Without Standards

A Christmas Eve review of a student petition for readmission to my program gave me pause.  This student earned a freshman GPA below 1.0:  an average of less than a “D”; and a high school GPA of 2.5: roughly a C-plus, and an ACT score of 18 places this individual at the 36th percentile of test takers (bottom third).  I am required to ask:  Would anyone or anything be served by the readmission?

With a decreasing number of college-ready high school graduates,  an increasing number opting out of college, and more colleges seeking students — the number of institutions increased every year since 1980,  some universities are lowering standards as a means to increase enrollment and generate capital. This sounds like good business.  However, it is anything but good business and demonstrates a lack of comprehension regarding universities, their purpose, and operation.

At reasonably competitive mid-major research universities, ACT scores for admitted students are typically at or above the national average of 21. In order to attain this average, many students with ACT scores only marginally above 21 are being offered discounted tuition.  The ACT is an imperfect predictor of success to be sure; however, not long ago, few universities would have offered scholarship assistance (tuition discounts) to prospective students with an ACT in the mid 20’s without compelling evidence of a propensity for success such as stellar performance in high school.  But pressure to enroll loan-bearing students is increasing.

The approach creates a large number of students incrementally above average while admitting students with below average scores, thus yielding a better than average ACT posting for an institution. The long-term cost is that academic standards sink.  Stronger performing students and families smell a rat.  A costly statistical sleight of hand diminishes the purpose and integrity of good institutions that feckless leadership believes can be hidden.  The practice is becoming commonplace in the competition for subsidized students to pay the bills.  Moreover, the approach is trumpeted as a means to provide heartfelt assistance to eager students.   Who could argue with this?  Me.

Here are two perspectives.

First, a reflection on the “Christmas Eve” petition for readmission.   This student (more likely the lender) will pay full tuition, fees, and room and board creating jobs for the local economy (a short-term gain) but unwittingly will undermine academic excellence (a long-term loss).  The student will pile up debt.  Based on four decades of university experience, I would place the individual’s propensity for success at 10%: not good odds on borrowed dollars. Of 350 institutions on a nationally representative list of universities, the range of admissible  ACT scores only twice posts at less than 20.   And compounding the transgression, there are differences between the average test scores of all test takers and those admitted to a four year institution.  Admittedly, test scores are an imperfect, but better-than-nothing measure of propensity for success.  However, in thoughtful concert, ACT score, high school GPA, class rank, and courses taken, create a “four cornered” lens through which to view the student.

Second, admitting such a student after a failed year diminishes the real and perceived quality of a university to strong students because they are seated among those who either do not care, have not demonstrated the ability to carry out university level work, or have issues that should be addressed before undertaking study.  Families and potential students sense this weakened peer class and go to places where standards exist, and students participate in elevating the quality of the institution.

I used to play tennis at the “C” level and could not get “A” or “B” players to engage me.  It would diminish their game.

This is not elitism. It is performance-based, cold-light-of-day decision making.

Reasonable admissions standards and high expectations never lead to decreased enrollment.  Ever.  I have watched feckless university leadership weaken sound universities through ignorance of this calculus:  The cost is borne by all who hold or will hold degrees from such institutions, all the while prattling about ill-defined social purpose. Alumni of such institutions should be up in arms as degree stock value sinks.

Trees are known by the fruit they produce — social purpose in practice, not theory.

A more reasoned approach?

A multitude of community colleges (39) are available in Illinois where, with committed faculty members and  a cost of twenty cents on the dollar, this student could accumulate 60 credits and/or determine whether or not he/she was interested and/or capable of college-level work.  This approach would serve the student well.  In Illinois there are high levels of articulation between many community colleges and state universities, creating student-0sensitive, seamless transfer.

Some of my colleagues would argue that community colleges don’t represent “legitimate” college-level work. I think that’s poppycock, but if my colleagues are correct, why don’t they stand up for academic standards?  Where are the faculty senates and sundry faculty associations that purport to speak for the welfare of the academic enterprise and students?  On this issue they are absent or speechless.

This view sounds harsh, but it is realistic.  Every measurement of/for success, employment, or graduate study supports the perspective. The observation is offered with sincerity to highlight the costs of operating with lowered or absent academic expectations rather than challenging students to perform.

A university should open its doors widely to all, but never without standards

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