Instead of Reforming Higher Ed, Let’s Just Reform Our Expectations

About once a week or so, I ask my students to write for five minutes, telling me what terms and ideas they’ve mastered and what they still don’t understand about the course material. It’s a nice little exercise because the first half makes me feel good about myself and the second half tells me what issues we need to revisit. After we review the trouble spots the next class, I follow up by asking the students to tell me what they can do to improve their performance in the class. I like this question even more than the first two because it reminds the students they bear a significant responsibility for their own learning, something they need to hear more often in college.

What is notable about the responses are the number of students who tell me they haven’t been reading the material, haven’t studied, or need to improve their attendance. Each semester, I hear inventive excuses (“I’m still transitioning to the 8 am class time” is my current favorite) and students who think that owning up to their own incompetence or laziness is somehow noble and excuses them from taking care of their business. (“I’ve just been really, really busy lately with my other classes so I know it’s my fault I’m not doing well in here.” Trust me, I tell them, I wasn’t blaming myself for your F.)

While the excuses change each semester, the simple reality is that in any class I teach, about 25% of the students are poorly prepared on any given day of class. By the end of the semester, I will lose around 10% of the students to either apathy, withdrawal, or failure. These numbers have been the same for 17 years and I suspect they will remain about the same for the next 17 years.

Understand that I’m not interested in blaming students or attacking them, but I think we need to accept some inevitable realities when we talk about educational reform at the university level.

First and foremost, we must recognize that some students don’t like school, will never like school, and we should stop expecting them to like school.

Exhibit A might be the student who wrote “You tell me” to my question about what he might do to improve his performance in the class. He added that “I’m not trying to be rude, but” he’d been in school for 6 years, hadn’t had a good experience in college, and just wanted to graduate. I looked him up. He had a 2.019 GPA.

Exhibit B might be the student who told me during a student conference that he really likes to work with his hands and has a difficult time sitting still, reading book chapters, and focusing during exams. He was failing every class at the time we met.

And, by the way, that’s okay. (Not liking school. The whole failing thing was problematic.)

I don’t like working on cars. Or framing houses. Or running electrical wire. Or biology. If I went home tomorrow and told my wife I was quitting my job so I could go work at Tom’s Tire World, she’d probably wonder if I’d been playing with the kid’s glue sticks. Again.

Generally, these kinds of students aren’t being rude or disrespectful. They have other things they want to do with their life but they are in college because everyone keeps telling them they have to be here if they want to get a good job and make money, further evidence we really need a national conversation on the difference between correlation and causation.

Quite honestly, I’ve had those same kinds of kids for 17 years, and I suspect I will have them for the next 17 years.

The ugly reality is that no amount of educational reform will change the fact that some kids like college, some kids are willing to endure college, and some kids don’t belong in college.

I fully realize that the current political push to “reform” higher education is being driven by the out-sized debt saddling too many college graduates (and non-graduates). That debt is, as many “reformers” point out, caused by rising tuition prices and graduates with no demonstrable gains in skills and critical thinking abilities.

In other words, at the heart of calls for reform is a sense that students aren’t getting their money’s worth.

Of course, tuition isn’t technically rising: schools have simply been forced to pass more and more of the actual costs of higher education on to what our legislators and administrators call our “consumers.” As Jordan Weissmann pointed out last March, deeper budget cuts . . . generally correlate with bigger tuition increases. In essence, states have made a conscious decision to pass more of the cost of higher education on to students and parents. In the great state of Texas, our legislature decided to deregulate tuition, allowing in essence, state schools to work on a free market principle and then, as often happens when unqualified people make poor decisions, they were shocked when universities started charging enough money to keep the lights on and compete in the open market for “consumers.”

Trust me when I say that I fully agree that the explosion of apartment-style dorms, climbing walls, more and more student life personnel, turf on inter-mural fields, and student leisure pools is ridiculous. I’m ethically offended by faculty members who inflate grades, even though I fully understand the impulse to disregard strict grading standards in an environment where students are consumers, empowered by evaluations, and willing to litigate since “they pay our salaries.” At some schools, retention is just another word for everyone gets an A.

But, in our defense, more and more students choose a school based on those kinds of amenities and if states require that we generate our own income by attracting consumers, we must attract consumers. Eighteen year olds aren’t choosing colleges because of the number of PhDs teaching freshman composition classes.  The problem, as others have argued so much more eloquently than me, is that education is not a commodity or a consumer product.

If I go to The Palm every day and order $200 worth of food I never eat, charge the meal to my credit card, and then find myself saddled with $10,000 in debt even though I’m still hungry, no one blames The Palm. Nor should we.

I trust you are all smart enough to see the analogy I’m creating here and wondering why we keep blaming universities if students are sitting at the table and not eating.

The problem with higher education isn’t necessarily higher education. Certainly, we should always be looking for better ways to teach, research, and serve. Universities should explore opportunities to be more effective and offer the best education possible.

But America didn’t create the greatest system of higher education in the world by expecting that every student who enrolled in a university would pass and graduate.

We developed a great system because we realized that the ability to dedicate yourself to four years of higher education showed the kind of discipline necessary for certain types of employment. At one point, we also had enough common sense as a country to realize that not all jobs required four years of higher education because different people had different talents and skills. Most importantly, some jobs require experiential knowledge and some require the kind of “book learning” we offer when you sit in the classroom. Both of those things are valuable and necessary parts of the American economy.

Please understand that I’m not proposing we limit access to higher education. Throw open the doors. Hell, tear the doors off the jambs as far as I’m concerned. I would love if my university were an open access school that provided as many opportunities as possible to interested and engaged students. Heck, let the unengaged and unsure ones in also. I’m fine if they want to take us for a test spin.

But stop blaming the professor if the student is stays disengaged and uninterested.

But most important, let’s stop telling every student in America that college is the only path to a successful and profitable career.

Instead, next time we talk about higher education reform, let’s consider reforming our expectations instead of universities.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

5 Responses to Instead of Reforming Higher Ed, Let’s Just Reform Our Expectations

  1. Suzanne says:

    The problem well analyzed here is seen in spades at the high-school level, where I teach.

    We are being given the message that students ‘need’ to go to college in ever-greater numbers, and so we have to get more and more of them through (indeed, our school is judged on its graduation rate(s)–plural, because the different ethnic, etc., cohorts are tracked on this).

    As anyone can see, less and less is expected of students: teachers assign less, ‘cover’ less, expect less…. I can’t speak for the math and science courses, mostly because I didn’t do anything more than the absolute minimum in them when I was in school myself; but I am pretty well informed about the humanities side.

    I graduated from high school in 1975, and something came in right before the end–something called “objectives,” which seemed at the time to be pointlessly restated platitudes about what ‘students should be able to do’ (not, of course, “know”) at the end of the instructional period–and a lot of us felt that there was a heck of a lot of mickey mouse being introduced into the already rather easy courses. None of this stopped one from investing heavily in actually learning as much as possible about one or more of the subjects; I’m grateful to a couple of truly inspirational teachers who challenged and encouraged me.

    But the amount of reading and writing that students have been expected to do in English, history, and language classes since that time has gone way down, as I’ve seen in my children’s education and in the way I teach (stuff we learned in Latin 1 is now part of Latin 2, and on down the line; even the vaunted AP curriculum doesn’t cover as much actual Latin reading as we did in our humble, non-AP Latin 3 class years ago).

    To me, as a teacher, it’s rewarding when any of my students figures out what’s needed to help him or her to succeed. I don’t think it’s true, by the way, that the top students will succeed no matter what: if the school climate has been dumbed down as far as it currently is, many of the top students get the seductive message that whatever they write down or ‘spit out’ is more than adequate, and this encourages them to believe in an over-inflated estimate of their ‘genius’. Much better that they should learn to work a little!

    • John Wegner says:


      Thanks for the insightful comments. With one child still in high school (and one recently graduated), I completely agree that we are witnessing a continual focus on objectives, what you so rightly predicted back in the beginning as “pointlessly restated platitudes.” Things certainly aren’t getting better because of those objectives. Point well taken about the good students. I tell my first year students all the time that too much self-esteem is just as dangerous as too little.

  2. Kevin says:

    I just spent the last hour trying to track down that Kant quote. No luck. I’ll let you know if I find it. In the meantime, I’ll keep attributing the idea to Kant; no one understands his writings well enough to confirm or dispute it. 🙂

  3. John Wegner says:

    Hey, Kevin:
    Thanks for the comment. I wouldn’t mind seeing that Kant quote, mostly so I could put him in the blog somewhere. I need all the help I can get sounding smart.
    I agree, of course, and to my mind higher education is making some fundamental and far reaching decisions that will negatively impact students that mass in the middle you mention. The fastest rising costs at most universities are in the student life realm. We hire more and more people to deal with increasingly small, specialized populations while the math department needs two more faculty just to offer classes. It’s a crazy world.

  4. Kevin says:

    Beautifully written, John. And I agree.

    I read several years back (and I’ve never been able to track it back down) that Kant said there are three types of students: the ones who were going to do well; the ones who were going to fail; and the ones in between. And for Kant, the ones who were going to do well didn’t need help; the ones who were going to fail wouldn’t accept help; and the ones in between are the ones he wanted to spend his time helping.

    I tend to agree with him. In the last 3 years, I’ve tracked grades for all of my classes, and the number of A’s and the number of F’s given are almost identical – around 20% for both. That middle 60% is the population I want to reach – to encourage that one kid to go to grad school when no one else had ever told her that she could; to help the C student earn a B; to hear that the quiet student in the back of the room learned a new software program because he wanted to do a better job on the design of one of his tech writing assignments.

    We do ourselves and our students a disservice when the 10% or 20% dictate what we do for the other 80% or 90%, just so that we can increase our retention rates while trying to please ALL the “consumers” and administrators.

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