More College Students Equals Lower Quality

A new “comprehensive study” of universities in the United Kingdom has come to the startling conclusion that the larger the number of students admitted to college, the lower their quality.

Pity the poor British professor. Once upon a time in the halcyon 1960s, his students were a privileged few, an academic elite drawn from the top 4 percent of the population. New university arrivals were literate and numerate; crimes against grammar were the exception rather than the rule.

But according to a new comprehensive survey of British university faculty and staff, all that has changed. “They [incoming freshmen] don’t know how to write essays – they just assemble bits from the Internet,” commented a disgruntled Oxford tutor. “Even the cream of candidates … do not necessarily know how to use an apostrophe,” added another.

The decline in student competence parallels a dramatic increase in British university and college enrollment over the past decade, spurred in recent years by Prime Minister Tony Blair’s push to get half of all young Britons a university degree.

It appears it is not just matriculating undergraduates who are innumerate. So long as students were being admitted on the basis of aptitude rather than social class, it is almost by definition true that admission of those previously excluded will lower the overall quality of the pool.

The more interesting observation is that there has been a decline in the upper tier candidates as well. Presuming this is actually true rather than fanciful memories of the good old days, it is a phenomenon worth exploring. If the Brits are following the example of their American cousins and mainstreaming mentally retarded and emotionally handicapped children into the classroom while at the same time making it almost impossible not to graduate high school, that might be a place worth starting.

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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. Mark says:

    Perhaps one problem that should be addressed is colleges admitting students who are in no way, shape, or form ready for college coursework. When I was in college in the mid 90’s, there were classes these students had to take before they could be admitted to English 101 or basic college algebra. Instead of these students being admitted to a 4-year college, they should go to a junior college instead where they could at least get better prepared.

  2. McGehee says:

    Mark’s recolection closely parallels my own from the late ’80s. My alma mater instituted a remedial program in high-school-level math and English because so few of their admitted freshmen were ready for what had been considered elementary-level general education courses.

    I would find it very hard to believe the momentum has turned around in the 20 years since.

  3. LJD says:

    In my school years, admitting too many students also equated to the institution not being able to provide quality education for all. In the first semester I enrolled in six units. In the second, I enrolled in nine. Both less than a full time load for a full time student. The classes were simply full, and Freshmen had no priority in registration. It was not uncommon for three times the class size to show up the first day, to get on the waiting list.

  4. legion says:

    It’s curious that people consider it fairly self-evident that seeking a greater number of applicants & students for colleges decreases the overall quality, but when this same tactic is applied to military recruiting, it’s no cause for alarm at all…

  5. LJD says:

    Has the military sought greater numbers of recruits, or are you just making that up for effect?

  6. legion says:

    Well, Congress has not yet authorized an increase in military end-strength, but the pool of applicants has certainly been expanded, and since it’s difficult to imagine an American who isn’t aware the military needs people the only way to increase the pool is to lower standards, same as the universities have.

  7. James Joyner says:


    Not sure I follow your logic. Almost all academically talented people who want to already head off to college. Conversely, the vast number of people fit for military service likely chose not to do it for a variety of reasons.

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    It continues to baffle me that universities don’t just auction off degrees. For that they wouldn’t need buildings or (sorry, James) faculty salaries.

  9. legion says:

    The article discusses the lower overall quality of incoming college students and ties it to the increased pressure to get a degree & a lowering of admissions standards to get more kids in the doors. The cause-and-effect linkage between these things is pretty self-evident – as you yourself say:

    it is almost by definition true that admission of those previously excluded will lower the overall quality of the pool.

    It’s not a perfect analogy, but nobody outside the extreme left seems to be at all concerned about military recruiting standards following the same track.

    In decades past, it was entirely possible for someone “academically talented” to have a profitable, successful career without a college degree, but that’s much more difficult these days. I don’t foresee a day when military service is tantamount to a college degree (unless we go to a draft, but that’s a completely diffrent debate…). But back in the 50s and 60s, I don’t think many people foresaw a day when you couldn’t expect more than a low-paying service industry McJob without a BS, either…

  10. LJD says:

    nobody outside the extreme left seems to be at all concerned about military recruiting standards following the same track.

    Wrong. The military cares. While some standards have adapted to modern culture, most importantly, the core values have remained.

    We should be very proud that our military can take an individual without a positive direction, and make him or her an integral part of the most lethal fighting force, and most selfless humanitarian force, on the planet.