Liberals Gone Wild: The Problem(s) With Universal Access to University Education


Here’s another problem that is pulling apart my intuitions about what’s right: the policy of universal accessibility to university education. It seems there’s an intrinsic tension between upholding a certain academic standard and making it accessible to as many people as possible. ‘Member back in the last presidential election (in US and A) when Rick Santorum got a lot of flack for saying (sic.)“not everyone should go to university”? As the son of a professor of education and of a life-long school teacher, my initial reaction was indignation. “University education is not only a social good but it is right, you elitist bastard!” was pretty much my sentiment and that of any self-respecting Liberal anywhere. We are all better off the better educated our follow citizens are. This isn’t just conjecture. This is empirical fact.

Well, having spent a few semesters TA-ing and now teaching my own class, as much as it pains me to say it, Rick Santorum might have a case. Let me offer some observations, then I’ll discuss them.

About 20% to 25% of (first year?) university students have no hope in hell operating at a university level. This group can be subdivided into 2 groups. The first group just don’t give a fuh, and at this stage in their lives nothing much short of the threat of corporal punishment could get them to change their attitude. The content of this post doesn’t really concern them.

The second group have the cognitive abilities of middle schoolers—perhaps low level high school students at best. This is the group that causes me the most heartache. They almost exclusively come from lower socio-economic groups and are accepted in the university for reasons other than academic merit. This means the cards were stacked against them from the start. 

They went to sub-par elementary, middle, and high schools. They most likely are the first ones in their families to attend university and (probably) to have finished high school. They did not and do not have academic mentors. They often come from communities that don’t place a lot of value on formal education or if they do, the parent(s) don’t have the background to help. Simply put, these kids got the short end of the stick.

Now here’s the problem (or some of them anyway). On the one hand, if we don’t have some sort of policy to bring these kids into the university system, the cycle of poverty and poor education will never be broken in their respective communities. On the other hand, these kids read at a grade 9 level and so are unable to do the cognitive work that is required because all their effort goes into just trying to understand the literal content of the material.  Having to evaluate the content of an argument for relevancy, sufficiency, biases, conflicts of interest, premise acceptability, assumed premises, and so on isn’t even in the realm of possibility when you’re just struggling to understand what the words mean. 

Imagine having to evaluate arguments in a language you are barely familiar with. I may sound like I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. There are some serious deficiencies. Some of these students don’t even understand the instructions to the problems let alone how to answer the problems. (Again, I’m notexaggerating).

An Idealist Gets Reality-Slapped
It being my first semester, I started out pretty bright-eyed and bushy tailed about being able to teach anyone. This is how I taught dance. I truly believed that so long as the student put in the effort, I could teach anyone to be a competent dancer.  I knew how to break each step down in to such simple movements that so long as the person had a central nervous system, they’d eventually get it and dance. I taught Japanese salarymen to dance, for Christ’s sake!  Do I need more evidence than that?

Just as I did with my dance students, before the semester started, I promised myself that I will not let any of my students fail so long as they put in the work. I now have about 4 or 5 students that come see me about 2x a week and I work with them about an hour each—sometimes in groups sometimes one on one. My office hours begin at 2:30 on Mon and Wed and I don’t leave until around 6 on both days. I’m only required to stay until 4.   

I made a commitment to my students.  I told them that as long as they show up for extra help, do extra work, I will pass them.  In other words, so long as they have put forth their best effort, I will give them mine and they won’t have to repeat the course. I should add that my course is a graduation requirement for allprograms.

This experience has led me to question the policy of allowing students into universities based on criteria other that some minimum academic capacity. We need to critically evaluate the unintended consequences of this policy. First of all, I can pretty much guarantee that no full-time faculty is devoting as much time as I am to helping…so where are these kids going to get help? They’re not going to get it from home and most of their friends are probably in the same boat. It is simply unreasonable to expect professors to devote countless hours to private tutoring. This isn’t their job. 

 So, what do? I have some ideas, but I’ll return to them momentarily. The bottom line is this. We are setting these kids up for failure. And once they fail, getting them to try any kind of academic pursuit will be doubly difficult. Society has already told them this isn’t their domain, and experience is confirming it. They are hardly to blame.

We can draw an analogy with sports.  Sure, it’s good for everyone to be able to participate at a certain level, but not everyone is cut out for the Olympics.  There are 2 reasons (among many others) for which people might not be able to compete at the olympic level:  (1)  They’ve never really done any serious training and so throwing them into olympic training camp is just setting them up for failure.  (2)  Maybe they have potential but lack proper training.  In this second case, intermediate training will prepare them for the rigors of higher level training and competition.   

Now, here’s the fact that us bleeding heart liberals don’t want to accept.  Not everyone is capable of performing at an elite level regardless of how much training they have or have not have–be it sports, music, dance, or academics.  It sucks to say it, but it’s true.  For some reason most of us have no real problem saying it regarding sports, music, and dance.  Yet when you say it about academics, all of a sudden you are Satan. 

Lest I be misunderstood,  I’m not saying that simply because kids of a certain socio-economic class are ill-prepared (through no fault of their own) for university that this particular group of kids aren’t capable of academic success.  My point is more general at this staget: we should not suppose that everyone–regardless of high or low socio-economic origins–is capable of high-level academic performance.  I will elaborate on this point in a moment.

This brings us to a related issue: finite social resources and how to spend them. We’d like to think we are doing good by sending kids to university that might not otherwise have had the chance, but as I’ve already said, I think we are actually doing them a disservice. Most of these kids will likely drop out from frustration and consequent apathy—I probably would too.

Instead of throwing away money on kids that (through no real fault of their own) have very low prospects of success in university, that money ought to be invested in remedial education (to say nothing of decent high schools) to bring this group of kids up to an academic level where they have a reasonable chance of success. This will also build confidence which is a huge factor in the ability to overcome the inevitable setbacks every undergrad experiences.  If they have it in them, then once they have the resources to succeed, they will–just like everyone else who had a head start with the good fortune of going to a good elementary and high school and had good study habits modeled for them at home.

Also, there’s a fair amount of psychological research showing that kids who are expected to perform poorly do so. When these kids enter the university classroom, the expectations are not high for them and after the first few rounds of assignments and tests, many are probably used to being the one is isn’t expected to do well. This adds to the already high probability of frustration and consequent apathy and failure.

Ok, so what have we got so far? There’s a whole class of kids that we are pushing (and spending money on) to go to university to accomplish the laudable goal of breaking the cycle of poverty and deficient education in some communities. What are the unintended consequences? These kids learn quite quickly that they are woefully unprepared, they get frustrated and develop low-self esteem which breeds low standards for one’s self, which ultimately culminates in failure and reinforcement of the division in social groups.

To add to the happy mix, professors often distance themselves from these students and adopt a “sink or swim” policy toward their students because the professor’s job is not remedial ed. We can hardly blame the professors given the deluge of grading, research, committee meetings, journal editing, class prep, letters of recommendation requests, administrative tasks that are screaming for his immediate attention.

And lest we forget one more thing: Universities are expected to uphold certain standards of academic achievement. If I pass these students, I’m causing harm because (a) I’m denigrating what should be the standard for the course and if all or many professors do this, the value of a university education gets diluted; (b) I’m violating a standard of fairness (a student who doesn’t deserve to pass passes); and (c) they’ll likely hit a wall in the next semester–if not in this one–so I’m probably only prolonging the inevitable.  Lets just say that I’m already rethinking my policies for next semester.

Santorum For President?
I kid! I kid! But lets put our political biases aside and consider his proposal in light of what I’ve just said. First of all, a university education does notguarantee an exit from poverty—ask any Philosophy, English, or Sociology grad! So, lets stop pretending this is the only way out. What is the way out of poverty? How about a job or skills with upward mobility and/or that lead to self-employment? I.e., how about trades and technical jobs? This is what I tell all undergrads, “If you are attending university so you can ‘get a job’ GTFO of university and go to a trade and technical school…NOW!!!!”  

Everyone I know (therefore it is a scientific fact) who has gone this route has done very well for themselves.  Sure it’s not as glamourous and prestigious as getting a degree in the Humanities or Arts and Letters so you can serve coffee, but there are benefits. And you might accuse me of elitism for saying, “these people over here don’t have the academic chops to make it, they should build my house and fix my car instead.”

But this idea of the trades as being for the intellectually dull is a caricature of modern trades. Many technical jobs require high level math and (applied) physics. Also, even the more physical trades often require keen aesthetic sensibilities. All types of trades offer many opportunities in entrepreneurship and all levels of management once you’ve acquired some experience.   

I should add that most of these jobs pay quite well. Much more than an MA Phil makes…and even more than the tenured humanities professors in most public universities. Just think. You’ll make more than a professor with 8-10 years of post-secondary education and all you need to do is 2 years of practical and a couple of applied education…AND you’ll be paid while you’re doing your apprenticeship AND you probably walk into a job cuz you were doing a apprenticeship and have connections and work experience.

Here’s an example of how the trades can lift people out of poverty (thereby making my argument scientific): one of my best friend’s Dad was a plumber his whole life. Over the course of his career he turned his small shop into a multi-million dollar business and is now happily retired.  Therefore, everyone can do this.  (That’s logic).

Do you still think we should send under-prepared kids into a 4 year degree program they probably won’t finish? Look. If they really want to do it, we need to offer remedial programs and support services. But throwing them into the deep end without firstteaching them how to at least tread water is a tragedy of a mockery of a sham. It only undermines the laudable ostensible social goal and reinforces prevailing negative attitudes. What also doesn’t help it to promote the false message that the only sure way out of poverty is a 4 year degree.   

Rant over.  I’m curious what y’all think.  Lemmi know. 

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