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.

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