Jason Fertig on The New Normal, or Yesterday’s ‘F’ as the ‘C’ of Today

Jason Fertig joins Andy Nash for a discussion on career-prep, and the lowering of college standards and intellectual enrichment. Dr. Fertig is an assistant professor of management at the University of Southern Indiana and a contributor to National Review Online’s Phi Beta Cons and other journals.

Key Take-Aways

  • 2:33 – Students’ oral communication/writing ability suffers due to career-prep approach (1 min)
  • 5:00 – Colleges as “everything to everybody” are a key part of the bloat in higher ed (1 min)
  • 8:00 – Are schools incentivized to maintain robust standards, or sell an experience? (30 secs)
  • 9:30 – Should we wait for the higher ed bubble to burst? (30 secs)
  • 11:55 – Yesterday’s B might be today’s A, but the real problem is yesterday’s F is today’s C. (1 min)
  • 14:00 – There’s a jadedness among students from dumbly “going through the motions” (1 min)

Andy’s Show Notes

Aren’t colleges making students better candidates for the “real world” if and when they prepare them for careers and jobs?  Not so fast says Dr. Jason Fertig, assistant professor of management at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville, Indiana.

In Professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, the authors conclude that students in not only communications but business, are developing less critical thinking skills than their upper level counterparts in the humanities. Students in such disciplines, as Arum and Roksa point out do not achieve the comparable skills as some in the humanities and social sciences because of the lack of writing being demanded of them.

Fertig says that he too finds himself being pulled in two directions: to educate for the intellectual enrichment of his students vs. to prepare them for careers.  He says career prep is often being promoted to students, and they’re given clichéd messages about motivating workers and conflict management.  They see their curricula in management as job prep, and without much actual work experience it’s hard to get students to connect what they’re learning with the working world. So they bide their time and wait to become credentialed to be ready to go out in the work force.

But why have the “two directions” become distinct and opposite?  Was not college the place where by way of intensive mental and intellectual training you developed the thinking necessary to be able to make the decisions as that of a manager?  How and when did preparing you for the job end up at odds with intellectual enrichment?  And if colleges are watering down their academic rigor in the specified programs that are supposedly preparing one for their field, then why go to college?  Why not some specific certification program?  Wouldn’t that be a whole lot less expensive?

But perhaps the most important question is why are colleges watering down their standards?  As he mentions in his article on NAS.org, “students see school as a social and credentialing experience more than one of intellectual growth”. New gyms and luxurious dorms are all part of the dazzle used to lure in students.  But on graduation day Fertig admits in our interview that “when students walk across the isle there is a certain jadedness about them that they just went through the motions, they didn’t learn anything, they just got their piece of paper and they’re moving on”.  So how did it get this way?

We may find a clue in the 2005 PBS documentary series Declining by Degrees.  In one segment, spotlighting a typical large lecture hall with students practically falling asleep in the back, it alluded to the unspoken understanding between students and teachers that in exchange for certain bear minimal work, students expect to receive passing grades.  It covered the trend of grade inflation, as Fertig even admits, that many today think that a “C means degree”.

But this is where Fertig warns of the real danger.  He says there is the assumption that everyone is capable of doing better than the C or D they received but they were just being lazy.  But the real problem with grade inflation is not if yesterday’s B is today’s A, but what if yesterday’s F is today’s C?

If a teacher finds he has to correct punctuation, grammar, word choice, syntax and overall (lack of) organization in their students’ papers, then how can they pass them?  So the more students are allowed to be detached from and unchallenged by academic demands, the more they indeed become “demoralized by low standards” as he claims in his article, and thereby all the more indeed academically adrift.

But the vicious cycle not only occurs among students as they advance from one year to the next. It also occurs between students and faculty.  In Declining by Degrees, the professor in the large lecture hall cannot simply fail all the students who do not demonstrate an expected mastery of the material.  As we discussed with Fertig, many college faculty, especially adjunct faculty, have to produce the outcome of a realistic mean average grade for the class at the end of the term.  If too many receive A’s, then obviously they’re grading too light; and if too many fail, then the assumption is the professor can’t effectively teach the material.  So the lower the standards, the less enthused the otherwise curious and capable students become.  And the more disinterested, non-interactive and mentally asleep students are in the class, the less the professor has any desire to do much more than “go through the motions” himself.  And with student evaluations of professors weighing in on the assessment of that adjunct’s rehire, the tacit, subconscious understanding seems to be, ‘you pay the fee and collect your degree, and we’ll collect a paycheck’.

Fertig notably concludes that as a matter of ethics, professors owe one another effective and accurate grading so that they’re not passing on poor writing and poor ability to the next level, so that today’s underperforming juniors do not become next year’s graduating seniors.  The degree is supposed to signify that the graduate is a thinker and an intellectual.  So part of his solution is to harness the best and the brightest students in honors and Continuing Ed classes and other such programs with demanding writing work, because it is precisely “the top students who lose out the most when we inflate the F to a C.”

Find out how in our interview with Dr. Jason Fertig on InsideAcademia.tv.