Thursday, May 1, 2008

What is wrong with today's undergraduates?

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.

11 comments:

Independent Accountant said...

Hooray! Thomas Sowell wrote a piece a few months ago to the effect that too many kids go to college. I agree. Logarithims. Wow! We had them in junior high school! Elasticity? Eco 103, first class in micro. Would you have the nerve to tell your college president that any kid who can't get at least 1,000 on today's "recentered" and I add dumbed down SAT, no analogies on the verbal, doesn't belong in college?

Vilfredo said...

Private universities vie for tuition money, so they clearly have no incentive to dismiss students. Faculty there face all sorts of road blocks when they want to fail a student. And students recognize that they cannot be failed.

State universities have other priorities than raising tuition, as they receive an allocation directly from the state. However, that has been declining and they are also seeking more money from tuition. In addition, states press their universities hard for high graduation rates, which again plays against failing students that should fail.

Clearly money is the root of the problem.

undergraduate student said...

I am a student, and I cannot agree more. Some of my fellow students are absolutely pathetic, yet they will graduate with the same diploma as me. And in a place where class rank is not put on transcripts, this sucks big time!

Anonymous said...

Face it, a bachelor has no value. You need a graduate degree to have any reasonable shot to a job within your major. In that context, the best students should be allowed to get through the bachelor in two years, instead of boring themselves into taking worthless credits.

student said...

College is about getting some perspective and making the first step as an independent adult. Many students understand this as partying without adult supervision and having a good time. Learning is secondary. What I really do not understand is that those that pay their studies themselves with student loans do not make more of an effort to 1) finish on time, 2) get good grades, 3) choose a major that will actually allow them do pay back those loans.

zwerdlds said...

Hi,
I'm an undergraduate student as well, and while I don't get great grades, I can safely say that I am very competent with most of the material I have encountered in my economics education.

I have a strong passion for economics, and I do it well. Halfway through my BS, I added statistics and computer science minors. These are also reflective of my passions and areas of expertise, but (thankfully) the professors are much more forgiving in these classes. And I think this is interesting, considering most economics students and professors would place statistics as a comparably difficult field of study...

I think it's interesting that many economics professors recommend that a student also studies mathematics simultaneously, something that I would never have been able to endure.

I feel like I'm rambling at this point - perhaps you can see why I haven't received the marks I feel I deserve...

At any rate, I sympathize, but perhaps the appropriate action is to add more applied economics work. I have, on my own time (and entirely outside of any recommendation of any professors) been working on a statistical application that has some particularly economic uses. But this is not something I can earn credit for - in fact when I approached professors for credit on this I was rebuffed.

Suffice it to say my experience with higher education has been less than optimal. But as I said, I love economics and I will continue to study it in my own way.

At the same time, I would be reluctant to criticize undergraduates as a whole. People are not getting less intelligent, and the spread of the way of thinking that economics promotes will not hurt anyone. I understand that being a professor and seeing students do poorly would be disappointing, but that feeling is superficial and does not address the cause.

I have heard that the economics program on my campus is the most difficult and has the lowest GPA. My lust for this field and those related could not be stronger, and I will continue to study it even in the face of sentiments like yours and those of my professors (which are, by the way, very discouraging).

Economic Logician said...

Good undergraduate students can find a way to distinguish themselves within an Honors program, with a double major or with a joint BA/MA program. But this was not the point of my post.

The point is that some if not many students should not even have started college, and that colleges should have the courage to dismiss them. I agree with vilfredo that incentives are tilted against this practice. But having guidance counselors in high school stop pressing all students to go to college would be a start.

Barbie said...

Economics is hard!

Econ Prof said...

I am just as desperate. For one, we are handed in college students that are visibly ill-prepared. Also, they do not nearly put the effort required to succeed. I once failed half a class, because it really did not merit a passing grade. Imagine the storm that resulted, it went all the way to the university president. I was at fault, not the snow flakes in my class room.

But if I am alone in trying to enforce some standard, it is just suicide. We need concerted action.

frustrated said...

When I taught at an elite private university, I had to justify with a letter to the dean whenever I gave a D or F to a student. Talk about incentives to fail a student...

Anonymous said...

Economic Logician said...
"They cannot write a sentence without blatant errors."

The really funny thing is that both your preceding and following sentences had grammatical errors.

Anonymous said...
"Face it, a bachelor has no value. You need a graduate degree to have any reasonable shot to a job within your major."

You must have been a liberal arts major. Try telling someone with a B.S. in chemical engineering that his bachelor's degree has no value. He'll laugh at you.

Econ Prof said...
"I once failed half a class, because it really did not merit a passing grade."

While I do not know your particular situation, usually the professors who are strictest with grading are also the least talented with instructing.