These numbers are frightening to say the least and these declines, in part, spurred an August report by Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education. The recommendations include suggestions that universities move toward the sort of standardized testing so that "higher education must change from a system primarily based on reputation to one based on performance."
This is nice in theory, but it won't help. This plan does little to address the underlying gulf between students on the one hand, and professors on the other, who have come to see "performance" in entirely different ways.
For students, "performance" has come to mean that a college should provide something like career skills or opportunities. There are a variety of reasons for this, but most stem from the devaluing of a high school education. Median income for college graduates is approximately 70 percent higher for college grads than high school grads, such that in a survey of 1,000 adults, the Chronicle of Higher Education found 52 percent believe "a four-year college degree is essential for success in our society."
The importance of a college education has caused the number of students attending college to swell, changing the nature of a college education for most students. College, for most students, is not a time to wonder about Kant's categorical imperative or John Stuart Mill's pragmatic ethics.
For many students, college is a place to gain a professional foothold. Nearly seven of 10 respondents in a survey by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education strongly agreed with the statement that a college degree is as essential now as a high school diploma had been in years past.
For academics, however, "performance" remains the sort of intellectual playground of ethical debates and epistemic quandaries.
As a graduate student, I spend a lot of time around professors. And I have never heard a professor speak of teaching their undergraduate students skills that might help them in the professional world.
If anything, academics detest the idea of preparing students for the professional world.
And this is why literacy among college students is dropping. Parsing out the differences between habitus and praxis has absolutely nothing to do with employability.
I also teach undergraduate classes and the distinction between my students' and my professors' opinions could hardly be more pronounced.
Whereas professors speak of their moral obligation to produce knowledge, my students tell me things like, "I just can't wait to get out of school and actually do something."
It makes perfect sense to me, then, that while my professors say that they have office hours to keep their undergraduate students away at all other times, I had a student who told me he had made it through four years of college reading just two books.
That student read his third book in my class, but it only happened when I threatened to fail him. It also happened, though, because I actually took the time to meet with him and help him see that becoming a better writer could be helpful professionally.
He came to my office excited and had genuinely insightful thoughts on the novel. But it took compromise.
Ultimately, professors will need to adapt. As more students enter college for purely professional reasons, purely abstract academic research will strike many students as less and less relevant.
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