The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University."... ...William F. Buckley Jr.

Commentary of the Day - August 30, 2003:  The Bachelor's Degree - A New Entitlement?

The beginning of the academic year here at Krispy Kreme U. (aka Cal State Fullerton) is marked by a flurry of pre-semester activity.  One more or less traditional event in recent years has been the Academic Senate Retreat, and another is our so-called Faculty Day.  Both are held during the week before the start of classes.  As budgets have shrunk, so have the programs at both events.  Nevertheless, these gatherings help the astute faculty member glean some insight into the current "thinking" of campus and system administrators.

In an earlier, more civilized era, the distance between the faculty and the administration was small.  Administrators came from the ranks of faculty and returned to faculty ranks when their terms of service were over.  These administrators understood both faculty and students because they were not far removed from the classroom.  In fact several of the better ones continued to teach some even as they served in their administrative positions.  However, in these days when institutions of higher education must be managed rather than led, many of our administrators have been trained as professional managers rather than as teachers and scholars.  They are not all that comfortable talking with faculty members, and they are even less comfortable involving us in the decision making process.  In the old days we were asked, now we are told.  Academic Senate Retreats and Faculty Days are intended to cushion the blow.  We are told, but we are told in a way intended to make us think that we are part of the process, rather than just cogs in the machinery.

This time 'round one of the things that we were told is that we need to improve our graduation rate.  At the Academic Senate Retreat the issue was couched in more benign terms; namely, that we need to "facilitate progress to the baccalaureate degree".  It seems that the average Krispy Kreme U. bachelor's degree recipient graduates with a total of 144 semester units of academic credit, which is well above the 120 to 124 units required for most undergraduate degrees.  The same issue was put more bluntly at the Faculty Day luncheon, where California State University Academic Vice Chancellor Spence told us that the Chancellor's Office was developing programs to improve our six-year graduation rate.

It turns out that at Krispy Kreme U. 47% of our incoming freshmen receive a bachelor's degree within six years, and that isn't good enough for the Chancellor's Office even though this rate is higher than the average for "moderately selective" colleges across the country.

The problem, as the IP sees it, is that our administrators are confusing two goals -- one worthy and one not.  The goal of facilitating progress towards the degree is a worthy one.  It helps both students and taxpayers.  Many of our students who do graduate end up taking many more credit hours than they need.  There are a several reasons for this.  Sometimes poor advising is the culprit, but more often than not the reason is that students frequently change their career objectives and their majors.  When this happens students often have taken several courses for the old major that don't apply to the graduation requirements for the new major.  Another culprit often is the work schedules of our students, many of whom work 20 or more hours per week to make ends meet.  If a scheduling problem prevents a student from taking a course needed for graduation, he or she often will take another course in order to meet financial aid or continuous enrollment requirements.

Some of the suggestions made to improve progress towards the degree such as better advising and mandatory freshman (and transfer) orientation may help students to choose their courses more wisely.  Implementation of these programs may indeed help to trim the number of courses a student takes on the way to a degree, saving the student time and the taxpayers some money.

On the other hand, the suggestion that we need to worry about improving our graduation rate, per se, is a bad one as the IP sees it.  It's bad for several reasons.  First, it assumes that one can determine with some accuracy what the graduation rate should be for a large urban, comprehensive university that is, at best, moderately selective in admitting students.  Second, it assumes that we fall below that standard.  In reality, there is no standard against which our graduation rates can be compared.  However, we do have the statistic that shows that -- on average -- the six-year graduation rate for moderately selective, public comprehensive universities is about 44%.  Since our rate here at Krispy Kreme U. is 47%, we must not be doing all that bad.

But, the most important reason that the push to improve graduation rates is a bad idea is that we should not regard the bachelor's degree as an entitlement.  We should not convey the impression that every student who enters the university should receive a degree.  The degree is not something owed to the student.  It is a reward that the student must earn.

While the CSU campuses are not "open enrollment" institutions, they are "easy admission" institutions.  Any student with an overall high school GPA of 3.0 and a grade of C or better in a comprehensive pattern of college prep courses qualifies for admission.  And, students with high school GPA's between 2.00 and 2.99 can be admitted if they score high enough on the ACT or SAT I exams.  Many of the students that we admit are both reasonably intelligent and reasonably well prepared for college level work.  They would meet the entrance requirements for more selective institutions, but choose a CSU campus because it is much less expensive or because it is more convenient.  However, we also admit many students who are not well prepared for college level work.  For example, about half of our entering students need remediation in either English or mathematics, and some 36% or more cannot read college level material when they enter the university.  In other words, we are taking a risk with many of the students that we admit.  We give them a chance, which is a good thing.  We hope that they will take advantage of the opportunity that is being offered to them, that they will improve their basic skills, and that they will buckle down and learn to study.  But, we know that many of the "at-risk" students (perhaps a third of those whom we admit) won't do the things that they need to do to graduate.  This cohort alone would be enough to keep our graduation rates well below those of more selective colleges and universities.

However, there are other reasons that many of our students, even some of our better students, don't finish their degrees.  Very often the reason is money.  Many of our students come from strained financial circumstances.  We offer some financial aid, but frequently it is not enough for a student who has family obligations.  Many students who are in this situation will leave because they can't keep up with both the pressures of school and the demands of their jobs.  We wish that were not so, but there is little that we as faculty can do to help in this case.

Some well qualified students will drop out simply because they lack interest, or because they lack the maturity and discipline needed to complete an academic program.  These drop outs may return after a few years in the workforce with a changed attitude towards school.  But, even if they eventually finish a bachelor's degree, they won't contribute to the somewhat artificial "six year graduation rate".  Thus, in spite of our best efforts, our six year graduation rates are going to be far from 100%.

We certainly need to do our best to ensure that artificial impediments are not placed in the way of our students, but at the same time our students need to understand that admission to the university in no way guarantees that they will receive a degree.  If we clear those artificial impediments out of the way, we may see some modest improvement in our graduation rates, but at the same time we can rest assured that the rates haven't improved simply because we have lowered standards another notch.

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