Phi Beta Cons

Can College Learning Be Improved Through Tougher Accreditation?

The premise of the Education Department’s proposed changes (discussed here) is that it is possible to make a significant difference in the learning done by college students through more rigorous accrediting standards. Perhaps, but I doubt it.
The problem is that there are powerful reasons why the intellectual demands on many college students are so abysmally low, chiefly that that’s exactly what the students want. Due to the erosion of standards throughout K-12 education — greatly encouraged by all sorts of “progressive” educational theory — large numbers of students now graduate from high school with a view of school that it’s supposed to be kind of fun and impose little demand on their time for enjoyment. They’re “disengaged students.” Difficult reading and writing assignments are unknown to them and woe betide the teacher or professor who insists on such assignments. Those students aren’t in college because they have a passion for learning, or even a mild interest in it. They just want to have some fun while accumulating enough credits to get a degree.
College standards are where they are not by accident, but through the market. Schools are catering to their customers. Just as a small number of people like the singing one hears at The Met but far more like the singing of Britney Spears, so it is with academic standards. The lower-tier schools are offering what large numbers of students want, namely education lite.
The Department of Education wants to tug learning standards up, but due to the intellectual indifference of the mass of students, they have been falling and will continue to fall. Who wins the tug of war?
I’m strongly inclined to think that students, as exemplified by the famous t-shirt reading, “You can make me go to class, but you can’t make me learn,” do win. The lower tier schools will find ways to fudge and make it seem as though they are meeting the standards while keeping their paying customers content with the same thin gruel of education they’re accustomed to.
If we want stronger educational performance generally, we’ll have to start with K-12.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.