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GUNDERMAN: Killing higher education by degrees

March 26, 2016

viewpoint-gunderman-richard.jpgSome speak of colleges and universities as though they were factories churning out widgets, but an efficiency-focused educational policy can quickly prove counterproductive.

A professor colleague told me of one student who transferred into her third year at a university from a local community college. Now enrolled in her first semester at a four-year institution, she was at risk of failing his course.

So he met with her regularly throughout the remainder of the semester, and with extra counseling and hard work, she did earn a passing grade: C-.

Curious about how she had performed at the community college, whose credits the four-year institution is required to accept, the instructor discovered a record of straight A’s.

How could this be? He surmised that, in the community college’s culture, attending class faithfully, submitting assignments on time, and exhibiting a high level of enthusiasm for learning are sufficient to earn top marks. Yet from his point of view as chairman of his department, this student was utterly unprepared for her junior year of college.

This problem is not unique. Across the country, only 20 percent of students at two-year institutions graduate in two years, and only 39 percent graduate in six years. Though Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College ranks first in the nation in number of associate’s degrees it awards, only 4 percent of its students graduate in two years and only 23 percent in six years.

Some see such results as a sure sign money is being wasted. But the real story is far more complex.

For one thing, community colleges typically attract less academically prepared and capable students, for whom classroom learning does not come as easily as it does for students at four-year institutions. Greater proportions of community college students also face challenges outside the classroom, such as the need to work while in school, complex family life, and the challenges of being a first-generation college student.

Yet the students are only part of the story.

For one thing, there is a limit to how cheaply a quality education can be provided. Packing classrooms too tightly, overburdening instructors with too many students, and relying on online education to replace both classrooms and instructors have limits, and carrying them too far eventually undermines educational quality.

The pressure on administrations and faculties to move students through the curriculum is building. Institutions are increasingly ranked by their two-year, four-year and six-year graduation rates, again evoking the image of colleges as assembly lines.

In fact, however, the purpose of education is not to confer diplomas. Instead, it is to educate human beings who differ from one another in many significant ways.

Merely increasing the number of graduates does not mean anyone is being well-served—not students, faculty, administrators, those footing the educational bill, future employers or society in general.

Penalizing and rewarding institutions of higher education according to output statistics, such as the number of graduates they produce, creates a powerful incentive to water down curricula, pass marginal students, and progressively lower educational standards. Such policies are costing us where it hurts most.

Institutions of higher education exist not to credential but to educate. This means not just passing standardized tests and finding gainful employment, but also being prepared to function effectively as citizens and human beings.

The future of our state hinges on the quality, not just the quantity, of the education we provide to today’s students.•

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Richard Gunderman is chancellor’s professor in medicine, liberal arts and philanthropy at Indiana University.

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