The Graduation Rate Myth

That America needs a better-educated workforce has become today’s honored wisdom, so what better measurement of progress than rising college graduation rates?  

That alluring cliché is nonsense, a throwback to Soviet Five Year Plans and thankfully, a few brave souls have recently sounded the alarm. But clichés die hard and with this tenacity in mind, let me illuminate a seldom recognized paradox: pushing people into higher education and holding colleges responsible for awarding yet more degrees will only lower workforce quality. The greater the push, the lower the workforce quality.

The fact that millions of college graduates are unemployed or wait tables is not a temporary aberration; it is an inexorable result of rational incentives.

Consider the essential qualifications of a good employee (and I offer this account as someone who once owned and ran a business). He or she must be punctual, honest, be able to complete tasks on time, first time around and as specified. Employees must politely pay attention when spoken to and are not excessively argumentative; they must dress appropriately for the job, have good hygiene (look “clean cut”), speak distinctly and, with few exceptions, possess adequate writing skills as well as being able to perform tasks without explicit detailed instructions.

Such workers get along with co-workers or customers. They show up even under adverse circumstances and if unable to work that day, take necessary steps to minimize their absence. They give a full hour’s work for an hour’s pay and willingly volunteer for extra work if necessary. They also know that work is also not the place to socialize on the firm’s nickel.

Note well, there is nothing here about specific job-related skills but, and this is critical, without those dispositions all the job-related skill in the world is irrelevant. Employers typically assume that with some aptitude screening, employees can be sufficiently trained to be good employees provided they have the traits listed above. No business can survive if supervisors must repeatedly hector subordinates to be punctual, nor can a firm monitor those afflicted with sticky fingers. 

Most important, employers know that those prior job-related skills can seldom be taught and they cannot be specified in a formal job description.

This is what employers grouse about when bemoaning the lack of “good help.” More than a few of my fellow businessmen would risk hiring hard-working illegal immigrants rather than local talent with their iffy work habits (visit any New York restaurant to see for yourself). This definition of a “good employee” holds top-to-bottom, from busboy to CEO. This is not hyperbole—imagine an employee rising to CEO who was chronically late, excessively socialized, was often unprepared, and a slob.

Now back to today’s give-them-a-diploma mania. Dozens of conversations I’ve had with fellow academics suggests that many of today’s students, even at better schools, have terrible work habits. This includes repeated unexcused absences, showing up late and leaving early (and unapologetically so), reading e-mail or Facebook during lectures, a lackadaisical attitude toward deadlines, a tolerance for cheating (especially plagiarism), being regularly unprepared (including no pencil or pen on exam day) and even sleeping during class. Compulsive texting is now the norm while many ignore even the most modest reading assignments. In some instances, despite expensive tuition, class is nothing more than an opportunity to catch up on gossip.

Worse is a growing sense of entitlement regarding grades, so anything less than a “B” becomes an insult to be corrected by whining, even going over the professor’s head to the department chair or a dean. Further, add writing assignments that reek of sloth—obvious spelling and grammatical mistakes despite using word processing, sloppy documentation (often none at all), substantive incoherence and other signs of a slapdash effort. In fact, the idea of a hard, no exceptions deadline seems archaic because it’s “arbitrary.” Endless exemptions from obligations such as a paper due dates are now a Right.

Nevertheless, nearly all the academics of my acquaintance tolerate this indolence.

Can you even imagine a thoroughly modern professor correcting a student’s grammar under any circumstances? Giving “stern” warnings about missing too many classes or threatening to deduct points for spelling mistakes is futile. I know one German-educated professor who waged a battle against baseball caps because she could not see student eyes and thus could not judge their reactions. Despite repeated appeals in the finest Prussian tradition, she eventually conceded defeat.

Offending students almost never alter their behavior. In my own case (and at top research schools) I have often accepted papers well past the deadline sans penalty and otherwise ignored rules to please today’s “customer.” I’d wager that a group therapy session for contemporary professors on the subject of student laziness and disrespect would sell-out Madison Square Garden.

Old-timers may tell you that a cure is possible. Just start locking the door at class time, stop the lecture when students loudly gossip, ban cell phones (or electronically disable them) and deduct points for errors in writing. Even better, publically humiliate slackers during class time and to drive the point home, return to “C” as a respectable grade.

Fat chance. Especially for junior faculty and adjuncts, such antediluvian practices are suicidal. Even tenured faculty members are rationally reluctant to impose rules and high standards. Today’s feckless administrators can’t stand up to an avalanche of student complaints about what students—not professors–define as “bad teaching.” 

I was once “invited” to a meeting of School of Education administrators to discuss why so many education majors failed my Introductory American Government course. It was irrelevant that my standards were already rock bottom and every test question came straight from my lectures or the book. The message was to ease up, or else they would hire their own, more “sympathetic” instructor and thereby deprive our department of hundreds of students.

Obviously, this tolerance for sloth is all about maximizing the graduation numbers, but this policy will hardly reinvigorate the American economy. The very opposite is true—these once pampered workers will only raise the cost of doing business. It’s hard to imagine all those bad habits vanishing. I can envision the exasperated look on the boss’s face when a recently hired college graduate asks for a second or even third extension on an assignment. Will these new employees be able to stop their compulsive texting even during meetings? I seriously doubt it

America lives in a fantasy world regarding education. We think that more years of schooling makes for more knowledgeable workers, when the truth is that we are promoting bad habits that are hard to reverse. Many business managers deal with that truth by hiring more motivated immigrants with solid work habits, giving their good employees more hours, or automating tasks.

As far as improving American education by turning out ever more graduates, the venerable Professor Pogo nailed it: we have met the enemy and he is us.