Pressure to pass mediocre students forced me out of academia

After years of resisting university managers determined to graduate students at all costs, one US professor decided it was time to quit

April 13, 2022
Mortar board with cash to illustrate Pressure to pass mediocre students made me leave academe
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Teaching small groups of undergraduates can be one of academia’s great pleasures. In my previous role as a professor at a small private US college, I knew my students well, and the most motivated and hard-working undergraduates were excellent. The brightest were as good as, if not better than, those at larger public universities where I have taught.

But those delights were overshadowed by what I believed to be low academic standards thrust upon me by university administration. For example, when I informed my students that they would need to study all materials on my physics course regardless of whether they would be on an exam, some students complained to the administrators, who seemed eager to take their side. In the end, my department chair demanded that I tell my class exactly what would be on their exam, question by question.

Another time, I was forced to throw out a quiz when a few vocal students complained that it was too difficult. My refusal to accept these standards – allied with persistent gender discrimination – led me to quit my profession.

The reasons for giving in to these poor-performing students are, unsurprisingly, financial. Institutions are motivated to allow students to be admitted and to progress regardless of academic concerns; in some instances that I observed, my institution actively sought to recruit such students.

Many students at my former institution assumed that their academic success and graduation was guaranteed. They also assumed – rightly – that their failure was ruled out upon payment of their tuition. 

At their best, small non-elite colleges can spur innovative ideas and foster great minds, but too often they compromise standards and dilute the value of a degree by producing underqualified graduates.

Does it really matter if students are not hitting the heights that their professors expect? I believe we all should care. Our children's schoolteachers may be among these graduates. We may rely on them to make life-or-death medical decisions affecting ourselves or our loved ones. And, as taxpayers, we may be asked to provide tuition relief for those who were ill prepared to join the workforce and who make poor employees and colleagues.

Not all non-elite, small and private universities operate like my old employer, and nor are all of their graduates intellectually mediocre. However, even outstanding students can be dragged down if asked to study in an academically weak cohort of peers. Having an administration that lowers the bar for all students, treating them more like customers than students, worsens the problem.

Within two years, I realised that resisting these pressures was futile. I reluctantly lowered standards, not because I lost my conviction, but because of the unrelenting pressure from students and administrators to write easier assignments and tests and to give higher grades.

One assignment that I set at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, in which students were paired with local seniors in an assisted living facility, was the final straw. Undergraduates met with their senior via Zoom to discuss connections between course material and the current social, economic and political context, as well as connections with the pandemic and public health more generally. As a disabled scientist, I wanted them to understand that science is more than just about uncovering new knowledge. It requires compassion and patience that yields little to no personal gain.

Some revelled in stepping outside their comfort zone and communicating with those from beyond their usual walk of life. But others failed to grasp this lesson; one student’s report stood out as grossly insensitive and entitled, with comments that were disrespectful and selfish. But instead of handing out the low grade they earned, I gave them an “A”. Based on previous experiences, I knew that this student would not accept anything less than a perfect grade, and I no longer had the capacity to fight a battle with administrators.

We need to rethink the current model of higher education and the role of private universities in the US. Specifically, we need to think through what can be done to address the growing concern that a student’s grades do not necessarily reflect their abilities. If a diploma does not necessarily reflect academic achievement, what is it really for?

The US higher education accreditation system is notoriously disjointed, reflecting how universities have sprung up independent of federal government. But the taxpayer subsidy may mean that it is time to consider requiring private institutions to attain the same accreditation as public institutions, regardless of revenue sources.

Maybe private institutions should even have the same or stricter admission requirements as state universities. The closure of some small, less-selective colleges that are struggling to maintain enrolment may not be the tragedy that many imagine if graduates are not reaching the required level of competency that the public would expect.

Everyone should take note of the declining academic standards of the private university system and recognise that it is up to all of us to be strong and ethical role models and to educate not only the mind but also the heart and soul of the next generation of our world’s leaders.

At the very least, we should support and encourage instructors in their efforts to uphold high academic standards.

The author was a physics professor at a small private college in the US.

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Reader's comments (12)

This is happening in UK HE as well. Grade inflation is rampant in the UK at all educational levels. Grades and degree classifications are now pretty much meaningless to employers as they do not denote capability nor knowledge anymore. UK universities do this to attract more students by dishing out more 1st class degrees at the expense of diluting academic rigour and quality standards. It's all about what undergraduates want and their 'uni experience' ala Disneyland approach to HE. Pretty pathetic state of affairs really.
At a prestigious red brick university I was told to give students a passing grade if the essays had no spelling mistakes. I was a teaching fellow and the instructor was incredibly cynical, but given the students' skills I capitulated quickly. I quit academia shortly afterwards and make significantly more than I would have as a professor. No regrets.
Lowering of standards is not only happening in private universities. As deheuty has commented, grade inflation in the UK is widespread: for example, the proportion of firsts awarded on the specialist economics degree at my institution has risen from 10-15% to close to 50% over the past 20 years - a change not unrelated to financial incentives. And I recall an Australian university introducing different marking criteria for overseas students 20 years ago in order to reduce failure rates.
A very sensible recommendation viz private universities. We have to recognise that they are differently motivated and act.
A very sensible recommendation viz private universities. We have to recognise that they are differently motivated and act.
I find that that newly created 12 months long MSc courses are pretty bad. They have students from such a diverse backgrounds (degrees from different disciplines and usually from lower ranked universities) such that the common ground in the cohort is very basic. The outcome we can achieve is very low, lower than a BSc level. Many of these students would not pass on the equivalent integrated masters programme (even with grade inflation), yet everybody seem to graduate. The admission process is non-existent, there is no filtering by ability, it is first come first served.
Agree with the comments above but here is an alternative view. It may actually be a good thing that grades become meaningless - In the job market, caveat emptor will apply. Recruiters will improve their methods to separate the wheat from the chaff (not that they dont do it now, most good rectuiters do it). Examinations and ever more complicated methods of assessment as the only way of measuring performance will disappear. A good analogy is a traffic light. Better no traffic light than an unreliable one. Academics can use the easing of workload to focus on improving their research and teaching. Teaching quality will actually improve as academics can teach new, exiciting, advanced and challenging material without worrying about grade distributions and pass percentages etc. We might actually get to see research led teaching.
It's been going on for years. Back in the 1990s I was an external examiner at an African university where one of the Lecturers with a doctorate from a UK university had written a marking scheme that was not factually accurate. I could not fault the students who had written the wrong answers because the lecturer had taught the wrong things!
The lowering of standards is profound in the online schooling communities. When you can quite literally have all the "cheat" materials you need to take your test for your online class where no one can see you, it is solely up to the students morality if they choose to cheat or not.
This problem is not confined to private universities. I quit my tenure track job for very similar reasons (amongst other) from a relatively big (10,000 students) state university. Over the years I felt more like a sales man at a commercial enterprise, and we had to keep the students happy by all means.
When standards are lowered, cheating becomes rampant because as students progress, they don't have the background knowledge they need for upper level courses. It becomes impossible for most of them to pass legitimately, so you give easier exams which you grade more liniently and you overlook cheating. It's extremely demoralizing.
Educators are service providers, not gatekeepers or managers. Their role is to teach, their craft is to engage students' minds and interests. Students pay dearly for teachers' services and the only meaningful return is a passing grade and a degree. Withholding those returns makes the transaction fail of its essential purpose. And for what? Self-gratification of teachers who misperceive their roles? Employers don't care how applicants scored at their "non-elite" colleges. Licensing agencies don't rely on educators' assessments in admitting practitioners. The memorable teachers in my long educational experience were the ones who engaged and inspired me. Not the few who thought they were protecting society by harshly grading.

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