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Why Mandating More College Graduates Won't Work

The state's public universities and community colleges are under increased pressure to graduate more students. Boosting the number of college graduates in Kansas is a laudable goal. But mandating that to happen is problematic. Commentator John Richard Schrock tells us why.


Commentator John Richard Schrock is professor emeritus at Emporia State University, where he trained generations of biology teachers. He lives in Emporia.

(TRANSCRIPT)

Kansas is going to need more college graduates in the future. That's according to projections from Georgetown University.
    
Increasing the number of college graduates has always been a general goal of the Kansas Board of Regents. Now, state universities and community colleges are under orders from the Regents: raise graduation rates.

That poses a problem for professors across the state - and across the country, where similar pressure is in place to graduate more college students.

Let's be clear: universities are not like factories churning out widgets. They simply can't just gear up production. Factories can control the quality of raw materials coming in... to ensure the quality of the “product” going out. Not so with schools.

Unfortunately, the freshmen coming into public colleges nationwide reflect a high school population with scores on national tests (the NAEP, ACT and SAT) that have gone DOWN, not up. And these new college students are requiring more, not less remediation.

In several fields, like engineering and physics, the majority of college graduates receiving degrees are foreign-born and many will return to their home countries. But in these last few months, the numbers of applicants from foreign students has plummeted by 30 percent. And Saudi Arabia, due to the low price of oil, is now cutting in half the subsidies it provides to students who wish to study in the U.S. and other countries.
 
So, at the same time American universities are facing factors that will reduce their graduation numbers, public colleges and universities in Kansas are under a mandate to increase graduation rates.  That's a tall order.  Maybe impossible.
    
Here's one way some schools could meet the goal: graduate as many students as possible, whether they deserve their degrees or not. Supposedly, a university professor controls his or her course syllabus and grade book. This academic responsibility has been challenged before. In the past, some athletic programs tried to coerce professors into passing valuable players who may not attend class or do any work. Such scandals were eventually condemned. And professors were able to continue maintaining academic standards.

But this new directive from above -- "graduate more students" gives legitimacy to administrators who are tempted to compromise those standards.

Such grading pressure is not new to Kansas professors. Ever since Kansas began allowing schools to keep their tuition, Kansas public higher education has been chasing tuition dollars. Student retention has become job one.

In some schools, advising has shifted to placing students in the easiest gen ed courses so they will attend school longer.

Until now, an administrator would be out of line to call a professor into the office and ask - “What are you going to do about the high rate of Ds, Ws and F’s in your class?”

But now, administrators have been given some cover. The mandate from the Kansas Board of Regents to raise graduation rates now justifies getting into a professor's grade book.

And non-tenured teachers are hard-pressed to say “no.”

To my tenured professor colleagues, I will tell you now that it is even more important to hold the line as gatekeepers.

A good student who walks across the stage at graduation to receive a degree that he or she fully deserves, should not be followed by another student who gets the same degree but who learned little or nothing to earn it. There's another way to think about it that we can all agree upon: No one wants to lay on the hospital operating table and look up to see a "C-" surgeon...who really deserved an "F."        

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Production assistance for this commentary was provided by KPR news interns Courtney Bierman and Cameron McGough, sophomores studying journalism at the University of Kansas.

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