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Esther Cepeda: Judge students by their grades

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Esther Cepeda
May 28, 2014

CHICAGO -- If it’s true that America’s No. 1 driver of inequality is the successful completion of college, as Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor David Autor and others have suggested, then why is no one paying attention to student efforts in the college success equation?

 Autor recently told the MIT news service, reporting on his recent article about inequality in the journal Science, “If you had to give a person a single piece of economic advice, it would not be: Act like Gatsby and try to get into the top 1 percent. It would be: Go get a college education at a decent school.”

 The so-called decent schools in this country are often the ones that expect a lot from students: high grades and test scores to get in and the determination to master high-level academic course work.

 But our higher education system is inherently unequal in that even though there is much focus on a graduate’s success—as measured by employment in the field of study—there is no spotlight on academic rigor or student decisions such as degree selection, study time, persistence and achievement. In other words, if the student doesn’t thrive after graduating, it is automatically the fault of the degree-granting institution.

 The Obama administration is trying to ensure that college is more accessible and offers positive outcomes to a diverse population of students. It wants to develop a rating system that will help students and parents choose schools based on how many of their students graduate, how much debt they take on in the process, and their incomes after graduation. High-performing institutions would get more federal student loan and grant money while schools that underperform would get less.

 Such a rating system, however, upends the very notion of higher education by reducing its evaluation to terms better suited to job training programs.

 How, exactly, does one fairly judge the financial efficacy of the undergraduate degree in history, literature, political science or philosophy if in some cases it leads to a postgraduate degree in math, medicine or law while in others it leads to employment at a fast-food restaurant?

 More important, what is the role of student efforts in these outcomes?

 Since their 2011 report “Academically Adrift,” sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa have been beating the drum concerning lax educational efforts on the part of America’s colleges and their students. Their research found low academic rigor—and subsequently low student effort—and rampant grade inflation.

 About 32 percent of students each semester do not take any courses with more than 40 pages of reading assigned a week, and half don’t take a single course in which they must write more than 20 pages over the course of a semester. The authors noted that students spend only about 12 to 14 hours a week studying, mostly in groups.

 To put this number in perspective, they cited surveys from the 1920s through the 1960s showing that full-time college students used to spend nearly 40 hours a week in class and studying.

 But no one seems to be listening to Arum and Roksa. We freely criticize colleges for costing too much and offering courses that don’t lead directly to jobs, but no one seems to care how much effort must be put into the task of completing a well-rounded education.

 How much do we value academic rigor and student effort in post-secondary education in this country? From July 1, 2011, to June 30, 2012, our biggest national college funding program, Pell Grants, provided $33.6 billion to students—not a penny of which was disbursed with an eye toward our only real measure of student educational effort: grades.

 Grades—a far better predictor of college success than standardized test scores in mid- to high-performing high schools—aren’t taken into account in awarding Pell grants, and there is no minimum grade-point average necessary to keep receiving the awards throughout college.

 We should consider a rating system in which universities are compared fairly—with nonselective schools grouped together and highly selective schools grouped with institutions serving similar student bodies.

 And it should not only quantify graduation rates and post-graduate employment, but also illustrate how hard students had to work to earn their grades and, ultimately, their degree.

Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.



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