Exams are coming up, and so is the predictable disappointment at the students' performance. Not all students, of course, but there is always a significant part of the class that just does not get it. And from what I hear, this is not limited to Economics classes.
Juniors do not understand the concept of substitution, of elasticity or of indifference curves. Seniors cannot compute growth rates or grasps what a logarithm means. They cannot write a sentence without blatant errors. And the list goes on, and is not limited to my classes or my current campus.
I have not analyzed this deeply, but my take on this problem is the following. Many students lack motivation, basic skills and perseverance. They do not know how to organize their time, how to take notes, how to determine what is important and where to put the effort. Many of them are not at the right place: they do not really know what they want to study, or were kicked out of the business school. I dare even to say they should not even be on a college campus.
I was thinking about posting this rant for some time. Conveniently, the Chronicle of Higher Education just posted an article echoing my sentiment. Those low performing students have typically also been low performing in high school, and they will end up working in jobs that do not require a university education anyway (my plumber has a degree from a flagship state university). Even worse, these students most likely do not get financial aid, and thus will leave campus (with a degree or not) heavily in debt and with little capacity to reimburse.
So, what are universities to do? First, admit drastically fewer students. The goal here is to improve the quality of the marginal student and obtain a more even distribution of entering skills. Second, have the guts to fail students, and fail them early. A degree should indicative of competences, not of a willingness to pay. The goal should not be high graduation rates, which give the wrong incentives to students. Third, reduce on-campus housing, which nowadays is just a pretext for continuous partying and slacking.
But foremost, the myth that everybody needs a college education needs to be killed.