In its recent ruling that athletes at Northwestern University have the right to unionize, the National Labor Relations Board cited the case of senior quarterback Kain Colter, who naively thought that he could pursue a pre-med degree while also playing on the school’s football team.
When he attempted to enroll in a required chemistry class during his sophomore year, “Colter testified that his coaches and advisors discouraged him from taking the class because it conflicted with morning football practices. Colter consequently had to take this class in the summer session, which caused him to fall behind his classmates who were pursuing the same pre-med major. Ultimately he decided to switch his major to psychology which he believed to be less demanding.”
In other words, despite the fact that Division I athletes are making oodles of money for their schools, their interests are not being served by coaches or administrators. Athletes’ academics and future career prospects are being sacrificed for a few more points on the field.
But athletes are not alone. Regular students are also contributing to the university’s bottom line through tuition payments and the spigot of federal financial aid — yet their interests are not being served, either.
In exchange for their eye-popping tuition checks, students are getting a dizzying array of pointless classes that don’t prepare them for the real world. Colleges have gotten more and more esoteric in what they teach, more specialized to the point of being useless to anything but . . . academia.
As parents and students open those fat admissions envelopes from the colleges of their dreams this month, it is worth thinking about how far the reality of college life is from the ideal of a protective environment, run by people who want nothing more than to gently mold their children’s intellect and give them the best possible prospects for the future.Let’s start then with the college catalog. When was the last time you opened one? These several hundred page doorstops, students are told, make up a veritable intellectual adventure. A little French Literature of the 19th Century here, a little Animal Behavior there. Throw in a statistics class and an introduction to gender studies and you have . . . well, what do you have? No one quite knows because most college curricula today are completely incoherent.
Once colleges did away with any kind of real general-education requirements, students were left on their own to figure out what they thought was important. It sounds so exciting, until you realize that 18-year-olds don’t know what they don’t know. And they don’t know what’s going to be important to them later on. And they don’t know even know which classes should go before other classes.
The catalogs only provided the illusion of choice anyway. Some of the thousands of listed classes will provide them with the critical thinking skills and real knowledge they need to succeed afterward, but most of them will not. Just think of it as high-stakes gambling with a few hundred-thousand dollars worth of tuition.
How did this intellectually incoherent curriculum take hold?
Well, for one thing, it is the result of faculty’s focus on research. It’s not just the hard sciences in which a professor has to say something new in order to achieve tenure or promotion. It is also the social sciences and even the humanities. You can only imagine how obscure the findings must be for a professor in the year 2014 to say something new about Shakespeare or Chaucer. Or they just have to find an (often justifiably) obscure author to write about in the first place. Once faculty have devoted all their time to writing, say, a treatise on the costumes of ladies in the court of Louis XVI, they might as well teach a class on it to willing undergrads. Whether or not that’s a class that’s useful for those students.
Students are not getting a broad liberal-arts education — nor are they being prepared for careers. A February Gallup poll found that 14% of Americans — and only 11% of our business leaders — strongly agree that graduates have the necessary skills and competencies to succeed in the workplace.But administrators and faculty seem more interested in quantity than quality. The vastly increased number of different courses and majors — in 2012 there were more than 1,500 academic programs students could choose for a major, up by more than a quarter from a decade earlier — make it impossible for employers to distinguish among candidates.
For that matter, so does grade inflation. A recent study of 200 college and universities in the Teachers College Record found that more than 40% of all grades awarded were in the A range. Administrators may be making their customers happy in the short term, but grade inflation makes students ill prepared for the real world.
The best of the college athletes may go on to well-paying careers in the pros. And the best students (or the ones who have parents who can guide them) may end up with well-paying jobs that will allow them to repay their student loans.
But the message to every other student is clear: You’re on your own.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of “The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Pay For.”