The undergraduate crisis: grade inflation and student disengagement

Would shrinking undergrad enrolment curb the crisis or keep disadvantaged students out?


Last week, I attended the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance Partners in Education dinner. The dinner featured a discussion panel with author of "Ivory Tower Blues" James Côté, Guelph academic dishonesty researcher Julia Christensen Hughes and McMaster professor Scott Davies.

The topic of discussion was the crisis in undergraduate education stemming from student disengagement, grade inflation and academic dishonesty.

Listening, I was greatly concerned by calls for a decrease in the number of students taking general undergraduate degrees. (B.A./B.Sc)

While I completely agree that there are many students in undergraduate programs who do not belong there, I do not agree that lowering the number of students will actually do anything to solve that problem.

Christensen Hughes argued for standardized testing for university admissions (high school final exams that would be common across the entire province). This would be a great start because it would control grade inflation. It may even be the first step towards shrinking undergraduate enrolment. I would even go a step further and advocate a national standardized test similar to the American SAT.

The problem with shrinking enrolment is that fewer universities (especially among the "G-13") will bother to recruit in disadvantaged communities. The under-representation of disadvantaged groups on university campuses is finally getting attention from universities desperate to maintain their enrolment numbers and funding as the demographic of young people begins to drop off. If they had to cut their undergraduate enrolment, it makes much more economic sense to stop recruiting in disadvantaged communities where students are more likely to need student services and less likely to rent newer, more expensive residence rooms.

I believe that we need to decide the number of undergraduate spaces that will be available for direct entry from high school. (We’d also need to set a separate number aside for "mature students" and foreign credential upgrading.) Then, taking that number, evenly distribute them among high schools. A few American states have implemented quotas on admission in this manner. For example, within these states, public universities admit the top 10 per cent of students from each high school in the state. This means that the top 10% of students in a disadvantaged high school get the opportunity to pursue university, not just the 20 per cent at a better-off suburban high school.

Coincidentally, there is a lot of material in newspapers last week related to this topic.Yoni Goldstein of the National Post says the biggest mistake that Canada ever made was the funding of higher education for all. He makes some great points.

The Independent across the pond ran an article entitled University degrees are a waste of time – the damning verdict of British students. The UK government plans to have 50% of the young people studying in universities within two years. This is, naturally, decreasing the value of the undergraduate degree and causing great concern among students.

Cheating is the topic of this week’s podcast at the W.P. Casey School of Business at Arizona State University. The podcast entitled "Are Millennials Prone to Cheating to Get Ahead?" (Read the transcript, don’t bother with listening to the Podcast)

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The undergraduate crisis: grade inflation and student disengagement

  1. “The UK government plans to have 50% of the young people studying in universities within two years. This is, naturally, decreasing the value of the undergraduate degree and causing great concern among students.”

    I would be careful to say that. It could be analogous to saying: “The fact that literacy went up from 40% to 80% (in some country) decreases the value of being literate (in that country).”

    Of course, when only 40% of people are literate, the pool of jobs requiring literacy is disputed among less people, but it’s clear the country would have more prosperity with a more literate people.

    The question we should be asking is: Is an undergraduate degree really useful to the person apart from the prospect of having access to a higher-paying job (literacy obviously is)? And maybe then we should work on making the general undergrad degree more “valuable/useful in itself”.

  2. Recent research has shown that standardized testing is actually a poorer predictor of university and college success than high-school grades: http://cshe.berkeley.edu/publications/publications.php?id=265

    That aside, the entire concept labors under the assumption that only those who do well in highschool should be afforded the option of a university education. Getting the top 10% of students won’t guarantee anything. I was one of the top 10 students (never mind top 10%) of my high-school graduating year, despite having literally slept through large portions of it. Because of that, university entrance was assured. Yet because I was “naturally” bright and hadn’t learned any decent work habits or studying methods at that point, I nearly flunked out in my first year.

    At the same time, I knew a lot of people in the “barely passing high-school” range who worked like dogs to maintain that level. While I don’t know for sure, as we took separate paths after high-school, being where I am now, I imagine they would have benefited far more, and done better, at post-secondary than I did. It was only after a few years to mature that I was able to handle what university was offering and appreciate that.

    The problem isn’t that government fund post-secondary institutions, it’s that government doesn’t fund them enough so that they don’t have to rely on student enrollments to make up their budgets. After all, flunking a student out of university dries up that source of funding for the university. The higher proportion of university funding that comes from tuition, the less likely you’ll be to see the university flunking people out. Harvard and Yale have extremely prestigious reputations, for example, but that comes from their entrance requirements of old money or exceptional brightness, not necessarily from the rigor of their courses.

  3. Not to mention that university grades are a poor predictor of success in professional life, as reported by this very website earlier this year.

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