Wanted: Students Who Want to Learn

In their seminal book “Academically Adrift,” authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa bring to light an alarming trend in higher education known as the art of college management. The term denotes the increasing number of students who prioritize earning a degree over genuine learning, focusing solely on the fastest and easiest route through the college curriculum.

In our fast-paced, competitive world, the pressure to obtain a college degree is immense. Students often believe that a degree is the ticket to a successful future, promising improved job prospects and increased earning potential. As a result, many students view their college experience as a transaction, seeing education merely as a stepping stone to their chosen career.

This perspective has led to the art of college management becoming a strategic approach for a significant number of students. Instead of seizing the opportunity for intellectual growth, these students perceive education as a checklist to be completed. Their priority is to choose the easiest courses, meet the minimum requirements, and satisfy the prerequisites to graduate as swiftly as possible.

I can speak to this issue with authority, as I was one of these students. My goal in college was to become a lawyer. My undergraduate degree was merely a credential required to enter law school. Consequently, I enrolled in numerous courses known for being “easy As.” I’m still unsure of the learning objectives of my “Linguistics” class, but I remember the professor being a very accommodating gentleman.

Looking back, I realize I squandered the opportunity to learn from some exceptional professors.

This mindset can negatively impact the quality of education and the individual’s long-term success. By focusing on shortcuts and easy wins, students miss out on deeply engaging with the subject matter and developing critical thinking and analytical skills that are vital for personal and professional growth. They might graduate with a degree but lack the essential knowledge and skills necessary to excel in their chosen field.

This approach also perpetuates credentialism, reducing the value of a degree to a mere certificate, rather than a testament to the individual’s intellectual capabilities and acquired knowledge. Employers may also question the true competencies of graduates who have only focused on ticking off boxes without truly immersing themselves in their chosen field of study.

The art of college management raises critical questions about the purpose of higher education. Should the primary goal be acquiring a degree, or should it foster a love for learning, intellectual curiosity, and critical thinking? By prioritizing the former, we risk undermining the transformative power of education and its potential to shape informed, engaged, and well-rounded citizens.

In some instances, faculty and administrators, driven by the need to maintain enrollment and tuition dollars, have enabled students practicing the art of college management by purposefully inflating grades and sidelining academic rigor.

The results of a study published in the journal Higher Education Politics & Economics are startling:

• Forty-eight percent of tenured faculty agree that grade inflation is a serious issue, compared to 21 percent who disagree.

• Forty-seven percent agree that academic standards have declined in recent years, compared to 27 percent who disagree.

• Thirty-seven percent admit to routinely inflating grades.

• Thirty-three percent confess to reducing their courses’ rigor over the years.

• Twenty-three percent sometimes feel that the four-year liberal arts degree is a “grift.”

To address this issue, colleges and universities should reassess their approach to student recruitment. Instead of pursuing enrollment, colleges should concentrate on recruiting students who are motivated to learn and capable of performing at the college level, irrespective of their high school grades. Additionally, students should have exhibited a willingness to work hard and a mature, responsible approach to their education.

Once, I advised our coaches that their first question to every recruit should be, “Are you coming to college to learn?” This question should be on every college application.

This form of “selective” admissions, based on potential and not just high school grades, would likely result in fewer students in college for the credential alone, and higher retention and graduation rates. Students genuinely interested in learning and having the capability to succeed would be more likely to persist in college and complete their degrees.

While this form of selective admissions would undoubtedly present challenges, it also holds the potential to create a more equitable and effective higher education system. Colleges may have to right size their faculty and staff to reflect a lower, but more academically centered, student body. They may also acquire an enhanced reputation for academics and become a magnet to highly motivated students. In that case, they could grow. But, by focusing on student potential rather than past performance, colleges can ensure all students have the opportunity to succeed, irrespective of their background or previous educational experiences.

State higher education policymakers and governing boards at both public and private institutions can encourage universities to uphold the real purpose of attending college by demanding accountability for academic rigor, including grades that genuinely represent a student’s capabilities.

In conclusion, it is vital for students to understand that the value of a college education extends well beyond merely obtaining a degree. By embracing the true purpose of higher education and fully immersing themselves in the learning process, they can unlock a world of personal growth, intellectual fulfillment, and endless future possibilities.

Wanted: Students who want to learn – by Robin Capehart (substack.com)

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