16 November, 2005

Students are failing at higher education... or is higher education failing its students?

Suppose you graded colleges according to the rate at which they graduated their students. According to an article in today's newspaper (seems to be linked here), your average college would earn an F! Only 54% of those who enter will actually graduate with a degree in six years. I wonder if we should hang Dante's sign above all universities: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. For certain minority groups, the rate is much lower, nearing one-third. The usual suspects do better than average.

In my experience, most students are simply not prepared for college:

  • they do not know the facts that they are supposed to know;
  • they do not understand that there are serious, irredeemable consequences for not studying;
  • they have no idea what facts they are supposed to know, or what studying they need to do simply to reach the position they were supposed to be before they entered college;
  • they do not understand that neither sports nor delaying the real world is a reason to attend college; after all,
  • thanks to the culture's portrayal of college life as a long part, most of them believe that the most important part of college is getting smashed every weekend.
To call this depressing would be the understatement of the year. When my colleagues ask me how I'm doing, I answer, "I haven't hung myself yet."

These are the statistics on the most recent test I gave in each section:
  • Class 1:
    • mean: 62.4
    • median: 67.1
  • Class 2:
    • mean: 49.5
    • median: 61.5
  • Class 3:
    • mean: 39.1
    • median: 38.7
  • Class 4:
    • mean: 72.2
    • median: 74.7
That last class is the majors class, and reflects the score after the students resubmitted four problems.

You might say (as I did), "Well, some of those tests grades were zeroes, right? Those would skew your data negatively." True. So let's recalculate those numbers for the first three classes, dropping the zeroes given to students who didn't bother to show up for the test:
  • Class 1:
    • mean: 72.2
    • median: 72.3
  • Class 2:
    • mean: 58.8
    • median: 63
  • Class 3:
    • mean: 51.5
    • median: 50
That's something of an improvement, but not enough to cheer me.

Classes 1 and 2 are statistics classes; class 3 is Intermediate Algebra, a remedial course given to students identified as inadequately preparared for college-level mathematics. The material in this class is material the students were supposed to learn in high school, without which they should not be able to graduate.

I'm not sure what more can be done to save such students. On that most recent test, half the problems (or so) appeared on the practice test. I literally gave them the same problems, with the same numbers and the same words. Nothing was changed. Yet more than half of these students are unable to pass a test which I had effectively given them beforehand, and offered to help them with it the night before at a homework session.

I've mentioned before that it's hard not to believe that higher education is engaged in fraud. We know that the majority of these students stand no chance of passing, yet we set the standards low enough to admit them anyway, because we want their money. In some cases, there are also idealistic factors at work, such as the desire to increase the representation of certain socio-economic groups in higher education; there is a belief that if you admit academically disadvantaged students and offer them the opportunity, they will respond and do better.

In addition, small, private colleges like mine devote abundant resources towards supporting those academically disadvantaged students. We offer a tutoring center, recitations (or something akin to them) held by another student who has already passed the course and sits in the class, and teachers are expected to devote time and energy to helping the students. This college especially encourages teaching to the point of discouraging nearly all research. As I mentioned, I spend an hour a week at a homework session for this Intermediate Algebra class, simply because I want to help the students pass.

The problem here isn't a lack of resources. Rather, the students won't take advantage of what resources they have. There are students who take advantage of these resources, but the ones who need it most are refusing it. Is this something we can change? I'm not sure


qkl said...

I think the problem starts when the students begin school for the first time. Teachers should teach learning methods instead on focusing on learning by heart.

But to self-teach you need a minimum IQ of 125 if I remember well so more than half of the population won't be independent.

Wishfull thinking of the left does not help etheir.

jack perry said...

What do you mean by, "begin school for the first time"? I actually think that children in the primary grades should be memorizing basic facts; before one can think, one must have something to think about, and children that age are psychologically well-equipped for memorization. This is one reason they learn languages much faster than older people like me!

qkl said...

Yes, you are right about young children and memory. I was a bit hasty in my thinking ;}. Hopefully in the future teachers will teach as soon as the children can learn self-learning methods. Memorizing the basic facts and then from those facts being able to reconstruct the rest.