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Education in Crisis

Gutting Higher Ed through the “Completion Agenda”

by ANTHONY DiMAGGIO

“Pride no longer has definition.  Everybody wears it, it always fits”

– Fugazi, In on the Kill Taker (1993)

In a somewhat comical twist, the Harvard Crimson student newspaper reported last December how farcical the university’s standards were with regard to grade inflation.  Apparently the median grade at the institution was an “A-,” while the most frequently awarded grade was a straight “A.”  Who cares what some Ivy League institution does with regard to grade padding, you might ask?  I don’t profess to be all that interested in this “scandal” in its own right.  I’ve always held contempt for Ivy League-snobs and elitists.  Nonetheless, the story strikes a chord because of its symbolic value for higher education.

The United States is dealing with a crisis in higher education.  The system no longer functions properly – if it ever did – and grade inflation is merely one of many fronts in the higher ed. meltdown.  To put it bluntly, higher education has abandoned academic standards.   It’s a problem I have experience with in a variety of college settings.  Grade inflation by itself is not the main issue.  The real problem is the single-minded pursuit of a larger national agenda to graduate as many students as possible and turn colleges and universities into diploma factories in service of the neoliberal economy.  This pursuit contributes to the death of critical thought among students and faculty.

In his new book, Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education, Henry Giroux insightfully warns Americans about an educational system that promotes a “culture of idiocy and illiteracy” that’s fueled in large part by the “corporatization of the university.”  Colleges and universities, Giroux explains, foster “a mode of public pedagogy that privileges the entrepreneurial subject while encouraging a value system that promotes self-interest, if not an unchecked selfishness.”  Giroux’s attacks on higher education will be met by nods among those fighting on the frontlines against efforts to lobotomize college classrooms and transform campuses into vocational facilities that pump out new units (a.k.a. “graduates”).

Consider some of the recent evidence for the decline in academic standards.  In the early 1960s, full-time college students spent 40 hours per week on their academic activities – including class attendance, homework, studying, and writing.  By the 2000s, the number had declined to 27 hours for full-time students – a reduction of 33 percent.  Similarly, the time spent studying decreased from 25 hours in 1961 to 13 hours in 2003, a reduction of nearly 50 percent.  Today, many students expect classes with little reading, as a third of social science students who are surveyed avoid classes with more than 40 pages of reading per week.

The decline of standards is accompanied by incredible grade inflation.  Recent research on American grades found that a massive easing of standards took place across hundreds of colleges and universities in the last 50 years.  About 15 percent of all grades were “A”s in the 1940s and 1950s, while about a third of grades were “B”s, a third were “C”s, and about 20 percent were “D”s of “F”s.  By the late 2000s, the percentage of “A”s was nearly 45 percent, “B”s were 30 percent, and “Cs” were 15 percent.  Just 10 percent of grades were “D”s or “F”s.

Why such a huge decline in standards across the board?  At least three factors were at play.  The first is that students developed a sense of entitlement, where “A”s and “B”s are now considered the standard grades.  When students pay between $20-30,000 a year for cost of attending a public university, students expect this huge financial burden to translate into a degree that makes them desirable applicants on the job market.  Understandably, no one wants to pay a small fortune for mediocre to poor grades.

Second, administrators across the country signed onto a “completion” agenda – widely discussed and celebrated across the U.S. by political officials – in which the granting of more bachelor’s and associate’s degrees is automatically associated with increased “success.”  This mode of thinking, while only recently branded as the completion agenda, has been prevalent in higher ed. for decades.  This agenda has meant the decline of educational quality.  But even if the granting of degrees is associated with a massive decline in standards and quality, few administrators or politicians take notice, since the completion goal is achieved on paper.  It’s easy to ignore declining quality when those celebrating the completion agenda know nothing about teaching or critical thinking.

Finally, professors predictably responded to being sandwiched by administrative and student pressures by rigging the rules of the game in favor of the appearance of excellence.  With more than half of professors today lacking the security of tenure or tenure track jobs, many teachers are more apprehensive Giroux_Warthan ever about the stigma inevitably produced by negative student evaluations after one gives out lower grades than faculty peers.  Students quickly figure out who the “hard” and “easy” teachers are by word of mouth.  And there is a well-known correlation in academia between grade inflation and positive student evaluations, so professors (especially those lacking full job security) become reluctant to “come down too hard” on students when it comes to having expectations.

The completion agenda carries with it toxic effects.  Schools service the corporate sector by churning out certificates and degrees, even if it’s at the expense of critical thought and meaningful learning.  Many classes devolve into little more than teaching to the test, in the most extreme cases with the use of “study guides” that provide students the actual questions and answers that later appear on exams.  The thinking is that this cookie-cutter approach will lead to higher student performance in terms of preparing students to engage in rote memorization needed for multiple choice exams.  And if the “proper” grade distribution is not achieved in these tests (due to lack of student effort in memorizing), there’s always the infamous “curve” that’s used to inflate exam results.  Sadly, the obsession with standardized testing leads to the undervaluing of higher forms of learning, such as in-class engagement (via reading and discussion) and the development of critical thought via writing.

From my experiences, much of the push to gut standards comes from administration, although the primary dirty work is done by students at higher prestige institutions.  At private-colleges, and increasingly at public universities, students may quickly turn on a teacher if they’re perceived as having high expectations.  For example, at one selective liberal arts college where I taught, I received written student evaluations at semester’s end complaining about an “unfair” work load from every single student in an upper-division undergraduate presidency course.  The anger was driven by my requirement that students read 75-100 pages a week for a ten-week course.  Such averages were the norm for upper-division courses when I was a student, but with the decline of standards this is now seen as unacceptable.  When I asked students (the subsequent semester) what a “normal” reading load at this school looked like for undergrads based on courses they had previously taken, they cited 25 to no more than 50 pages a week per class, or a total of just 100-200 pages for students taking a full-time, 4-course load.

At lower-tier, less prestigious schools, the pressure to gut standards often comes directly from administration.  These institutions are often comprised of students with a lower sense of entitlement due their lower to working class backgrounds, and the relatively low cost of tuition compared to elite schools.  Poorly performing students at these schools often fail to voice disapproval on student evaluations, because they have either dropped the class by eval day or been withdrawn by the instructor.  At these institutions, however, an almost pathological obsession with completion drives administrators.  At one college in Chicago, a colleague of mine complained about the college’s president, who lectured the entire faculty body about the administration’s displeasure with professors who claimed that students are free to succeed or fail.  This administrator reminded faculty that teachers should no longer speak of the freedom to fail with regard to student performance.  This kind of language is increasingly common among college administrators, and pressures teachers to artificially inflate grades.  I don’t solely blame these administrators for pushing the completion agenda.  They’re merely one cog in a larger system that’s driven by state and national government entities pushing for higher graduation rates.

The top-down administrative pressure certainly shows in terms of student grades.  At one institution I was affiliated with, grades during the 2000s and early 2010s across the school averaged nearly 3/4ths “A”s, “B”s and “C”s, while less than a quarter of students received “Ds,”   “Fs,” or course withdrawals.  This distribution was particularly astonishing to me and a few colleagues, considering that the “D,” “F” and student “withdrawal” rate for our classes reached nearly half of all students that were enrolled.  Having interacted daily with a student body in which nearly half of the students refused to regularly attend class, study for exams, or complete homework/quizzes (sometimes all of the above), we were disheartened by the school’s overall level of grade inflation.  Based on our experiences with students, the A-B-C ratio granted by the institution was 20-25 percentage points higher than it should have been.  In light of such inflation, it was obnoxious to hear administrators continue to drone on about how the school was still “failing” to adequately serve the student population, and how we needed to “do more” to start helping students “succeed.”

In my estimation, the most problematic thing about the completion agenda is the failure to understand that the freedom to succeed is meaningless without the freedom to fail.  Success cannot exist in a vacuum.  No teachers I know celebrate students’ “freedom to fail,” but they certainly recognize that “A”s mean nothing without the occurrence of failure.  In any endeavor in life, one must fail at some point to appreciate the value of success.

In their book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa discuss the “logic” driving the neoliberalization and gutting of higher ed standards.  “A market-based logic,” they argue, “encourages students to focus on its [education’s] instrumental value – that is, as a credential – and to ignore its academic meaning and moral character.”  I wholeheartedly agree.  The neoliberal model treats teachers and students as automatons – as nothing more than “customers” and “sellers” in a “transaction” aimed at conferring “a degree.”  Teachers mechanistically grant this degree, and students pay for that benefit to procure a job, and what they hope is a ticket into the middle class.

I’m old enough that I still remember a time in higher ed when going to class was about more than simply getting a degree, a job, and a paycheck.  Colleges and universities were seen by my friends and I as a place to learn how to think critically – a skill that would translate into a lifelong advantage in not just occupational, but civic settings.  I don’t want to romanticize the system of higher education that existed in decades past (grade inflation was a problem in previous decades too), but it seems clear that the completion agenda is escalating the attack on meaningful learning and critical thought.  With the federal government now tying student loans to the completion rates of schools (for example, imposing a specific timeline for completion of degrees for students to be eligible for financial aid), the completion agenda will only intensify in the future.

To end higher ed’s race to the bottom, major change is needed.  Professors need to pressure schools to increase tenure protections and tenure appointments, so that teachers are free to give students grades they deserve.  Higher ed institutions need to provide more affordable degrees, so that the financial stakes involved in failing are not so devastating when students do not perform up to expectations.  Finally, faculty and parents need to send a message to administrators and political officials that education is not for sale, and that serious academic standards must be adopted in higher ed.  Without these changes, colleges and universities will remain academically adrift.

Anthony DiMaggio holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Illinois, Chicago. He has taught U.S. and global politics at numerous colleges and universities, and written numerous books, including Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2009), When Media Goes to War (2010), Crashing the Tea Party (2011), and The Rise of the Tea Party (2011). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com.