Blog Post

6 Things College Degrees Don't Necessarily Tell Me About You

If I find out in the course of a conversation with you that you have recently graduated from college what does this tell me about you?  There are 6 things that a college degree should tell me about you. But, I'm less and less sure that the degree conveys this information.

1.  You're a critical thinker.  In the book Academically Adrift, the authors offer research that shows that over the course of the first two years of a student's four year education there is virtually no improvement in critical thinking skills.  Given this, the odds seem to be against seeing a major improvement in the last two years.  It would seem that having a college degree doesn't necessarily tell me you're a critical thinker.

2.  You have a well-rounded education.  One of the points of college is to broaden students' exposure to ideas, concepts, and topics of knowledge.  But, what is often missing is any context for making the necessary connections between subjects that would allow students to be truly well-rounded in their education.  Instead, students take one class after another of isolated subjects and isolated facts.  Without any direction for seeing the big picture, students soon forget these isolated facts and come out with nothing close to a broadly based general knowledge of the world.  Consequently, I cannot be sure that as a college graduate you have a well-rounded education.

3.  You have in depth knowledge about a specific field.  Sacrificing a well-rounded education might be worth it if students received instead an in depth education about their specific field of study.  But, I fear in the current climate of obsessive interest in grades not only do students lack breadth in their knowledge but also depth. Yes, students have a better than average knowledge of their field but is this the best that a college degree can provide?  Does your college degree signal an in depth knowledge about your major?  I'm afraid I can't be sure of that.   

4.  You can write well.  Of all the skills that college should be teaching well this is one of the most important.  And, one of the easiest to verify.  Yet, every year students graduate from college with poor writing skills.  This is probably due to a complex set of causes but surely one cause is that students are not asked to write enough and are not helped to improve their writing skills in their courses.  What's worse, there are college instructors who are simply passing students in their writing classes who should not be passed.  A few semesters ago I had a student in my class with extremely poor writing skills.  To my surprise the student had taken both college writing courses (ENG 101 and 102) and received good grades in both classes.  So, according to the student's transcript he was a college level writer.  What will happen when he discovers that he is not?  Who will be the first one to tell you that you are not as good of a writer as your grades led you to believe?

5.  You can read college level writing.  One of the perennial problems college professors have is getting their students to read books.  Any books.  But, students don't seem to appreciate the importance of reading and as a result they don't acquire the skill of being able to read well.  That means they are closing off an important source of knowledge and information that would benefit them.  Many students labor under the false impression that once they graduate from college they will no longer be required to read, write, or learn new things.  If you are one of them, you could not be more wrong.  What's the last non-fiction, unassigned book you read?  If you don't have an answer to this question, you'd better go to the bookstore!

6.  You are employable.  Finally, what some regard as the ultimate point of a college degree.  Perhaps we can't improve a student's critical thinking skills, or writing skills, or reading skills.  Perhaps we can't give them a broad general knowledge and an in depth knowledge in their field but we can train them for a specific job and help them become employable.  But, the problem is: Who will hire such students with narrowly focused skills, poor writing and reading skills, and little appreciation for the broader picture of life and culture?  I have begun looking at students in my classes in terms of this question: Would I hire them?  More and more the answer I give is: No. As a student you need to start asking yourself this question.  Would my professor hire me?  Would my advisor?  

Given that the college degree is not providing graduates with these skills, some are beginning to advocate alternative methods for achieving these skills and signaling to the world that students have them.  That is the subject of an article titled Stop Requiring College Degrees.  In the article, the author rightly points out that once employers begin to see that college degrees don't provide graduates with these skills as reliably as other options, they will begin to shift their attention to these alternatives.  What form these will ultimately take is still open but there are many other options being formulated and tested such as MOOC's, Badges, certifications, etc.

The important point for those in higher education is that this discussion has gone as far as it has.  It can no longer be assumed that college is the only option students have to get the skills they need for employment and for life.  It may not be long before college is no longer the best option for getting these skills. 





You say: “But most students are simply not motivated to improve because they know that bad writing will not significantly impact their grade or their chance of getting a degree.” And then later you say  “But what can I do? I can't fail half the class. “  I can’t help but feel those are connected.  Students know you will not fail them so they don’t put forward any effort to improve their writing. 

I have been slowing converting my classes to contain many small writing assignments and the students can resubmit if they do not complete the assignment with a sufficient response.  Part of how I define “sufficient” for them in the syllabus is that their response must be written with proper grammar and spelling.  There are other factors to a sufficient response but if their response is not well written they will not earn credit.  Some have to resubmit multiple times but at least their final submission is written well and it seem to carry over to their next submission.  Of course, the major drawback of this method is that it wouldn’t work well with a large class.



When I read "But what can I do? I can't fail half the class" my reaction was, "Yes.  You can."  Several years ago, in one extreme case, I failed about 90% of the students who enrolled in a class I was teaching.  I will spare details and ask that you accept that, in this case, it was not poor pedagogy on my part.  (At this point, I want to acknowledge--but not delve into--the political reality that I was a tenured professor--not a PhD candidate--when I encountered this dismal class.)

If half my class is failing, I would first reflect on whether or not the problem was due to course/assignment design and consider if there are modifications I could make to improve student success.  When the problem is me, I make appropriate changes and don't fail students for my shortcomings.  However, I agree with Kevin that if students don't think that you will fail them, they won't put through the effort to improve--or even to do quality work in the first place. 

I don't know about your college, but we are seeing more students who are making calculations on whether or not to do assignments based on the number of points they will earn.  This is an issue I developed in "But It's Only Worth 10 Points."  In this essay, I also address a version of Kevin's suggestion of giving short assignments.

I also like Kevin's strategy of allowing revisions.  Because I ask my students to discuss history in ways that are new to them, I don't think it is fair--or pedagogically sound--to expect that they will master necessary skills on their first attempts.  But, as you rightly point out, students must do their parts, too.  Students who don't turn in an initial assignment cannot be given the opportunity to revise what they haven't written.

Let me close with a piece of advice.  If you must fail half your class because some students refuse to do their parts, make sure that your supervisor is aware of the problems you are encountering and what you have done to address those issues.  You can be sure that throughout the semester I was in frequent contact with the Dean about the class where 90% of the students failed. 




If the only way you can get "sufficient" writing skills is to threaten to flunk them, you're problem is YOU, not them. Fear of failure is a dreadful incentive; joy of success is where it ought to be. Negative incentives result in reticent and resentful compliance, not conviction, authority, and ownership - and thereafter repetitions of success. Positive incentives - publishing their paper on your blog, promoting their work with others including both students and teachers, serious congratulations for real insights - are much, much better teaching. Your job is not "judge," but, rather, coach and inspiration.

And let's not talk about writing: "I have been slowing converting my classes..." means what? Do you mean "slowly," or do you mean gradually, or do you mean that you're slowing the progress of students so bright ones don't get done too early?

Why is it that YOU are the one who defines "sufficient?" They're paying you. If that definition is to mean anything more than a hurdle on a raceway, it has to be a shared definition, and there are more of them than there are of you!

I'm sure you are a better teacher than this sounds, and it's extremely disappointing to cite these elisions when, most surely, you do inspire the best from the best. Yet the real challenge for a teacher - of any student in any level of education - is to engage those less engaged from the start. Punishment is the worst possible means. I would give your writing in this response a B-, at best - with that "slowly" and that "sufficient" malfeasance. What say you do another draft and show us how bright students set better standards in your classes?


"Slowly" means one class at a time.  I teach five courses per semester so it's easier to make changes to one course at a time rather than all five at one time.  Sorry if that was unclear.  

My comment was mainly in regard to a prior comment and I was pointing out what seemed to be two conflicting issues. 

1. "Most students are simply not motivated to improve because they know that bad writing will not significantly impact their grade or their chance of getting a degree."

2. “But what can I do? I can't fail half the class. “

My only point regarding these two comments was that in a context of a graded course where students are concerned about their grades if those students know they cannot fail then perhaps that contributes to their perception that they have no incentive to improve something that won't affect their grade.

I certainly did not mean to imply that the "ONLY" or even the best way to motivate students is to threaten to flunk them.  But, for the college courses I teach, and I assume Caleb's as well,  grades are a fact of business.  Whatever my students and I do in the classroom at the end of the semester I have to record a grade.  There is no way around that.  

Perhaps taking some of those grades off the table from the very start (D and F grades?) would free to students to learn and engage.  I don't know.  Perhaps a better teacher than I would try that experiment.


I've taught at almost every level from grad students in education to middle school history, and never failed a student. Sometimes the student might fail me, but that's my problem, not theirs. Judgment is far too subjective to inflict on a kid.

In the course of that 40 year history in teaching, my sharpest experience was when I discovered a high school that regularly "held back" 25% of its 9th grade in order to have the highest "gain score" in its state. Assuredly some of those students might have benefitted from an extra year of school - most were bilingual and had language barriers - but that "strategy" was the school administration's effort to boost its own reputation at the expense of an extra year of high school for 200 to 400 kids (the retention rate went back 20 years!). We know from over 200,000 cases in the Chicago School Indicators (the largest database on school performance, attendance, and success) that retention is the prime reason for dropping out: teach a kid they're stupid and the learn it too well.

My response to that discovery was to challenge the school administration and, in turn, the Superintendent, Principal, and Guidance Director resigned or retired all in the same year. When my elected School Committee member claimed, "The students were not prepared for 10th grade," I - not so mildly - asked, "We elected you 9 years ago, so WTF have you been doing for 9 years!" She did not run for re-election. And the school itself created one of the most dramatic and heartwarming "innovations" I've ever seen: a "re-direct" program which sent 9th graders with poor attendance or tests or grades to a tutoring program run by 12th grade students. That changed "failure rate" from 25% to 4% within a year.

The entire question of "grades" is - or ought to be - moot in all levels of education. Many colleges and some schools use a "Pass/Fail" system, designed largely to be an early warning to avoid later failure. Educators have very different criteria than employers or supervisors in most workspaces, and it is difficult for them to avoid clubbing a student with a penalty when other, more positive incentives are sometimes hard to access. Yet punishment represents school failure 90% of the time, and faculty - at any level - who fail their students with any frequency should pay the price, regardless of tenure. Tenure is awarded to protect academic standards - standards to which academics should be measured - and not to protect thugs.



These are all important points and this issue (lower standards/achievement) needs far more discussion and action than it is current getting from administrators and instructors. Yes, access is a crucial issue. But genuine learning and skill development are really falling behind. Take the issue of writing, which is of particular concern to me: most classes simply do not put enough evaluative emphasis on writing and TAs generally do not receive much/any training in this area. I do what I can as a TA to help my students with their writing - book suggestions (like 'Sin and Syntax'), spending extra time correcting errors on assignments, emphasizing writing in my comments, etc. But most students are simply not motivated to improve because they know that bad writing will not significantly impact their grade or their chance of getting a degree. So they progress through their 3 or 4 year programs with Cs and Bs and end up with a degree without much improvement. This is a disaster! I had a chance to teach my own course in fall 2013 (a level 4 seminar) and I was frankly shocked by the level of reading and writing ability in half of the class. But what can I do? I can't fail half the class. When I think about the problems around critical thinking, reading, writing, expertise, intellectual development, and employability that you have pointed out, I sometimes wonder what we're even doing as university instructors and students. Just filling our time? I’m finding HASTAC so valuable for thinking through pedagogical issues and I think that we as instructors can take a lot of blame for plummeting standards. But I do not think that the blame lies solely with us. If students are not spending enough time on writing/editing to improve their work and if they only read half of their assigned readings an hour before tutorial, what can we do? I really think that assessment needs to change. It needs to be constructive, yes, but should also require more.

Do you have any suggestions for what we can do at the TA level to work specifically on writing skills? I intend to make an effort in this area as an instructor, but teaching assistants have much less influence over assessment standards and course content.


The easiest way to improve writing is to clarify the audience: when students review each other, and sign-off, they learn how well they - and their peers - are doing, and realize - much, much more quickly - that writing is intended to communicate rather than merely to fulfill a requirement. In my experience two sign-offs was enough to guarantee that a paper would recognize that readers want to learn something rather than just check off a box.

A corollary "trick" is to publish online. Google Doc's are perfectly adequate, depending on the size of the group, for portfolio materials and for drafts and collaborative projects. And they can also proofread and check spelling and sometimes punctuation. In other words, use stuff they've already got, and use it a lot, and use it more creatively than they expect, in order to both improve how as well as what they say.

Finally, topics that are interesting lend themselves to more interesting papers. Creating an "idea pool" from which students can draw or develop their own paper is easy as well as progressive. Politics tend to raise their expectations, so preparing a "speech" for a Governor, Mayor or President, and/or their opposition regarding an event in history or today is relatively easy, and that brings up nuances like voice, style, structure and pace. And then, reviewing those speeches and ranking how compelling they are - or where they fail - to create change or maintain an existing practice (either contemporary or historic) gives plenty of opportunity to test style, substance, and examples, as well as footnotes, context, and character. I don't know the period or locale of the history you may be teaching, but all politicians talk to get power, and their words work or ... don't. My best advice is to heed that of one of my students, "I didn't know I knew anything until I had to teach it to somebody else." So, a poorly written paper is an invitation for help rather than condemnation. The easiest way to elicit that help is to ask a very good writer to write a very bad paper for a politician they really don't like...and then ask somebody else to help fix it.