Student choice, employment skills, and grade inflation

Edward Tenner’s Atlantic post asks, “Should We Blame the Colleges for High Unemployment?” and mostly doesn’t answer the question, instead focusing on employer hiring behavior. But I’m interested in the title question and would note that the original story says, “Fundamentally, students aren’t learning [in college] what they need to compete for the jobs that do exist.”

That may be true. But colleges and universities, whatever their rhetoric, aren’t bastions of pure idealistic knowledge; they’re also businesses, and they respond to customer demand. In other words, student demand. Students choose their own major, and it isn’t exactly news that engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians, and the like tend to make much more money than other majors, or that people in those disciplines are much more likely to find jobs. Students, however, by and large don’t choose them: they choose business, communications (“comm” for the university set), and sociology—all majors that, in most forms in most places, aren’t terribly demanding. I’ve yet to hear an electrical engineering major say that comm was just too hard, so she switched to engineering instead. As Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa show in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, those majors aren’t, on average, very hard either, and they don’t impart much improvement in verbal or math skills. So what gives?

The easiest answer seems like the most right one: students aren’t going to universities primarily to get job skills. They’re going for other reasons: signaling; credentialing; a four-year party; to have fun; choose your reason here. And universities, eager for tuition dollars, will cater to those students—and to students who demand intellectual rigor. The former get business degrees and comm, while the latter get the harder parts of the humanities (like philosophy), the social sciences (like econ), or the hard sciences. It’s much easier to bash universities, with the implication of elaborately educated dons letting their product being watered down or failing, than it is to realize that universities are reacting to incentives, just as it’s much easier to bash weak politicians than it is to acknowledge that politicians give voters what they want—and voters want higher services and lower taxes, without wanting to pay for them. Then people paying attention to universities or politics notice, write articles and posts pointing out the contradiction, but fail to realize the contradiction exists.

You may also notice that most people don’t appear to choose schools based on academics. They choose schools based on proximity, or because their sports teams are popular. Indeed, another Atlantic blogger points out that “Teenagers [. . .] are apt to assemble lists of favored colleges through highly non-scientific methods involving innuendo, the results of televised football games, and what their friend’s older brother’s girlfriend said that one time at the mall.” Murray Sperber especially emphasizes sports in his book Beer and Circus: How Big-Time Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education.

By the way, this does bother me at least somewhat, and I’d like to imagine that universities are going to nobly hold the line against grade and credential inflation, against the desires of the people attending them. But I can also recognize the gap between my ideal world and the real world. I’m especially cognizant of the issue because student demand for English literature courses has held constant for decades, as Louis Menand says in The Marketplace of Ideas:

In 1970–71, English departments awarded 64,342 bachelor’s degrees; that represented 7.6 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, including those awarded in non-liberal arts fields, such as business. The only liberal arts category that awarded more degrees than English was history and social science, a category that combines several disciplines. Thirty years later, in 2000–01, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in all fields was 50 percent higher than in 1970–71, but the number of degrees in English was down both in absolute numbers—from 64,342 to 51,419—and as a percentage of all bachelor’s degrees, from 7.6 percent to around 4 percent.

Damn. Students, for whatever reason, don’t want English degrees as much as they once did. As a person engaged in English Literature grad school, this might make me unhappy, and I might argue for the importance of English lit. Still, I can’t deny that more people apparently want business degrees than English degrees, even if Academically Adrift demonstrates that humanities degrees actually impart critical thinking and other kinds of skills. I could blame “colleges” for this, as Tenner does; or I could acknowledge that colleges are reflecting demand, and the real issue isn’t with colleges—it’s with the students themselves.

One response

  1. I agree that universities are catering to student pressure, but I don’t see how you can write on this topic without mentioning professional schools.

    CS and Engineering are, for purposes of employment, effectively terminal degrees. You get your BS and go to work. Most employers are not that interested in your grades beyond a minimum bar – they like to see other examples of prepardness like classroom work (show me something you built, developed, etc). As a result, grade inflation pressure is less, and classroom work more rigorous to give students those “real life” examples.

    A large number of business majors, on the other hand, go get an MBA. Same with Comms, except more of those go for a JD. I have heard anecdotally (no data to back it up) that 50% of Political Science grads (my own major) go on to law school. Sure enough, I’m a lawyer. If your goal is not to get a job but to get into a good professional school then academic rigor and job prepardness are less important and grades are extremely important. This results in extensive grade inflation which creates the appearance of a less meaningful academic experience (and, for some, allows for more time to party it up).

    Of course, there are degrees (Art History comes to mind) that are definitely less likely to improve your hiring prospects – and most people know that. This is why they tend to have a few people full of passion, some trust fund kids, and (realistically) a lot more woman, many of whom are getting their MRS degree. These are not usually the Business, Comms, Sociology students though.

    (Biological sciences are a weird hybrid, with OChem weeding a lot of people out and the rest being divided between those going onto being MDs and those who will end with their bachelors and go work in Biotech. The presence of a viable backup to professional school and the need to differentiate between the two I suspect keeps the grade inflation down.)

    As for the future business leaders and lawyers, you can’t really blame us for a system that requires us to get an advanced degree to be economically competitive. Perhaps law should do what the Europeans do and move to bachelors of law model. Either way, though, those Comm/Business students are just optimizing their chances in a system that prior generations created.

    Two additional points:

    – I also take criticism at your statement that students should not be choosing schools based on proximity. For many students (particularly in big states like CA or TX), proximity means significant cost savings through in-state tuition, proximity to your support network (aka Parents, etc), and access to your future job network. Less true in hard sciences, but most people get a first job through knowing people (or their parents knowing someone), and the second job leads from the first. A certain amount of moving around is naturaal as one’s career progresses, but best to start out in the place you intend to go on. There will alway be a special spot for Top 25 school, and particularly for Top 10 schools, but setting those aside I’d much rather hire a graduate from our local state university than from a state university on the other side of country even if it was 20 places or more higher in US News.

    – One other thing I would say – particularly for business students – is that an “easier” major is often a cover for other things. My easy college major allowed me to work 40+ hours a week while in college, and that got me my first job out of college. There are a lot of jobs out there that require a bachelors as a litmus test but really what they want is industry experience. If one of those jobs is your goal then you are better off minimizing your “college time” and instead focus on a job during college (obviously I’m not talking about working at the student store , I’m talking about more of an internship situation).

    Lastly, one thing I will say as an employer is the quality of students coming out, overall, seems pretty low to me (or maybe I’m just getting old). CS students and Engineers that can’t write, communicate, or collaborate, and liberal arts students that know nothing about statistics (read: metrics), and technology (which, these days, underpins every business decision or activity no matter what your role). And way too few independent thinkers, self motivated individuals, or people who have the right prior experience. I’m probably just getting old.

    So I agree with you that a lot of the blame goes to the students, but if your solution (it was a bit unclear) is to encourage more students into “harder” academic disciplines then that seems a bit simplistic.


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