College Isn’t a Good Learning Environment, Says a Veteran Professor

As I have often noted, higher education has its critics both on the right and the left.

A well-known scholar who has written extensively about higher education from a liberal perspective is Alexander Astin, emeritus professor at UCLA. In his latest book, Are You Smart Enough?, he contends our education system does a poor job helping students who don’t appear to be “smart.”

Throughout their K-12 years, Astin argues, the testing and grading regime that schools use tells students who score below average that they’re “dumb, lazy, not college material.” That causes many to lose interest. For that state of affairs Astin blames university education schools, which train most of our teachers.

The damage continues after students graduate from high school and enter college. That’s because, Astin says, colleges seek more to enroll those who are smartest in order to boost rankings and reputations, rather than help students make intellectual progress while in school.

Faculty culture has a lot to do with that, Astin writes.

“The publish-or-perish philosophy that infects colleges and universities,” he states, “is largely a manifestation of this obsession with smartness. Because publications have become the principal yardstick of smartness in most academic fields, faculty seeking promotions, candidates for faculty positions, and faculty members who simply want the respect of their colleagues all invest an inordinate amount of time conducting research and writing papers for publication.”

Except for the outstandingly smart ones, professors usually don’t show much interest in their students. They try to minimize their teaching load so they have the most time for research, and avoid students at the lower end of the “smartness” spectrum if at all possible. Yes, professors have to go through the teaching and grading motions so students get credits, but that’s no guarantee that their pupils progress academically.

Thus, Astin concludes, our education system shortchanges many college students (even pretty smart ones) and leaves a great number of those who don’t look smart “out in the cold.”

That’s a pretty accurate assessment. Where I don’t entirely agree is with Astin’s gloomy view that the “unsmart” are left in desperate shape, probably facing a life of poverty or crime. We have always had a lot of young people who aren’t inclined toward schooling and do poorly. Fortunately, there have been—and still are—lots of jobs for people who don’t have good academic preparation, but do have a decent attitude and are trainable. Astin wants these people to get good college educations, but what they need isn’t more seat time in school, but more opportunities to succeed without getting a college degree. A freer, deregulated economy would do them the most good.

But what does Astin suggest we do about our unfair and largely ineffective educational system?

Although he acknowledges the root of the problem is K-12, he doesn’t address changing education school training or opening alternative routes into teaching. Nor does he advocate school choice as a way to engender competition and give parents (especially poorer ones) more choices in schooling.

However, one of Astin’s higher education ideas is outstanding. He wants colleges to move away from the traditional grading system and instead require professors to write a narrative evaluation for each student—a brief essay that summarizes and discusses the student’s progress. Some schools have already made that move, including Alverno College, Goddard College, Hampshire College, and Evergreen State College.

If faculty members took that responsibility seriously, it would be a huge step toward restoring college as a true learning experience, with students’ needs at its center. As Richard DeMillo wrote in his book Abelard to Apple, the earliest universities (beginning with the University of Bologna) were very student-oriented. Students chose what they wanted to study and the professors literally worked for them.

But within a few centuries, DeMillo noted, universities moved toward a faculty-centered model that required students to accept what they were offered. Accountability to, and interest in, the students declined. That’s what American students face today, and the main reason why Astin’s complaint that the faculty have little interest in how much they learn is valid.

Evaluations that show student progress (or lack of it) would help to reverse one of the worst trends in higher education: the faculty/student “non-aggression pact” that Professor Murray Sperber and others have decried. Rather than minimize their teaching efforts in exchange for little demand from their students, faculty would have to dramatically change their priorities.

Unfortunately, the faculty culture that Astin denounces will prove to be an overwhelming obstacle to any widespread shift back toward a higher education system where student progress, rather than faculty comfort and institutional prestige, is the key consideration.

Astin’s other ideas are less appealing, the worst being the elimination of remedial coursework. Since the 1970s, when many schools maximized enrollments by admitting many students with weaker academic abilities, colleges have “segregated” (as he puts it) students who will probably struggle with freshman courses in remedial (now called “developmental”) classes.

The theory is that students who are (or least appear to be) underprepared can be brought “up to speed” with such classes, ready to handle the challenges of regular coursework. There is good reason to doubt that this works much of the time. Students whose reading, writing, and math skills have been neglected for many years aren’t likely to improve much the next semester.

Astin, however, argues that remedial classes should be eliminated because they are unnecessary, declaring that the cut-off scores for remedial classes are arbitrary and that “there is little, if any, evidence to support the argument that remedial students are somehow incapable of learning….” He would put them all in regular courses, despite their poor study habits and weak basic skills, but then give them more time and attention so they will succeed.

His optimism is badly mistaken. With big assists from grade inflation and degradation of curricula, some of those hapless students will obtain enough credits to graduate, but that is no guarantee of further success.

At several points, Astin laments that education from the K-12 years on isn’t like musical education. Music teachers work to improve their students’ abilities whether they start with much talent or little. Why can’t schoolteachers and college professors do the same, he asks.

Good question, but Astin misses the elephant in the room: Music education is mostly done through the free market and that’s what engenders the cooperation between instructor and student. But public education is a gigantic government operation with costs paid by a third party, and higher education has largely become a mass phenomenon due to government subsidies.

I like Astin’s objective of restoring a student-centered ethos to education. Trying to change the system from the top won’t get us there, however. What is needed is for students and parents to realize that swallowing the education that’s given to them isn’t the best way. They’ll have to change things from the bottom by seeking out schools and online programs where student progress comes first.