Majors, Student Effort, and Grade Inflation

Writing at Liberty Unbound, Cal State Fullerton philosophy professor Gary Jason has an excellent discussion of the trend of fewer students’ pursuing STEM majors. Why is it that, despite the superior career prospects for students who major in one of these fields, American students have increasingly gone elsewhere? Jason contends that it probably has a lot to do with the relative effort needed: “If these students were never forced to work diligently in grade school or high school, might this not be the reason why they flee majors that require hard work, and in fact are studying less than ever in college?”

Yes, that’s a persuasive explanation. Over the last 40 years or so, high school has changed. Academic standards are lower, and the “progressive” theory that schooling should elevate student self-esteem and make learning fun (so that students will want to become “lifelong learners”) has left many students with the expectation that education should be easy. High school colors their expectations for college. They think they’re entitled to high grades without much effort. They also think (or at least did until the last couple of years) that once they had their degree (any degree would do), a good, high-paying job awaited them.

One beneficial result of OWS and all the similar protests around the country is that it has highlighted the fact that just having some college degree is no guarantee of a good job — or any job at all. That will probably do a lot to change the conventional wisdom that college is a good human-capital investment for nearly everyone. We might see an increase in the number of students in STEM fields and a large decrease in the number of students coasting their way through college in one of the many softer majors.

George Leef — George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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