College blues

It’s hard to get into Harvard, but easy to slide through without getting an education, Ross Douthat writes in the March Atlantic (paid subscribers only). Here’s a link to the forum.

I just finished the February issue: Walter Kirn recounts how he got through Princeton without learning anything, except how to suck up to professors.

What’s up for the April issue: Yale?

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  1. Steve LaBonne says:

    Duh. Research universities are not liberal arts colleges- nobody will keep after you if you decide to blow off school. Students who need hand-holding to stay motivated shouldn’t go to big universities. If they go anyway and choose not to bother learning anything, they should look in the mirror when placing the blame, instead of trying to blame the university. (And I say that as one who was himself a lazy and mediocre student at Harvard. I’ve never blamed Harvard for that!)

  2. Vivacesunshine says:

    I wasn’t able to read the whole article, but I don’t think it’s just a matter of hand-holding, but what work is actually required to do well. I’ve known a few people who are at Harvard right now, and they’ve said they pretty much get A’s on their assignments without much work whatsoever. One girl said most of her professors figured once the students had gotten into Harvard, they’d done all the work they needed. I don’t know how prevalent that attitude really is, but I’ve heard it from several people now.
    My college makes you work hard to get the A’s. No one here holds you hand, they just expect you to work extrememly hard for the grades. There’s none of this 1/3 or 1/2 of the class getting A’s. It’s more like 5% – 10% in my classes. That’s just my perspective.

  3. Steve LaBonne says:

    It certainly wasn’t prevalent in the sciences way back when I was in school, but was probably somewhat more in other fields. Whether the science departments have since “caught up” with the others in grade inflation I don’t know. But you see, it’s also the case that many students should worry less about grades- one way or the other- and more about seizing all the learning opportunities that are available. That’s kind of the point of the whole exercise, though in our credential-happy society it tends to fall by the wayside.

  4. One girl said most of her professors figured once the students had gotten into Harvard, they’d done all the work they needed. I don’t know how prevalent that attitude really is, but I’ve heard it from several people now.

    This reminds me of the prevalent situation in Japan and Korea. Competition is very intense to get into the top universities there. However, most students who enroll really don’t do much meaningful work or learn much.

    This is widely known.
    However, they still recieve good jobs after they graduate because employers assume the students are exceptionally smart and hard-working if they were admitted in the first place.

  5. Awhile ago I read a post on some blog – wish I remembered which – that commented on an article about grade inflation at elite schools. The blogger wrote that it makes sense that class averages at Princeton and Harvard would be B’s or even A’s, because you had to be really smart to get into those schools.

    I wasn’t aware that a university education was essentially the same thing as an IQ test.

  6. “Students who need hand-holding to stay motivated shouldn’t go to big universities.”

    I’ve got no trouble at all with a university like Harvard that lets their carefully-selected superior students decide whether they want to stop studying and flunk out. The problem is, they aren’t flunking them out, so the degree doesn’t guarantee anything more than that the kid was smart enough to get in (unless he was a legacy or affirmative action admission) and had rich enough parents to be able to hang around there for four years.

    It sounds like, in terms of what was actually learned, my Oklahoma State U engineering degree could be worth a dozen Harvard degrees.

  7. John from OK says:

    … or two dozen OU degrees. Go Pokes!!!

  8. “I wasn’t aware that a university education was essentially the same thing as an IQ test.”

    It’s been that way for a while. Employers aren’t allowed to use real IQ tests, so they’re stuck making their applicants take a substitute IQ test that takes four years and costs many thousands of dollars.

  9. I was always told (20 years ago) that an Ivy league undergrad education was good, but nothing exceptional. Unlike a state university (or a provincially financed university), there would be hell to pay if a professor failed 2/3 of a class (which happened occasionally at University of Toronto). Can’t really do that when someone is paying $20,000/year for the priviledge of attending, and the school depends on the goodwill of its graduates for its financing.

    (Yeah, professors who failed too many had to justify it before a committee, but the only time I saw it done, the professor essentially stood up and announced that the class was too stupid to pass, and nothing more was said.)

  10. Steve LaBonne says:

    Yes, in an ideal world it would be nice if private universities were more concerned with maintaining meaningful grading standards than with not losing tuition $$. (State universities, on the other hand, often have a perverse incentive to admit underprepared students and then flunk them out, since their temporary presence inflates enrollment figures, on which the level of their state support is based.) But at the end of the day, if students choose not to learn in an environment rich in opportunities for learning, they’re simply cheating themselves. Many figure this out, to their chagrin, only years after they graduate.

  11. Problem is, though, their prospective employers seem to have not figured it out. Given the choice between an Ivy League grad and a tech school/state school grad, most employers would gravitate toward the Ivy Leaguer, on brand-name recognition alone. I hope the Atlantic articles have some impact on this mentality,

  12. Steve LaBonne says:

    Well, I’ve seen studies on where top corporate executives and other high achievers went to school, and the Ivy League is nowhere near as overrepresented as you might think. In the sciences, it’s well known that good liberal arts colleges produce proportionately more graduates who go on to get Ph.D.s than Ivy League or other research universities. This is due in part to far greater opportunities for undergraduate research at liberal arts colleges. Frankly, in retrospect I wish I had gone to a good liberal arts college rather than to Harvard- I wasn’t at all the kind of go-getter who thrives in that environment.

  13. Personally, I think smaller private research institutions give you a better education than liberal arts colleges in the sciences. I went to a decent small liberal arts school and I think my physics education was not as broad or deep as what I could of got at a research university. Research universities offer more classes, research opportunities, and graduate classes. While access to professors is limited at a research university you interact with the grad students and postdocs.
    But in the end your education is what you make it out to be. If the student in the article felted cheated than thats his own damn fault.

  14. A common refrain I heard growing up was that the hardest part of Harvard was getting in. I went to NYU…easy to get in, harder to get out.

  15. Steve LaBonne says:

    I agree about the value of small research universities. My sister had outstanding research opportunities as an undergrad at the University of Rochester; she went on to get her Ph.D. at Harvard and is now an assistant professor at Northwestern. But what many people don’t realize is that the better liberal arts colleges also expect substantial research and publication activity from their faculties, and thus also offer excellent opportunities for undergrads to get involved, especially since there are no grad students around!

  16. Ray Trygstad says:

    Of the “most selective” schools, what are the hardest colleges to get into? The service academies. In the same group, what are the hardest schools to graduate from? Pretty much the same. And in the process, you’d better learn stuff or you’re toast. They always told me at the Naval Academy, “The Navy is paying you to learn. You’d better do your damned job.” I guess maybe there’s a little difference in motivation.