Higher Education and Lower Standards

Arnold Kling describes a situation familiar to any who have taught college courses in the past several decades:

Out of over 100 students in my class at George Mason, no more than a handful could function in any capacity in a job that required writing a memorandum. Over half of the students are utterly incompetent when it comes to grammar and syntax. They have no ability to communicate complex ideas.

Whether this was true in the days when university education was reserved for an elite few is hotly debated. Certainly, though, today’s professors spend a lot of time complaining about the preparation of their students for college and most view the secondary education system in general and our high school teachers specifically with disdain if not contempt.

Unfortunately, they help contribute to the problem, as Kling’s next sentences reveal:

Yet I do not fail these students. I feel that I must reserve my F’s for the students who do not turn in papers at all.

I fear that many of the students who pass will go on to earn Wizard-of-Oz diplomas, which signify nothing. Students will claim to be educated, but employers will know otherwise. The phenomenon of the Wizard-of-Oz diploma has discredited the college degree.

When I was teaching, I reserved my zeros for students who did not turned in papers at all. F’s were for work that I judged failed to meet the demands of the assignment commensurate with the level of advancement of the course (that is, I had lower expectations in introductory courses than for senior seminars); D’s were for poor work, C’s for mediocre, B’s for above average, and A’s for outstanding. Then again, I am no longer teaching.

Kling’s practice is much more in line with the expectations of the system, while mine amounted to tilting at windmills and was quite possibly unfair given how others were grading. Still, professors can not simultaneously give passing grades to students who fail to do college level work and then bemoan the fact that they graduate with meaningless degrees.

In a blog post pointing readers to this TCS piece, though, Kling hits the nail on the head: “My impression of George Mason is that there is a disconnect between the faculty and the admissions office. The faculty think in terms of a rigorous liberal arts education, and the admissions office takes in students who would be best served by trade schools or community colleges.” Whether that’s true in the Ivy League and other truly elite institutions, I couldn’t say. It was certainly true at the state institutions at which I taught, however.

While the classic model of a distinguished professor with leadership skills taking stewardship if his school by serving progressively as department chairman, college dean, university provost, and then president is still followed at many places, it is increasingly being replaced by a bureaucratic model where people with degrees in “Higher Education Administration” or some variant get hired on in the admissions department or some other staff function and move up the ranks to the presidency. College presidents are increasingly fundraisers with little connection with the academic life of their university.

The consequences of this are manifold but the most ironic one is that our universities are being run by the same type of people who have ruined our high schools. They infect their institutions with the mantras they learn by rote in the Schools of Education, which all agree aggregate some of the dumbest students and professors on campus.

These “educrats,” as I have dubbed them, are mostly bean counters who view students as customers to be served rather than young minds which they have been entrusted to forge. I am much less concerned that they are giving students more suited for trade school a chance at higher education than that they have set up a system where they are expected to be given a degree regardless of whether they can do the work.

The tenure and promotion process at state institutions does anything but reward rigor in teaching. Professors are “evaluated” by students, who tend to resent being challenged, preferring instead to be entertained. Further, the “publish or perish” system, where even professors teaching very heavy loads without the help of graduate assistants are expected to crank out articles for journals that few will actually read. One of the easiest ways to square that circle is to stop assigning term papers and essay exams, which are not only incredibly time consuming to grade but then require explanation and debate; it is far easier to give “objective” multiple choice exams that can be run through a mark sense reader.

Kling is right when he argues that we should deemphasize credentialing and encourage more people to bypass or postpone university education. In the meantime, however, it would be nice if professors would take back control of their institutions, boot out the educrats, and start demanding more of their students and themselves.

FILED UNDER: Education, The Presidency, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. just me says:

    I suspect in the end it is all about the money.

    Universities need tuition, therefore they need students, the more students, the more money, but you don’t keep the students if they don’t pass enough courses.

    I can say that schools (the elementary and high school type) don’t seem to put a lot of emphasis on writing, and there doesn’t seem to be much emphasis on grammar. The various state standardized tests seem to focus more on reading comprehension and vocabulary more than grammar.

    I suspect that this is a problem that is only going to get worse, rather than better.

  2. Cernig says:

    Hi James,

    Agreed, every single word. The education system here in Texas makes me cry – especially the Middle and High Schools. It’s as different from the Scottish system I grew up with as night from day.

    In what universe does it make sense for a High School senior English project to include a portion of the grade for artwork on a poster? What happened to the old-fashioned lit-crit essay, devoid of all colored pencil drawings? We appear to be trapped in the Powerpoint Age of glossed-over glossy superficialities. We’re training our brightest minds specifically to be replaceable drones in middle management.

    One thing though. By ascribing much of the problem in universities (sorry, I can’t use the word “colleges” except to describe community colleges – Brit bias) to the “educrats” you seem to be arguing contra much of the further-right received wisdom, which places the blame for falling standards on the heads of “liberal elitist academics”. Would you care to expand?

    If that is your argument, then I think you’re on the right track. After all, the established wisdom of the uber-right has always ignored the illogic of elitists working to destroy the continuation of their own future elite. It has always ignored, too, the disquieting way in which so many prominent rightwing bloggers and pundits seem to be either academics or from extremely academic backgrounds (e.g. lawyers, psychologists, economists) – which would appear to argue against the existence of a purely “liberal” academic elite on statistical grounds.

    Regards, Cernig

  3. Prof Anon says:

    Speaking as a conservative-oriented, tenured professor and one who has worked directly with administrators as president of our faculty senate, I can affirm that James is correct is laying his blame at the feet of administrators and bureaucrats. Many of them have never been in the classroom and clearly do not understand it.

    The degree to which any of the macro-level problems of higher education in this country are due to liberal academic is utter nonsense. David Horowitz and his ilk are way off base in that regard. Are there micro-level example of abuse?–yes, but that isn’t the main problem.

    Administrators say they want to focus on excellence, but are really far more concerned with student retention. Here I am talking about state-level schools. The problems at elite-level schools are linked more to the publish or perish business and TAs teaching classes.

    Now, overall we still have the best higher ed in the world, but there are clear problems that are fostered by the educrats.

  4. Herb Ely says:

    I’m reminded of a remark by a former professor (I forgot his name) that went as follows: I want a university teach my son to examine a problem, choose an appropriate method for solving it, clear explain his solution, and then test it. That is why I want him to study engineering.

  5. Anderson says:

    My university teaching was confined to freshman comp as a grad assistant, but even from that (& from being a student), JJ’s post rings 100% true.

    “Trade school” is just what colleges have become. Students go there b/c they’re told they will get a higher-paying job with a college degree.

    On this subject, I always trot out my “Plato’s Academy” bit. The model institution of learning in the West was the Academy founded by Plato.

    At the Academy, there were people who came to learn. We call them “students,” and that’s what they were called then.

    There were people who taught the students. We call them “teachers,” and that’s what they were called then.

    And, out of necessity, there were people who kept tabs on expenses, made sure there was firewood in the winter, water and food for the students and teachers, etc. We call them “administrators,” and the Greeks called them “slaves.”

    The decline of higher ed, in a nutshell!

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    Mixed feelings. Is the Peter Principle (“a distinguished professor with leadership skills taking stewardship if his school by serving progressively as department chairman, college dean, university provost, and then president”) the best model for higher education? Education at all? I know of any number of great teachers who made lousy principals. Why isn’t it a good idea for people actually to have training and expertise in the job that they’re holding rather than in some other field? Does a PhD in History (for example) really equip one to be president of a university?

    I think another problem is the quest for “relevance” that began in the late 1960’s. Institutions of higher education increasingly became mills for job training rather than places where people came to get an education.

  7. oim says:

    ACE comments are down.

    I explained like the whole thing, but it ate the comments and did this:

    Your comment submission failed for the following reasons:

    Your comment could not be submitted due to questionable content: d did

    Well, I’ll just laugh!

  8. Carter says:

    I like your grading system better than Kling’s. I think many students go above and beyond the requirements but are not rewarded for their extra work. Students who write a terrible paper in college should get an F. Students who don’t write papers should get a 0. Students who display some effort should get C/D. An average paper=B. An above average paper=A. A’s are now given out way too frequently.

  9. James Joyner says:

    Cernig: I do think the professoriate, especially at elite schools, tends to come from too narrow a worldview and that that brings with it some problems. Still, I think it’s vastly overstated.

    Dave: My view is that a college president should be the steward of the academic standards of his institution first and foremost.

    Does PhD training in history qualify one to run a university? No. Then again, neither does a PhD in education. (Indeed, I’d say the latter damned near disqualified you.) But coming up the ranks of teaching and administering academic programs gives the proper perspective and experience. A university will have dozens of department heads and numerous deans to feed into the provost ranks. And there are nation-wide searches for provosts and presidents; often for deans.

    Indeed, I’d argue that an MBA doesn’t qualify one to run a corporation. We don’t select CEOs because of their degree, although we likely wouldn’t pick one who didn’t have a business background.

  10. Tano says:

    “it would be nice if professors would take back control of their institutions, boot out the educrats, and start demanding more of their students and themselves.”

    Sure, that would be nice. But the control is in the hands of the fundraisers. Given the way that university funding is structured, how can that change? We need a vision here, not just a rant.

  11. Dave Schuler says:

    My view is that a college president should be the steward of the academic standards of his institution first and foremost.

    Indeed, that’s why the first words of my comment were “mixed feelings”. But recall my point about the Peter Principle. We’re not talking about ideal circumstances we’re talking about the real world and my experience has been that Peter Principle is one of the most durable of laws in a bureaucracy.

  12. James Joyner says:

    Dave: Sure. Then again, there’s no guarantee that someone who had been a great VP of Institutional Advancement (or whatever) will make an effective president, either. And presidents are generally hired through a national search rather than internally, so it’s not a true bureaucratic process.

  13. Wickedpinto says:

    My wretched grammar and indifferent spellling has held me back, I know that. Unfortunately since I realized that, I haven’t done anything for myself to fix it.

  14. Triumph says:

    In the meantime, however, it would be nice if professors would take back control of their institutions, boot out the educrats

    Sure–what are you calling for? Sit-ins at the administration buildings?

    This is exactly what the students and faculty at Gaudillet were trying to do a couple of months ago and you rejected their efforts.

  15. James Joyner says:


    Faculty senates should simply band together and take back control of their institutions. Tenured faculty, especially, are in a position to tell administrators to go to hell and grade as they see fit, provided that they have the support of their peers.

    Students and faculty are in entirely different positions. Faculty ARE the university; students are its purpose.

  16. Cernig says:

    Imagine applying that to non-educational entities:

    “the workers ARE the company, shareholders and investors are just its purpose…”

    “workers should simply band together and take back control of their companies.”

    Oh…and the best CEO is one who has worked on the shop floor, not the MBA who has no hands-on expoerience of what the company actually does.

    You’re a union man after all, James. And I am heartily in agreement. Congratulations!

    Regards, C

  17. ranyman says:

    Speaking of lower standards. What about the on-line degree mills. I know one person with a PhD. in religious studies from an offshore university, I think it was the University of”Bum F#ck Egypt”. I am currently working on a BS at a traditional university and my GPA is about 3.8. I hope this is from working my tail off and not the faculty passing me through the system on orders from higher up.

  18. James Joyner says:

    Cernig: A university is not a business in any meaningful sense. Professors are professionals in the same sense as physicians, providing expertise and upholding a trust. To the extent it has customers, it is society at large (or, at least their state in the case of public institutions) rather than the students.

    The only sense in which a university should treat its students as customers, rather than apprentices, is administratively. That is, they should make it as easy as possible to accomplish registration, schedule courses, pay their bills, and so forth.

  19. Cernig says:

    Speaking of lower standards. What about the on-line degree mills.

    Schools districts in Texas often pay bonuses for additional degrees. The administrators don’t always check where they come from. Many teachers were getting bonuses for degrees “earned” from online mills. In one case, the person in charge of the english curriculaum for the whole district had a bogus higher degree. She’s still in her job.

    Regards, C

  20. Cernig says:




    Regards, C