The failure of U.S. higher education

Higher education is failing almost as badly as K-12, writes Robert D. Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

Over the years, he’s interviewed many recent college graduates for jobs at this think tank.

Because the quality of so many of the graduates was so poor, ITIF has taken to giving the small share of the most promising applicants (based on their resumes and cover letters) a short test that we email them to complete at home in one hour. The questions are pretty simple: “Go to this person’s bio online and write a three- or four-sentence version of their bio for us to include in a conference packet,” or, “Enter these eight items in a spreadsheet and tell us the average for the ones that end in an odd number.”

. . . In our current hiring process (for an office manager/research assistant) we have so far given the test to approximately 20 college grads. Only one did well enough to merit an interview.

Most of the 19 were graduated from  top-ranked institutions. A recent Princeton graduate  “submitted a test that was full of spelling and grammar mistakes.”

“Why can’t colleges turn out graduates who can write basic sentences and do basic math?” Atkinson asks. He blames professors who want to teach their favorite subject, but don’t teach logic, debate, writing, research or other workplace skills.

One of the best college grads I ever hired (a graduate of Dartmouth) majored in history. In his job . . .  he didn’t need to know history. What he needed to know was how to think, how to write, how to speak intelligently, how to find information and make sense out of it, how to argue coherently, and how to do basic math. Fortunately, he had acquired these skills. But other graduates of colleges such as Kenyan, Bowdoin, Bates, or the University of Pennsylvania, whom I have hired over the years, clearly had not, or at least not nearly as well.

Science and engineering graduates need to know their subjects, he writes. Liberal arts and social sciences majors need practical skills, which they may or may not pick up by accident while studying French literature or the history of the comic book.

Atkinson wants a national test for college graduates of logic, reasoning, basic writing and math skills.

Next, he calls for a national employer survey to determine “what are the specific skills employers are looking for in recent graduates.” The survey also should ask which colleges and universities have provided the best employees.

Finally, we need radical experimentation in college design. It’s time for a foundation or wealthy individual to endow an entirely new college founded on teaching 21st century skills, not 20th century subjects.

I can’t imagine teaching these skills without teaching subject matter as well. Of course, I can’t imagine a Princeton grad who hasn’t mastered grammar and spelling — or, at least, spellchecker.

Many colleges do try to teach writing to students; most professors require research papers. K-12 students do lots of oral presentations. Are college graduates really that hopeless?

About Joanne

Comments

  1. I wouldn’t mind such a test. Given once a year to anyone who cares to take it. No age limitations, no grade minimums.

    All computerized. Log onto blahblah.gov any time between xxx and yyyy, etc. It’d be easy.

  2. I suspect some of the candidates who fail the short “test” (like the “average the odd-numbered items”) are failing not solely because of lack of math or reading skills. I find I get a small percentage of college students who can’t or won’t follow directions.

    I really don’t know if it’s a lack in them, or if they’ve come to think, “I made it to college so I know how things work and I don’t need the stinkin’ instructions.”

    It makes teaching labs very stressful. At the very least, I have to run across the room to grab the pipette out of the student’s hand before they cross-contaminate solutions (after I explained, both on the lab handout and in class, why that is BAD). At the worst, I have to keep people from doing foolish things that could hurt them. (I’d just let it happen and let them get hurt, but I’m afraid what having a student be injured in my class might do to my chances of future employment).

  3. That said, even though I teach at a small regional school serving a “traditionally underserved” segment of the population, we do get our share of students who either have or who develop good writing and math skills. (I teach biological sciences and the expectations for writing are pretty high for my department. And we’re trying to pull people up in math. But it does seem that we have more students with deficiencies in math.)

    Either Atkinson is being overly alarmist, or he has seen the worst of the worst among college graduates.

  4. Re spelling and college: Isn’t it ‘Kenyon’ rather than ‘Kenyan’?

  5. Unfortunately, this situation isn’t likely to improve in the future.

    The issue with students is that the college degree has been dumbed down to such a point that what passes for college level knowledge today was high school knowledge 30-40 years ago.

    I took my first programming course in college in 1981, and we did 2 to 3 programming assignments a week with occasional quizzes, exams, and a final project (between 30 and 40 programming assignments).

    Today, a student in their first programming course wouldn’t do more than 15-20 assignments at most.

    I guess in college today, you pay more and actually get less.

    Also, the main things that employers who are hiring look for are critical thinking, analysis, problem solving, communication skills (reading, writing, oral), and a good work ethic (unfortunately, many high school and college grads lack the very items which would make them employable).

  6. Oh, come on. Why does everyone swallow this absurd story?

    I just recently went to Stanford with graduates from top universities. I have also worked with graduates from top universities as they are preparing for grad school.

    I flatly challenge his claim that this population is not capable of the simple tasks he describes and more.

  7. Math Teacher says:

    Wow, in our current economy, he gets only 20 applicants for a position? Sounds like not many college-educated job-seekers are interested in working at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Where does he post his job announcements? How much does he pay his entry-level employees?

    I’m with Cal. This guy is making a massive generalization based on a miniscule number of people.

  8. Finally, we need radical experimentation in college design. It’s time for a foundation or wealthy individual to endow an entirely new college founded on teaching 21st century skills, not 20th century subjects.
    (Joanne): “I can’t imagine teaching these skills without teaching subject matter as well. Of course, I can’t imagine a Princeton grad who hasn’t mastered grammar and spelling — or, at least, spellchecker.”
    I cannot imagine a school so constituted getting accreditation. The role of accreditation agencies (and their conflicts of interest) receives insufficient attention.

  9. SuperSub says:

    Having attended, and successfully graduating from, Cornell, I can at least give some anecdotal support to Atkinson’s story. I did my fair share of editing friends’ research papers my senior year and there were a couple whose papers really needed the editing.
    I saw even more going for my ed degree.

  10. Allison says:

    –Why does everyone swallow this absurd story?

    I swallow it because I have the anecdotal experiences that back it up. I’ve met several Harvard and Boalt law school grads who brag that they can’t balance their checkbook; I’ve met college grads from local schools who can’t understand why I’m giving them $20.01 on an order of $13.76; I’ve met people with college degrees who don’t know how to use an index; I’ve read the work of top UC engineering undergrads who can’t spell “different” correctly, and apparently see no reason to check their work.

  11. Cardinal Fang says:

    “Atkinson wants a national test for college graduates of logic, reasoning, basic writing and math skills.”

    Don’t we already have such a test, for college entrants? And haven’t the students Atkinson is criticizing already done well on that test?

    And anyone flaming people for spelling had better not make spelling and punctuation mistakes of his own. It’s KenyOn, unless for some reason he was interviewing a graduate of some African school or something, and that’s a restrictive relative clause about the students he hired so it shouldn’t be preceded by a comma.

  12. Allison, there’s a reason why people don’t use anecdata.

    By the way, most of your examples have nothing to do with intelligence. If they all did the same thing on an interview, then we could talk.

    This guy is not credible. Your examples are credible. Just irrelevant.

  13. Cranberry says:

    “Wow, in our current economy, he gets only 20 applicants for a position?”

    He didn’t say that.

    ” Because the quality of so many of the graduates was so poor, ITIF has taken to giving the small share of the most promising applicants (based on their resumes and cover letters) a short test that we email them to complete at home in one hour.”

    then,

    “In our current hiring process (for an office manager/research assistant) we have so far given the test to approximately 20 college grads. Only one did well enough to merit an interview. ”

    Of the 20 who made it to the short-test stage, only one passed. he does not specify the number of resumes which did not make the cut.

  14. Cranberry says:

    “I just recently went to Stanford with graduates from top universities. I have also worked with graduates from top universities as they are preparing for grad school.”

    It is very likely that the top university graduates who are accepted to Stanford’s education school are distinctly different from the graduates applying to a D.C. think tank. You don’t need to do well on the G.R.E. to apply to a think tank.

  15. Cranberry says:

    “It’s time for a foundation or wealthy individual to endow an entirely new college founded on teaching 21st century skills, not 20th century subjects.”

    Perhaps someone could define what the 21st skills might be? Mr. Atkinson opines the applicants he’s met haven’t learned the 18th century skills of spelling and arithmetic.

  16. Math Teacher says:

    I stand corrected… But since we don’t know how many applicants were in his original pool (for this particular position), is it possible he winnowed the pool down to the wrong “promising” twenty?

    One way or the other, he believes that all of higher ed is “failing” based on a selection of 20 applicants for the position of office manager. If this is not a gross generalization, please tell me what is.

  17. Cranberry says:

    He could be using criteria which wipe out the best applicants. He isn’t generalizing from only 20 applicants, though. That was only the most recent search, chosen as a concrete example of the overall pattern he perceives. To wit,

    “As president of a DC-based think tank, I have over the years hired many recent college graduates and interviewed many more. Because the quality of so many of the graduates was so poor, …”

  18. Cranberry says:

    As to why the graduates aren’t impressive, an article in the Boston Globe today might shed some light on that. It’s “What Happened to Studying?” (http://tinyurl.com/34njyph)

    “According to time-use surveys analyzed by professors Philip Babcock, at the University of California Santa Barbara, and Mindy Marks, at the University of California Riverside, the average student at a four-year college in 1961 studied about 24 hours a week. Today’s average student hits the books for just 14 hours. [...] What might be causing it, they suggest, is the growing power of students and professors’ unwillingness to challenge them.”

  19. Cranberry said, “It is very likely that the top university graduates who are accepted to Stanford’s education school are distinctly different from the graduates applying to a D.C. think tank. You don’t need to do well on the G.R.E. to apply to a think tank.”

    You do NOT need to do well on the GRE (or anything else) to gain admittance to a school of education. Education students have the lowest ACT/SAT and GRE scores of all college majors. Stanford education majors may have a little higher average score than education majors at other colleges, but I’d bet they still have the lowest GRE scores of graduate students at Stanford.) Linda Darling-Hammond would make certain of that!)

  20. Education students have the lowest ACT/SAT and GRE scores of all college majors.

    Not true, actually. Social workers are lower. And secondary school teachers are positively respectable. It’s elementary school teachers that drag the scores way, way down.

    In any event, a good half my class went to elite schools (Berkeley, Duke, Stanford, UCLA, Harvard covered a good 10-15 students, and that’s just off the top of my head). None of them had degrees in ed, as it was a secondary program.

    All of them had to pass at least one CSET in their program, and the tests are quite rigorous.

    I’m not disagreeing that ed school candidates have lower standards. But we’re talking elite schools. Some of the math candidates might have had low verbal GRE scores, but all of teh English and history candidates had over 600, certainly, which would have put them in the top 10 percent. And I’d be very surprised if any of the math or science candidates were lower than 600, which put them in the top 40%.

    In any event, I was talking specifically about the undergrads from top-ranked universities, and I am saying categorically that the top 50 universities aren’t routinely graduating incompetents. I’m sure there’s some legacy admits and other candidates for which standards were lowered, but they aren’t the norm.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by kriley19 and JoanneLeeJacobs. JoanneLeeJacobs said: New blog post: The failure of U.S. higher education http://bit.ly/bXTuDj [...]