Unfit for a college education

Today’s students are uneducated and unfit for a college education, writes a Penn State accounting professor who’s taught for 35 years.  There’s no different in native intelligence, writes J. Edward Ketz.  The difference lies in their “educational backgrounds, analytical thinking, quantitative skills, reading abilities, willingness to work, and their attitudes concerning the educational process.”

To begin, today’s average accounting major cannot perform what used to be Algebra I and II in high school. Students cannot solve simultaneous equations. Students have difficulty with present value computations, not to mention formula derivations. Students even have difficulty employing the high-low method to derive a cost function, something that merely requires one to estimate a straight line from two points.

. . . Today’s students cannot read at what used to be a tenth-grade level. I learned this dramatically when I wrote a couple of textbooks in the 1990s. Editors at both publishing houses insisted that I rewrite my materials so today’s student could read it. I was forbidden to employ large or “fancy” words and had to simplify the grammar. For example, both editors told me never to compose a sentence with a subordinate clause because it was too complex for students to understand.

Today’s students cannot read critically. For example, I can assign an SEC litigation release for class, but students cannot read it for detail, nor can they discern the key points of the document.

Worst of all: Modern students aren’t willing to work.

But they’ve got great self-esteem.

About Joanne


  1. Now I know what educators REALLY mean when they talk about the important 21st century skills they claim to be teaching our kids. It’s really all about the self-esteem.

  2. The article is no surprise for anyone who reviews cover letters/resumes or participates in interviewing. I’ve routinely lectured students during guest presentations on the importance of spelling and grammatical errors in two of the most important documents a person will ever write or modify.

    The typical young person today has never been educated in issues like career choices, business and technical writing, interviewing (most students HATE public speaking and giving presentations), and most importantly, how to actually DRESS for an interview (many of them have no idea that 50-55% of hiring managers/interviewers say the number one mistake a prospective employee makes is inappropriate attire).

    However, our young people sure feel good about themselves (hint, I was a young person, and I don’t recall the people I grew up with having such a sense of entitlement), perhaps it’s the advent of technology, or that I’m becoming an old fart 🙂

  3. There’s a conspicuous lack of data in that editorial.

  4. A man who has the guts (and tenure) to tell it like it is.

  5. This is silly. Accounting is no longer a cutting edge major. It’s a degree taught a community colleges, where yes, Algebra is a remedial course. The economy is just trying to adapt as the median product of our educational system is referred up the ladder to better jobs.

  6. The problem is with the lazy boomer generation forgoing their responsibility to teach their children, and students properly. Those of us from GenY (I was born in 1983) who had hardworking, dedicated parents are far ahead of what anyone in GenX or GenBoom kids were at the same age. Seriously, how many people born before 1980 can program in 5+ languages? Granted I was in a gifted class, but my 17 cohorts (all Anglophones) all spoke French and English by the age of 10. We were all programming in C and changing code in Hypercard by the time we were 8.

    Sweeping generalizations about a whole generation is frighteningly ignorant, especially from an educator. Perhaps his problem is that his university (PennState) is better known for the football program than the quality of education?

    What the people who were born before man landed on the moon have a hard time understanding is that knowledge is no longer disseminated in a straight line from the top. I’ll get industry articles on civil engineering (my calling) before my “learned” former profs because I don’t wait for the paper edition to come in the mail. I don’t need to attend a library (as you pre-moonies used to) to read up about The Austrian School of Economics, or even the Human Genome because I have access to (and the skill to find) the data I need online.

    It’s frustrating to see the generation who managed to plunge the US into many lifetimes worth of debt complaining that the younger generation isn’t prepared for life.

    We are prepared, we also realise that the Wizards of State College are just sad, weak men standing behind a curtain.

  7. Once again, the teachers are to blame? Sonny says “Now I know what educators REALLY mean when they talk about the important 21st century skills they claim to be teaching our kids. It’s really all about the self-esteem.” It isn’t the teachers fault. Teachers have fought and continue to fight the dumbing down of America. We continue to try to maintain high standards. We continue to insist that schools do what is best for a child’s education instead of what the parents want – which surprisingly are seldom the same. You want education reform? Put the teachers in charge. We pass kids on to higher grades whether or not they can add subtract or read or write. I cannot imagine teaching college courses with what we are passing through our schools. Just remember, it isn’t the teachers who want kids with great self esteem but can’t read or write.

  8. I was once (mid-80s) called in for a full team conference in my son’s middle school because he told one of his teachers that “I don’t want to be loved or understood at school; I have parents for that. I’m here to learn.” The team conference confirmed my belief that we had little in common regarding the purpose of school. Unsurprisingly, we supplemented the curriculum extensively at home, as we did every year.

    None of my children felt that they were “especially good” writers when they graduated from high school, but they very quickly learned in college that they were very much better than the vast majority of their classmates. Possibly because Mom had sprinkled all of their out-of-class papers with so much red pencil… and made them do rewrites? The vast majority of their k-12 teachers did not, because they did not think it was important/appropriate.

  9. Paul wrote:

    > There’s a conspicuous lack of data in that editorial.

    It *is* an editorial, i.e. an opinion piece. Data’s optional.

  10. Ummm, Jon – having been born in 1963, I can program in no less than 20 computer languages, have 3 degrees in IT/CS, and almost 27 years of actual work experience in the IT field. When you want to brag, make sure you don’t run into someone who was messing around in computers before you were born 🙂

  11. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Poor Jon. I’m GenX and program in more than 5 languages — and have an English degree.

    momof4: rewrites/revisions are very important in writing instruction, but we seldom have time. After grading all 140 papers the first time, it can be daunting to do it again. Remember, we don’t actually get time during the school day to do that.

  12. Jon, Jon, Jon,

    “Sweeping generalizations about a whole generation is frighteningly ignorant, especially from an educator.”

    Did you not notice the contradiction? Your entire post generalizes about whole generations, and within that post you state how frighteningly ignorant it is to generalize about whole generations. I’m guessing you are more of a story teller than a braggart!

  13. Mark Roulo says:

    Seriously, how many people born before 1980 can program in 5+ languages?

    You have no idea how UNimpressive this sounds to many (most?) people who have been programming for 20ish years.

    For Unix programmers in the 1980s (a bit before my time), it was quite common for them to know and use/program: sh, awk, and sed. Along with C. 4 right there. Then came Perl, and *everyone* jumped on the bandwagon. FORTRAN and assembly were common, too (although not as common as C).

    Depending on how one defines “can program in”, 10-20 languages is not uncommon for experienced programmers. The real question is, “How many can you program WELL?” This number tends to be much smaller simply because it takes time to *master* a programming language.

    -Mark Roulo

  14. Jon, I’m with Bill. Born in 1957, have programmed professionally in so many languages I’ve lost count. Learned a new one last year. Number of programming languages used is a silly metric for just about any purpose.

    I interview job applications now and then. My experience is that core skills (reading, writing, math) are in decline. I had to explain the difference between mean and median to a college graduate the other day. I wouldn’t generalize my experience to a whole generation, but one certainly does see more and more articles like this one.

  15. I’m glad several other people caught the “sweeping generalization” problem before I had to comment on it.

    I was born in 1969, to parents of what used to be called the “silent generation.” They were “hardworking and dedicated parents.” I was pushed to work, but more importantly, taught the joy of learning (and of hard work). I’ve done pretty well for myself – perhaps not made as many achievements with my life as I would LIKE, and I’m always driven to do more. But to paint a Gen-Xer like me as either lazy or a dinosaur is as unfair as the broad brush being used to paint the current crop of college students.

    I’m a prof, and while I have my share of students who are convinced they are the Specialist Snowflake in the World, and others who think that using text-speech in a formal essay should present no problems (both of which I try to disabuse of their mistaken notions), I also get an awful lot of students who are hardworking, who make an effort to learn, and who can achieve. Maybe it’s harder for them because some of the stupid faddish things in education have made the basics harder to get, but they still work hard and still manage.

    The problem is, the Special Snowflakes and the text-speech fools are the ones we talk about and complain about because they cause us so much grief. The people who do what they are “supposed” to get less press – for the same reason that you don’t see “News Flash: plane lands safely and uneventfully at airport!”

    I think the only generalization we can make is that earlier generations look at later generations, shake their heads, and say, “Kids today!” In fact, I seem to remember a fragment of something from ancient Greece that made that very observation…

  16. “It’s a degree taught a community colleges”

    Wharton is a community college? Did you finish 8th grade?

    As for Penn State, the Smeal undergraduate program is highly rated. So the football comment betrays as much ignorance as the community college comment.

    Everything he says is painfully evident to anyone teaching undergraduates at the university, be it Smeal at Penn State, or Harvard. “So how many students do you have this semester that don’t know you can’t divide by zero?” is a frequent topic of discussion in faculty lounges at the beginnings of semesters on every campus.

  17. “So how many students do you have this semester that don’t know you can’t divide by zero?”

    Do you mean just for this class? Or always?


    -Mark Roulo

  18. My 13 year old is quite doomed going up against Jon and his 5+ computer languages. She has 0- computer languages, no computer of her own, and she may only use ours for typing Word documents. She has no e-mail account, no cell phone, no iPod, no tv in the house, no computer games. She has never looked up anything on the internet. She had no calculator for math work until year before last, and only after she had learned to use a slide rule–and *that* only after she had built her own working slide rule as part of her logarithms unit. At this moment she is reading Moby Dick in a yellowing Penguin edition; no Kindle, poor thing.

    All her education has been via books, tapes, and discussions, with visits to libraries and museums. She learned math with pencil and paper; German through tapes and tutoring by a neighbor family from Germany. A relative who taught elementary grades was horrified at our Luddite approach; her ISD requires second graders to be organizing power point presentations (our daughter had to learn public speaking with a chalkboard and her younger siblings for an audience).

    She is excited by her new graphing calculator, which she needed for the Real Analysis class she’s auditing at Big State U. She’s also excited by her SAT scores, which just came back with scores well into the seven hundreds on writing, reading, and math (actually she was disappointed that she didn’t ace the math).

    I haven’t the heart to let her know that she will be left in Jon’s dust when she graduates, with her education a century out of date. If only it were possible to learn these elusive 21st-century skills *after* one has acquired a fundamental liberal education. Perhaps some community college somewhere will let her in.

  19. Cardinal Fang says:

    A previous commenter brought this up, but I want to ask again: do we have any evidence about which students study accounting now, compared to thirty years ago when this professor began teaching? It doesn’t strike me as a major the most able students choose, but then, it doesn’t strike me as a major the most able students would have chosen thirty years ago, either.

  20. A couple of people have commented on the fact that accounting majors may not be the brightest of the bunch. I would say that those making those comments have not taken accounting (or at least did not go beyond accounting 1). And no, I was not an accounting major but I did take several accounting courses in college and they were several of my more challenging courses (admittedly I didn’t take physics or engineering but I did take operations research and statistics). The math used in accounting is more akin to that used is statistics. And it is not all math, students must also understand how to apply a principle or guideline to a given situation that may not always be so clear. (Personally I think an accounting/finance course ought to be a required course for all students.)

    As far as whether the students have changed — that is a possibility. Back when I went to college (about the time the professor started teaching) the kids who stuck it out as an accounting major were somewhat mathematically inclined and interested in accounting. Today accounting is a “money” major and considered a ticket to a good job. It may be attracting a different type of student (then again maybe not).

    As far as what today’s kids are learning — I suspect that part of what the professor is experiencing is an over-reliance on technology. Instead of learning and deriving formulas, kids today learn how to use sophisticated calculators and software programs. They can solve problems we couldn’t even begin to touch because of the length of time it would have taken to do all the math involved manually. But at that same time they are losing the knowledge on how the formulas are derived and why they work (and when they won’t work). I love technology and think it is important for kids to know how to use it. However we’ve swung the pendulum too far — they need to learn how to figure things out manually too.

  21. Accounting, at least at the master’s level from a top program, tracks to the big firms. Many accounting majors also have strong finance and/or economics backgrounds and spend only a few years doing actual accounting, before moving into a wide variety of finance/consulting positions, both before and after getting an MBA from a top program. This has been a popular pathway for a large number of top graduates from very competitive suburban schools, although recent events may change that.

  22. As others have suggested, I suspect that this has more to do with who the average accounting major is than with any other issue. I (somewhat randomly, since I was in college 20 years ago) know several college students, all of whom have excellent math skills, and had excellent math skills in HS. They are in an engineering program, which is, perhaps, siphoning off some of the former accounting majors.

  23. Cousin Dave says:

    ” her ISD requires second graders to be organizing power point presentations”

    O.H., please please tell me that isn’t really true, before I totally lose my faith in humanity!

  24. Yes: ignorant and proud of it. That about sums it up.

  25. As a father of four with one child in college and one heading there in August, I have to concur with the esteemed professor. The local public high school has some very good teachers and some very bad ones. Surprise! But ALL of the teachers were very good at assigning term papers and NONE were good at explaining what exactly the students were supposed to do to complete the assignment. In fact, I do not recall anyone at the school ever teaching them how to structure their thinking to complete a writing assignment. They were never taught how to prepare an outline, how to construct research, how to take notes from source material, how to organize their thoughts on paper, how to edit their own work. Instead, the focus was on things like making sure their bibliography followed the correct format, the text on the cover page was aligned correctly, looking for spelling errors (forget grammar!) and warning them not to use Wikipedia. By the time I really understood how little they had been taught it was almost too late. Not only did they not know how to write a term paper but they were absolutely convinced that they did. And why not? They were getting A’s and B’s!

    The really rude awakening for my oldest has been now that she is taking 300 level courses. Those teachers have ZERO patience for student who cannot write. It has been a painful adjustment for her but now she is glad (just a little) that I would go through her term papers, mark them up and make her rewrite them. My son, now a high school senior, has gotten the message.

    As far as math is concerned, in the incident described below, I asked the teacher about his many errors. His reply, “I always have trouble with ‘percentage growth'”. To quote Seth and Amy….Really? You have trouble with percentages? Really? Your the head of the math department? Really? Really?

    Yep, he really is the head of the math department – and the guy who claims credit for massive gains in standardized testing scores for the math students at his school. Read it and weep:

    Isaac Young Math Department Chairman Struggles with Basic Calculations

  26. Allen,

    Data may not be required of all opinion pieces, I grant you. However, when someone makes a claim as strong as Mr. Ketz has, data is necessary for the claim to be credible.

    For example, Mr. Ketz says, according to the post above, that “today’s students cannot read at a tenth-grade level. He bases this, apparently, on vague observations of his students–he says students can’t read what he assigns, but he doesn’t tell us how he’s assessed this.

    I can just as easily (and as meaninglessly) say that my high school students CAN read at a tenth-grade level. I happen to know that most of my journalism students can, and most of my ninth graders can’t–but for that claim to have any credibility to anyone beyond my own school community, I would need to present some data.

    Mr. Ketz paints with an awfully broad brush, and I suspect that things aren’t quite as dire as he thinks–but again, because he doesn’t give us anything other than his very subjective impressions, any debate we might have is likely to devolve into unsupported claims.

  27. Cousin Dave,

    Alas, it’s completely true. It was one of many reasons we didn’t make use of the local schools (a math teacher who was certain that a number divided by zero made zero, and a language arts teacher who argued with a Taiwanese mom that you couldn’t have a written language that didn’t represent the sounds of the words, were two other reasons).

  28. “For example, both editors told me never to compose a sentence with a subordinate clause because it was too complex for students to understand.”


    In all seriousness, because of my age I hope I won’t live long enough to see the catastrophe this country is heading into at breakneck speed.

    momof4 wrote: “I was once (mid-80s) called in for a full team conference in my son’s middle school because he told one of his teachers that ‘I don’t want to be loved or understood at school; I have parents for that. I’m here to learn.’ ”

    Bravo, momof4 and son!!!

  29. O.H., my child’s* internet penis is bigger than your child’s internet penis, and I didn’t have to be an overbearing controlling parent to accomplish it.

    * I actually do not have children, but seriously no one cares about how smart she is or all the rules you have placed on her.

  30. It’s probably true, the erosion of some of the more basic communications and mathematical skills. I say it is eight years of living in the Bush society: greed and debt as defining characteristics of prosperity; moral and ethical expediency to do away with challenges to prosperity; and aggressive, self-entitled, logically incoherent rhetorical landscape tying the whole property together. Of course it is not just Bush, but the whole network of people embraced and esteemed during a period that counts as a full third of the lives of the young people so derided for their lack of accounting and communications skills and character flaws. The point is this period of certain values is the primary, defining and concurrent social environment producing all these no-good-accounting bad-verbal-skills self-centered gum-chewing futurepeople.

  31. For the last two decades, educators, parents, and professors have been fighting the “math wars.” The parents and many math professors have been pleading for schools to teach children basic math facts to automaticity, and to teach children basic algorithms. Educators have been defending “fuzzy math,” and denigrating the use of basic math knowledge. After all, we have calculators. Similar battles are being waged over the uses of grammar and expository writing.

    Why is anyone surprised at this professor’s impressions? I would be much more surprised if he asserted that his students were just as capable as the students he had 30 years ago.

  32. I don’t want to slam teachers or overgeneralize about what they do or do not know. I have certainly experienced the ends of the spectrum. In graduate classes that I am currently taking, many of my classmates are educators (working in the public schools) and have profound difficulty with basic writing (sometimes at the sentence level). These same folks will swear that it is NCLB that has “forced” them to forgo the teaching of writing in the kind of depth described by Robert in favor of the formula of the five paragraph essay. I have received notes from teachers that contained very basic grammatical and spelling errors–the kind that a spelling/grammar check might catch. I would think that they would at least have the self-knowledge to make use of such a tool in anything going out to be viewed by parents. But then too, I have encountered many teachers who refused to accept any role for technology–don’t use email, never learned to type, etc.

    In short–teachers cannot teach what they do not know. And yet my district has adopted “writing across the curriculum” to try to ensure that students become better writers. The phys ed curriculum boasts that it is aligned to the state standards. I had to look into this one because I knew our state has no phys ed standards. It is aligned to the English standards. They are apparently able to do this with a straight face (and blame NCLB if questioned).

    I can guarantee that if the teaching of writing encompassed the kind of learning that Robert was suggesting, students would not have trouble producing the level of writing that is required to pass state tests. I would even go so far as to suggest that solid instruction in the area of “creative” writing would include sufficient elements of clear writing to get students through the state test. The fact that so many fall back on the “formula” approach suggests to me that we do not have a critical mass of effective writing teachers available within our schools (BTW–the things that Robert says they are focusing on were also prominent in my education in the “term paper project.” They are also things far more easily handled today by computer software).

    I think that the real surprise of NCLB has been that teachers, once confronted with testing data that revealed the weaknesses in our students, do not have the requisite knowledge and skills in too many cases, to do anything about it.

  33. Let’s see, I know C like the back of my hand, used to program almost automatically in BASIC and FORTRAN, get useful work done in bash, awk and sed (I wrote a decoder for CAN bus data dumps in awk last year), have written code in PL/I, Pascal, Snobol, and more assembly languages than I can count, and most recently mastered the Sauer-Danfoss graphical “programming language” (I use the term loosely).

    I remember the moon shots.  So does Eric Raymond, hacker extraordinaire.

  34. Dick Eagleson says:

    It must be time to book the Ice Capades for an exhibition tour of Hell. I just read a Margo/Mom post and agreed with every word.

  35. Dick –
    I’ll strap on my skates too.

    Part of the problem, especially at the college level, is that professors are seeing a class of students who they never would have seen before – the ones who don’t belong at college. There are, as always, the fully prepared students who care about success and have taken responsibility for their learning, but they are overwhelmed (especially in the first two years) by those who go to college because its a time for ‘self-discovery’ and they had parents who filled out a FAFSA form. Everyone discusses the waste in the bailout bill, but I’d say the government has wasted more good money for ‘higher’ education.
    Professors should be angry at their admininstrations for selling degrees to the highest bidders.

  36. Cardinal Fang says:

    “Seriously, how many people born before 1980 can program in 5+ languages?”

    Among professional programmers? Most of them. I could program in 5+ languages before you were born, little one.

  37. “Seriously, how many people born before 1980 can program in 5+ languages?”

    Yeah, that’s funny. The history of computing is littered with obsolete programming languages – I’ve worked on compilers for more than 5 programming languages, although I doubt that I can remember any of them besides Lisp. I worked on one project where I was programming in 4 languages at the same time: Smalltalk, C, C++, Scheme and Elisp (C and the subset of C++ that we were using were sufficiently alike that I can’t call them two different languages, although perhaps the puppy with his 5+ languages might). That was confusing, as I don’t think in syntax, and so I would find myself typing Smalltalk code in a C file, or putting parens around things in Smalltalk…

  38. “Seriously, how many people born before 1980 can program in 5+ languages?”

    The real question is how many people born after 1980 can think before they speak? My observation, having been born around then, is… not enough.

  39. Physics Teacher says:

    Seriously, how many people born before 1980 can program in 5+ languages?

    Seriously, having dealt with people born AFTER 1990 for the past 3 years I’d have to say that the answer is “a helluva lot more than your generation”.

    Most of the kids that I see today can’t even use a CALCULATOR correctly, that is to say, that they can’t use it to do math. They can certainly play games on calculators, but if you ask what is 6.28 divided by two-pi you won’t get answers even close to one. And no one seems to notice the error or figure out how it arose.

    Programming is more than just knowing the syntax of a language and displaying pretty colors. It requires “domain knowledge”, and that is precisely what this generation lacks.

  40. Margo, not only do we not have a critical mass of effective writing instructors, I’m not sure that with the teaching loads most high school English teachers carry, even if each teacher were likely to be effective based on knowledge and skill, that teaching writing to 125+ kids would be a job that could be done effectively.

    Certainly, this is unrelated to NCLB. There was no golden age of tiny writing classes that I’m aware of. But I think that fewer consistently bad writers graduated from high school and went to or graduated from college, so it may have seems that writing instruction was categorically better.

    I will say that there are some pretty decent formulas that if taught well can improve most people’s writing. Some don’t even seem formulaic if executed well. If it’s reasonable to expect a bell curve in writing proficiency, I think formulas could serve the bottom 85% pretty well.

  41. And all of this starts in the lower grades.

  42. Andy Freeman says:

    > Seriously, how many people born before 1980 can program in 5+ languages?

    You folks are mean. Yes, the above is a serious mistake, but none of you pointed out that the error is far more general.

    For example, there haven’t been any new sex acts invented for quite a while.

    Or, as someone put it a long time ago, there isn’t much new under the sun.


  1. […] Joanne Jacobs approvingly links to an editorial by Penn State Professor J. Edward Ketz complaining that undergraduates today are less prepared for college than they were 30 years ago. You hear this kind of thing on a pretty regular basis, but where’s the actual data to back that assertion up? Ketz doesn’t marshal any, and neither does Jacobs. But if all we’ve got is a set of vague intuitions, then maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge the high school graduates of today. Share and Enjoy: […]

  2. […] Joanne Jacobs points to this article by a Penn State accounting professor, and he comes out swinging: I have been teaching full time for over thirty years. If you toss in my apprenticeship teaching as a graduate student, I have taught for almost thirty-five years. During that span of time, one sees many, many students, and it amazes me how different they have been over time, and the inequality continues to grow. Compared with the students in the 1970s, today’s students are uneducated and unfit for a college education. […]