Higher Education Quality:  Another Inconvenient Truth?
While the K-12 educational system in the U.S. has been the subject of substantial and justifiable criticism, until recently, higher education in the U.S. has been relatively immune from criticism and commonly receives positive comments in editorials about education.  Unfortunately, there is a significant amount of evidence that indicates standards and expectations in higher education in the U.S. have been declining over the last several decades.  Much of this evidence comes from student surveys that reveal that college students today are studying a maximum of one hour outside of class for each hour spent in class (as an example, one survey indicates students spend 9% of their time in class and 7% studying).  Ideally, it would be beneficial if a good assessment method other than time could be used to determine learning outcomes.  Lacking this method and information, the hours spent in a course are still useful for comparing course credits.  In June of 2007, I addressed this problem in an editorial that was printed in the Modesto Bee and is available online at the site that follows as well as at the bottom of this page.
http://www.calstate.edu/pa/clips2007/june/27june/grades.shtml.  Since 2007, several more thoroughly researched and documented studies including those by Arum and Roksa and the Wabash National Study have been published that are consistent with and considerably expand upon the concerns expressed in my editorial.

Material in this box has been added after the posting of the original material.

The NSSE recently published a study that is essentially consistent with the information already present in this web site.  This box is being added on April 29, 2012 and Oct. 20, 2013.

The NSSE summary indicates that students study 15 to 20 hours/week but it is possible that the study hours are too high as students could exaggerate the number of hours they study.  The number of hours studied/week does depend on load and loads have probably decreased from about 15 units/semester to 12 units/semester consistent with the reports that students take 5 years to graduate in contrast to the 4 years typical a few decades ago.  The 15 hours/week is down from at least 24 hours of study/week a few decades ago but this could be due to lower loads.  Still, it appears students are studying about 1 hour out of class/lecture hour.  Based on lab credit hours (3 hours of lab and 0.5 hours of prep and 0.5 hours of write up) of 1 unit for 4 hours of time, it appears that either lecture courses are given too many units or labs are not given enough.  (Three hours of lecture + 3 hours of studying)/4 hours per unit = 1.5 units but 3 hour lecture courses are given 3 units.)   Faculty expectations are not much higher than the reported but perhaps exaggerated student performance (less than a10% difference between faculty expectations for student preparation and reported student preparation).    Are faculty expectations too low?

(added 7/25/12)  Some recently published studies report that students in K-12 schools do not feel challenged.  This raises the question of why test scores are low.  Please see:

More relevant information published around 10/09/13:  An article in the Modesto Bee said that "Japanese and Dutch adults ages 25 to 34 who had only completed high school easily outperformed Italian or Spanish university graduates of the same age.  American workers fell well below the average in all categories."   If we continue down this path, will the U.S. join Italy and Spain with their severe economic issues?  

For more information on the source of the Bee article, see:


Recent PISA results - worldwide for 15 year olds

01/17/15 Douglas Belkin reports similar findings in the Wall Street Journal

Very recently, Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post addressed the question of quality in higher education in an editorial that was published widely 09/30/11 - 10/04/11. In my opinion the article is on the right track except it is not complete and I am not sure of the statement in the article that  "College students may be undereducated, but they’re not dumb and many feel short-changed. A recent Roper Organization study found that nearly half of recent graduates don’t think they got their money’s worth."    When I asked my college chemistry students if they would attend class if I promised to give them A's regardless of performance, about 95% said they would not attend.  It seems students want as little as they can get for their money.  One of my students pointed out that the only other item that fits the qualification that you want as little as you can get for your money is a bikini (insurance might also fit this criteria).  In addition to this issue, Ms. Parker attributes much of the lack of quality in higher education to a lack of required core subjects.  However, even the core courses are subject to criticism if students are passing with only minimal time spent studying.   http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/our-unprepared-graduates/2011/09/30/gIQAJGYBBL_story.html 

The site: http://www.naicu.edu/docLib/201007071_proposedregs7-credithour.pdf  indicates that 37.5 hours per semester is the accepted value for one credit hour.  Making the very generous assumption that 50 minutes counts as an hour and taking holidays into account, most lecture courses meet about 16 hours per semester per credit hour .  This would indicate that about 1.3 hours out of class should be needed for each hour in class to learn a sufficient amount of the course material.  Historically however, it was common for instructors to expect students to committ 2 to 3 hours outside of class for each in class hour.  This study amount is supported by the credit hours assigned to laboratory courses.  A typical laboratory requiring 3 hours in class and about an hour of preparation and reports is allocated only one credit hour.  For consistency, lecture hours should be accompanied by two to three hours of outside studying.  The conclusion is that the average course study requirements have declined to about 30 to 50% of the historical standards used to establish college credit (or unit hours).  It appears that social passing could be common not only in K-12 courses but also in higher education.  Despite the lower time investment on the part of the students, there is also considerable evidence that grades are inflating.  Unfortunately, education is not a game of limbo as a lower bar could have negative consequences.

Much of the attention in the U.S. especially at the high school level has been on graduation rates and retention.  Many editorials have focused on the retention rate issue and often express optimism when there is any indication that retention rates have increased.  These same editorials seldom if ever discuss the relationship of retention rates to standards.  Increasing retention and graduation rates are certainly a worthwhile goal but not if the increase is a result of an easing of standards.  One of the reasons given for decreased demands on students is that high school and college students have undoubtedly increased the average number of hours of employment over the decades.  While this does increase stress and diminish the time available for study, it is not a legitimate excuse for a lowering of standards.  Surveys show that high school students spend a total of about 0.5 hours studying each day.  This would indicate 5 to 10 minutes of homework per day per class.  Coupled with the huge number of remedial courses that college freshman must take, it would appear that the preparation of incoming college students is alarmingly low and has declined over the last several decades.  Since grading at the college level is influenced by competition and levels of class performance and since grades are up, it appears that college faculty are giving higher grades for a decreased amount of learning.  Is it possible that an additional component of demands is that decreases in homework assignments results in a decrease in faculty time committments?  Arum and Roksa suggest there is a pact between faculty and students that leads to a lowering of homework expectations.
The American society is responsible for making decisions that will influence the way we confront the many issues that will impact our quality of life.  Our response to the issues of health care, energy issues, climate change and the environment, economy and employment, education, civil rights, international relations, population and other issues (in no particular prioritized order) will determine the future well-being and leadership ability of our country.  To make the best decisions, education may be the key issue as it is at least partially through education that society acquires the needed knowledge, insight and vision for wise decision making.  If declining standards and expectations in higher education are another inconvenient truth, then the U.S. could be heading for a very troubled future.  
The references and sites below have been provided to enable readers to examine the evidence for themselves.  The first two texts address the issue of college standards.  The articles and sites provide expert opinion and survey results that indicate that standards of higher education need to be carefully examined. One possible way of assessing the problem is to  look at grades in courses that have prerequisites as a function of the grades in the prerequisite courses.  Decades ago, C was considered the average grade and represented achievement of competency in the course content.  If a grade of C for a prerequisite correlates with a very low percentage of passing in the subsequent course, then giving a grade of C is a disservice to the student and the grading system needs to be examined and adjusted.
Arum, R.;  Roksa, J. Academically Adrift, Univ. of Chicago Press, 2011.
Bok, D. Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why they Should Be Learning More, Princeton Univ. Press, 2006.
Wabash National Study
Grade Inflation

    Community Colleges
Ratings of learning by college
Military test results
The story in the URL's below was in many newspapers.  While a 23 % failure rate might not seem terrible on a military entrance exam, consider the following:
a.  the students eligible to take the test were already limited to high school graduates + other qualifications
b.  a score of only 31 out of 99 was required to attain a passing result.  The test apparently consisted of multiple choice questions with 4 possible answers.  By my calculations, students should have scored 25 simply by closing their eyes and guessing.
Relevant Quotations
In the Friday, 1/28/11, Modesto Bee, Victor Davis Hanson even said "A therapeutic college curricula and hyphenated 'studies'  courses have not made graduates better-read or more skilled in math and science.  For many employers, the rigor of the new bachelor's degree is scarcely equivalent to that of the old high school diploma."  

 A lot was said about science and mathematics education in the U.S.  Duncan, for example, said that "we have lost our way in education. We used to lead the world in college education, and we've fallen to 10th or 11th." He bluntly stated that the best math and science teachers should be paid more than other teachers, observing that "some jobs are frankly tougher than others because of the subject matter and the locale." Rudy Baum, Editor-in-chief, Chemical and Engineering News, 12/07/09

The U.S. is in danger of falling to a second rate country with an accompanying decline in the quality of life.  To avoid this decline and fall, the bar for education at all levels must be raised.  Some of the sites above provide suggestions for turning the trend of educaton in the U.S. around.  To accomplish this goal, we need to foster a culture of learning. 
Steve Murov, Professor Emeritus of Chemistry, Modesto Junior College, http://murov.info/     http://murov.info/resume.htm 

draft of article submitted to Modesto Bee about June 11, 2007 and printed on June 27, 2007  and reprinted at:  http://www.calstate.edu/pa/clips2007/june/27june/grades.shtml 

An educated society is crucial for the welfare and advancement of our country. While educational quality at the K-12 levels is frequently discussed, insufficient attention is given to educational quality at the college level. Recently published student surveys provide a disturbing wake-up call that indicates standards and expectations at the college level have declined nationwide. The amount of learning in a college course is supposed to correlate with the units (credit hours) assigned to the course. Traditionally, students have been told that they would have to invest 2 to 3 hours out of class for each lecture hour if they expect to learn the material. There is support of the 2 to 3 hour standard in print (a regulation of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges states, "The course also requires a minimum of three hours of work per week, including class time for each unit of credit....") and in practice (to earn one credit, laboratory courses require 3 class hours and about 1 hour preparing and writing reports). In addition, many experienced college graduates maintain that 2 to 3 hours of studying/class hour was necessary to achieve decent grades during their college years. According to survey results, current four year college students admit to spending an average of about 1 hour out of class for each hour in class or less than of the accepted standard. Even worse, community college students spend less than an hour studying for each lecture hour. A minimum "full-time" load of 12 credit hours today involves an average of 24 hours of total engagement. Analysis of the surveys indicates high school students are studying an average of 3.2 hours per week. High school students spend considerably more time in class than college students but less than a half hour/day of homework does not seem adequate. Perhaps the lack of study hours in high school is one of the reasons many students enter college under-prepared and must take remedial classes. High school and college students spend many more hours employed and immersed in high tech activities (cell phones, ipods, Internet, video games) today than years ago but this is not a reason for lowering standards. With the decrease in the number of study hours, and if standards had been maintained, grades should be lower. However, there are many reports that the opposite is true. For example, the U.S. Census reports that the average number of high school ‘A’ grades for students entering college has increased from 19.6% in 1970 to 46.6% in 2005. At the college level, there is also strong evidence of grade inflation. This analysis should promote discussion of some important closely related questions: 1. For high schools and colleges, have standards been lowered significantly so that social passing without adequate learning has become the rule rather than the exception? 2. Does the grade of ‘C’ still signify subject matter competency? 3. Do high schools and colleges need to seriously evaluate and appropriately adjust standards and expectations?

From a local perspective, data specifically for MJC was included in one of the surveys. MJC was slightly above the community college average for study hours but still under one hour out of class for each hour in class. The insufficient number of study hours undoubtedly does contribute to the terrible statistic that 1/3 of MJC students who enter courses receive grades of D, F or W. For some math and science courses, the failure rate is even higher. Some MJC faculty assert that the recent change to a compressed calendar has also contributed to a decline in the quality and quantity of education. MJC has established a committee to study SLOs (student learning outcomes) but creating buzz words (SLO) and committees to study them does not necessarily lead to meaningful results or improvement and improvement is apparently needed.

Data used for this article can be accessed at: http://nsse.iub.edu/index.cfm, http://www.census.gov/prod/2006pubs/07statab/educ.pdf  (Tables 254, 255, 257), http://gradeinflation.com/  and http://asccc.org/sites/default/files/t5guidelines.doc (see pages 12 and 13 where it is stated that 48 hours per semester is required for one credit hour or 1 lecture hour and 2 hours of studying/week)

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