The undergraduate crisis: grade inflation and student disengagement

Last week, I attended the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance Partners in Education dinner. The dinner featured a discussion panel with author of "Ivory Tower Blues" James Côté, Guelph academic dishonesty researcher Julia Christensen Hughes and McMaster professor Scott Davies.

The topic of discussion was the crisis in undergraduate education stemming from student disengagement, grade inflation and academic dishonesty.

Listening, I was greatly concerned by calls for a decrease in the number of students taking general undergraduate degrees. (B.A./B.Sc)

While I completely agree that there are many students in undergraduate programs who do not belong there, I do not agree that lowering the number of students will actually do anything to solve that problem.

Christensen Hughes argued for standardized testing for university admissions (high school final exams that would be common across the entire province). This would be a great start because it would control grade inflation. It may even be the first step towards shrinking undergraduate enrolment. I would even go a step further and advocate a national standardized test similar to the American SAT.

The problem with shrinking enrolment is that fewer universities (especially among the "G-13") will bother to recruit in disadvantaged communities. The under-representation of disadvantaged groups on university campuses is finally getting attention from universities desperate to maintain their enrolment numbers and funding as the demographic of young people begins to drop off. If they had to cut their undergraduate enrolment, it makes much more economic sense to stop recruiting in disadvantaged communities where students are more likely to need student services and less likely to rent newer, more expensive residence rooms.

I believe that we need to decide the number of undergraduate spaces that will be available for direct entry from high school. (We’d also need to set a separate number aside for "mature students" and foreign credential upgrading.) Then, taking that number, evenly distribute them among high schools. A few American states have implemented quotas on admission in this manner. For example, within these states, public universities admit the top 10 per cent of students from each high school in the state. This means that the top 10% of students in a disadvantaged high school get the opportunity to pursue university, not just the 20 per cent at a better-off suburban high school.

Coincidentally, there is a lot of material in newspapers last week related to this topic.Yoni Goldstein of the *National Post *says the biggest mistake that Canada ever made was the funding of higher education for all. He makes some great points.

*The Independent *across the pond ran an article entitled University degrees are a waste of time – the damning verdict of British students. The UK government plans to have 50% of the young people studying in universities within two years. This is, naturally, decreasing the value of the undergraduate degree and causing great concern among students.

Cheating is the topic of this week’s podcast at the W.P. Casey School of Business at Arizona State University. The podcast entitled "Are Millennials Prone to Cheating to Get Ahead?" (Read the transcript, don’t bother with listening to the Podcast)