Will the Push to College Lower Standards?


Could efforts to increase college graduation and retention rates "backfire" by leading colleges to lower standards?

Such is one of the main worries of contemporary college professors interviewed for a new report from that seeks to drive the discussion about the cost and quality of higher education.

The report - "Campus Commons: What Faculty, Financial Officers and Others Think About Controlling College Costs" - was prepared by Public Agenda for the Making Opportunity Affordable Initiative of the Lumina Foundation for Education. Its primary aim is to take the discussion on the state of higher education in America to, well, higher levels.

One question that the report repeatedly raises is whether colleges can find more ways to be efficient in an era of rising expenses and declining shares of state revenue, or whether their belts have already been tightened as much as possible.

The report is heavy on conversational frameworks and quotes from those in the field, but light on actual findings and proposed solutions. In fact, it recommends even more talk about the issue and characterizes the national conversation about the challenges that confront higher education as being in its "infancy."

Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, says the concern about the lowering of quality is legitimate. He says there is a temptation to "dumb down" instruction when dealing with teaching students from groups who don't typically go to college.

"If you look at test scores of kids who go on to college, they're higher than those who don't go to college," Vedder says. "So when you bring in a less academically gifted group of kids, you as a professor or teacher have a practical problem in the classroom, which is: How do I teach to these students?"

Typically, he says, instructors "succumb to the temptation" to water down the material.

"Whether you have to do that, I don't know," Vedder says. "The feeling is if you don't, you get a higher dropout rate."

More answers may be forthcoming in a study Public Agenda is doing with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. That study will focus on why so many students fail to complete post-secondary education once they start. The study will look at the challenges facing young people from low-income neighborhoods, according to Public Agenda.