I’ll have a comprehensive post up tomorrow with all of your wonderful links and contributions to this conversation, but I thought I’d lay out briefly something that I’ve been thinking about this week with respect to the ongoing “crisis of higher education” conversations we’ve been having. In particular, I’d like once again to address the subset of these conversations in which people whose college years are 20+ years behind them, and who frequently hold degrees from the Ivy League or other elite private colleges and universities, nevertheless counsel the youth of today that college just ain’t worth it, that it’s a waste of money, and that there are plenty of people with bachelor’s degrees wishing they could find a job flipping burgers or washing cars.
What’s missing in these conversations is any sense of the responsibility that students have for their own educations. In this respect, the discourse on higher ed very much reflects the discourse on K-12 education, in which teachers have been identified as the only people with any power or responsibilty for a student’s progress in their classrooms. Similarly, these articles preaching that college is a waste of time foster the notion that mere enrollment and graduation with a degree should be all that’s required for a ticket to middle-class security. In the case of higher ed, which is 1) not compelled by the state, and 2) costs them cash money, we should ask what besides money the students are pouring into their own educations.
My question is simply this: why don’t any of these jeremiads about the supposed worthlessness of a college education ever bother to address the question of grades and achievement in the course of pursuing a bachelor’s degree? I’d love to see a study of recent college grads that breaks down the employment/unemployment statistics by grade point average, because I’m pretty sure that the employment rates of people with an overall G.P.A. over 3.0 (better than a B average) are going to be better than the employment rates of recent grads with below a B or C average. This post by Notorious Ph.D., Girl Scholar exemplifies what I’m writing about here: after meeting with each of her seminar students one-on-one about their research papers to make sure they had a good topic and some solid sources and strategies for getting to work, fully one-third of them failed to submit their rough drafts by the deadline she had specified. Why shouldn’t future employers discriminate between the students who make their deadlines and turn in decent work (the 3.0+ students) and fail to reward people who squeak through college with a B- or C average (or below?)
I tell my students at Baa Ram U. every semester that what separates the B and A students from the C and D students isn’t intellectual brilliance (usually), or a natural aptitude for the study of history. It’s the amount of time they spend on completing weekly assignments, on writing their papers, and in preparing for exams. Now, it’s true that some students have to work harder than others in order to achieve the same results, but that’s true in all other aspects of life in general. But this is also true in general: people who work harder get better results. People who choose not to put in the time also get the results they deserve.
My father worked for most of his career in Human Resources for a big glass manufacturer, and was responsible for hiring and firing a lot of people on the management side. He used to tell me that he sure as heck looked at G.P.A.s when making employment decisions, not because grades are any kind of superior evaluation of the totality of someone’s skill set, but simply because grades are a measure of how hard someone worked in college. And quite frankly, I think it’s a perfectly reasonable thing for employers to select for employees who work hard and take pride in doing quality work.
(If there are any studies that breakdown unemployment rates by G.P.A., please let me know. Some of you economists and/or sociologists must be more plugged into this kind of data than historians are.)