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The biggest scandal in higher education is lowering the bar

When it comes to higher education, there is no shortage of scandals, but perhaps the biggest scandal is how colleges and universities drop academic standards to match the proficiency levels of today’s student population. When professors lower standards, we are diminishing the quality of education, cheapening our own profession, and betraying the core mission of academia — to transmit knowledge, foster critical thinking, and prepare students for the professional world that awaits them.

Recently, New York University announced that it would not be renewing Professor Maitland Jones Jr.’s contract. Professor Jones believes he was terminated after 82 of his 350 students signed a petition stating that the course was too difficult and that he was responsible for their failing grades.

According to the students, “a class with such a high percentage of withdrawals and low grades has failed to make students’ learning and well-being a priority.” NYU’s decision reflects a growing body of evidence that students view professors as nothing more than customer service representatives, and they believe academic standards should be pushed aside to promote “equity” and placate a fragile student population. In Professor Jones’s case, it appears that faculty are no longer in charge of their classrooms as the ever-growing number of administrators seek to usurp their authority.

While Professor Jones’s case is highly disturbing, even more disturbing are the recent trends in education as a whole. A Wall Street Journal study found that at least one-third of college seniors were unable to develop a cohesive argument, identify quality evidence, and interpret data. The study also found that students graduating from prestigious universities have little to no improvement in their abilities to think critically. 

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Harvard Business Review found that universities and colleges are not prioritizing job skills and career readiness. Consider the timeframe from the 1940s to the mid-1990s; the average student GPA was 2.5. From the late-1990s to the present day, the average GPA is 3.1. If today’s students are less proficient than previous generations, how are they overperforming?

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It would, however, be unfair to put this all on the backs of higher education institutions. While colleges and universities continue to enable the dumbing down of America, the problem stems from a failed K-12 education system. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s own assessment, only 37 percent of graduating high school seniors are academically prepared for college. Rather than focus on improving and meeting basic proficiency levels, K-12 and higher education institutions appear to have given up and dropped standards. It is proficiency levels like these that force incoming college students into remedial classes, which they earn no credits for and which have detrimental effects on student development.

The problem is becoming much worse due to the failed pandemic policies. Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research found that students in grades K-12 who attended class in person in 2020-2021 had a 20 percent decline in learning. Students that attended remotely in grades K-12 throughout the entire 2020-2021 school year had a 50 percent decline. Even though students did not learn the basic subject matter, they were still cycled through to the next grade, unprepared and forced to fall further behind.

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How much more can we lower the standards before the entire house of cards comes crashing down? Education is no longer localized, and students are in a global competition. We constantly preach about how the students of today are the leaders of tomorrow, so why don’t we treat them as such? By setting such a low bar, we are doing a disservice to the students, the faculty, and academia.

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