round 2

Pro: Peter Wood and Ashley Thorne, the National Association of Scholars

We aren’t sure why Kevin Carey thinks we assume “all of the smart kids are currently going to college.” No, not all smart kids go to college - and that’s ok. Even for the best and brightest students, college is not always the best option.

Our fundamental disagreement with Carey appears to be over the question, “Are there students who should not go to college?” In Carey’s view, anyone who has the ability should go to college, and so should plenty who don’t have the ability. He turns a blind eye to the many students who would be better served by choosing a path other than college. This goes for students across the spectrum of academic ability – from Thiel Fellows to young people like Brian Crave.

Brian, a Wisconsin teenager, enjoys caring for baby calves and wants to be a farmer.  He enrolled in an apprenticeship program where he can pursue his dream outside higher education. Many other young people, for various reasons, know college is not for them, and they work in trades that do not require a college degree. Some, like the Thiel Fellows, are entrepreneurs; some join the military; some inherit the family business.

These are legitimate career choices: it’s not fair to these young people to push them to go to college and tell them that a college degree is the only way they can be successful. It’s also not fair to the prepared and motivated students who come to college to learn and find a weak intellectual environment. Carey says that remedial education should be a place where students can “catch up” after being “victimized by our troubled K-12 school system.” But college is not a second chance at high school. It is higher education, and catching up should be done before college; Carey himself advocated this in a previous essay. And remedial education has been shown to be ineffective; a recent study found that it “does not increase the completion of college-level credits or eventual degree completion.”

Our K-12 system is indeed troubled – do we really want to model higher education after it?

Again, we agree with Carey that colleges should raise academic standards. His theory that this will correspond with an increase in graduation rates, however, is puzzling. We have seen firsthand how raising academic standards acts as a filter: some students rise to the challenge while many don’t make the cut. This is a healthy process for the students who fail out, the ones that remain, and for the quality of education at the college.

Con: Kevin Carey, policy director at Education Sector

Peter Wood, Ashely Thorne and I are largely in agreement that students aren't learning enough in higher education, and that colleges themselves are complicit in failing to educate students well. The question is: what to do about it? Whether one believes that inadequate academic standards are primarily a function of increased enrollment--they do, I do not--the fact remains that those students are in college, today. 

Our society has chosen mass higher education as the primary means of public investment in adult human capital. This is a choice, I would note, that nearly all of our economic competitors have chosen to emulate. Indeed, the rapid increase in college attainment among competitor nations in recent decades, to the point that some have surpassed America's historic pre-eminence, is frequently cited as a major economic problem by Republicans and Democrats alike. 

Wood and Thorne believe, I assume, that restoration of academic standards in higher education can be achieved by a rollback of our nation's historic commitment to college access. Who would be shut out of college by such a reversal? I think we all know the answer. Children born into wealth, class, and privilege will always find a place in college. First-generation families, low-income students, working parents, immigrants, and other marginalized populations will not. The American way of education has long rejected the impulse to sort and track students at an early age, elevating certain children to the enlightened path while relegating others to lives of service. 

Our vibrant, productive society stands as evidence of the wisdom of this approach. There's a reason other countries are chasing our lead.   

Closing Statements  

Pro: Peter Wood and Ashley Thorne, the National Association of Scholars

We remain convinced that the drive to make college the primary standard of success will accelerate the present decline in academic standards, pressure many students into wasting their time and money that could be better spent elsewhere, and inflate the value of the college degree.

As reader nicole_erickson commented here, “Why isn’t there someplace else for them to go? Why did they ‘have’ to go to college? Their presence in the classroom drags down the quality of the education for everyone.”

We close with four points:

  1. Everyone should have access to college, but not everyone should go to college. Anyone with the ability, no matter his income level or background, should be able to go to college. College must be a destination for those with special interests and abilities in scholarly subjects, not a club for the wealthy and well-connected (see Louis Menand’s “Live and Learn”). Theoretically Pell grants and institutional and independent scholarships are available for poor but competent students; perhaps more can be done to ensure that these go to the genuinely promising among the needy.
  2. President Obama’s call to make the U.S. the most-higher-educated nation by 2020, which will require doubling the size of the higher education industry, sounds admirable but altogether fails to understand that most-educated is not the same as best-educated. We believe that while indeed, America is falling behind the rest of the world academically, the solution lies in improving the quality, not the quantity, of education. 

    Kevin Carey has yet to demonstrate that the decline in academic standards over the last 50+ years was not caused by the huge increase in the number of Americans attending college. We are open to arguments, but so far we’ve heard none. 
  1. If almost everyone goes to college, a degree won’t signify any particularly noteworthy achievement. Jobs that don’t require advanced study have already begun to demand a bachelor’s degree of their employees, and this generation already feels the need to attend graduate school in order to stand out. This trajectory puts students on a long and expensive treadmill and cheapens the value of college.
  2. We need more pathways for young people to achieve successful adult lives. A new report, Pathways to Prosperity, published this year by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, makes the case for not restricting the American dream to college graduates; it seeks to identify an American version of other countries’ emphasis on career training. And the website is a great resource for young people – it offers help in finding a career, getting into college, and exploring the military. 

A society that recognizes the laws of human nature – that each person is unique and that a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work – can then begin to help its rising generations to choose their paths. Such a recognition can also save higher education from trivializing itself into irrelevance.

Kevin Carey did not file a closing statement.



Image: College Students by CollegeDegrees360 / CC BY-SA 2.0

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