The Five-Year Party

At “subprime” colleges and universities the emphasis is on fun—not education.

At many American colleges and universities, failing students is no longer an option. Countless institutions of higher learning are practicing grade inflation (even as they’ve lowered academic standards), part of a deliberate effort to keep students in school—and paying sky-high tuition rates—as long as possible. With this in mind, most schools have adopted liberal class withdrawal policies, leading to an explosion in the number of super seniors—that is, students who take five, six, even seven years to graduate. The focus on retention also explains why colleges and universities have become more tolerant of heavy partying and bad behavior, and why they are spending a disproportionate amount of money on luxury dorms and country club-type amenities.

In short, administrators are transforming campuses into “havens of adolescent hedonism,” writes college faculty member and former education reporter Craig Brandon in his new book “The Five-Year Party” (BenBella). Earlier this week, I reached out to Brandon—who has introduced the term subprime college, “where diplomas are being awarded to students who don’t deserve them”—to learn more about this trend.

What is retention, how did it become more important than education, and why?
Nationally, about half of the U.S. college freshman class drops out before graduation. Colleges understand this is a serious problem and have set up procedures to prevent dropouts. Some of these programs are good, like assigning each student an advisor, but many are damaging. To keep students in school, many colleges have dumbed down classes to elementary school levels so that unprepared students are able to do the work. Grades of C, D, and F have been banned at many schools because they discourage students from staying in school. Colleges have made it easy to withdraw from classes and students drop classes over and over as an alternative to flunking, but they lose credits and don’t have enough to graduate after four years. Only thirty percent of students graduate in four years; the average student takes six.

How are classes being dumbed down and why did this change take place?
It isn’t that administrators send out a message like “from now on all classes must be dumbed down.” It’s more subtle than that. When professors set high standards for their classes and enforce them with accurate grades, poorly prepared students and the twenty percent who are fully disengaged from the education process have trouble passing. Students complain about this on their evaluations, and when professors fail more than one or two students, administrators accuse them of being bad teachers. Professors with high student failure rates and poor student evaluations are routinely fired. Adjunct professors and professors who are up for tenure understand that dumbing down classes and not failing anyone are the keys to keeping their jobs.

What are colleges doing to keep students from dropping out?
Retention of students has become the number one priority on many college campuses. Students who drop out are seen as lost revenue generators. So classes are being made easier and any grade less than a B is frowned upon by administrators. However, one of the prime reasons students drop out has to do with the high cost of education. Students who are already $50,000 in debt after two years hesitate to sign more promissory notes. Similarly, many of the frills that colleges offer—like gourmet food courts and climbing walls—are viewed as a way to make campuses more fun for students. But the cost of these frills further inflates tuition costs.

Why has college tuition been increasing at two and three times the inflation rate?
Colleges set their prices the same way OPEC does. How high a price can we charge and get away with it? Many high end colleges raise their tuition levels and then brag that they are the most expensive. Parents then assume that the highest priced college must be the best. There is no incentive to keep costs down, even at the lower levels. Parents, who see failure to send their children to an expensive college as a form of child abuse, are willing to pay whatever price the college sets, even if they have to take out a second mortgage and raid their retirement accounts. Even OPEC sometimes reduces the price of oil, but it is a rare college that ever reduces tuition. Every time they want to hire new administrators, give raises to existing ones, or offer new amenities, they know they can raise tuition to cover the cost.

What is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and how is it hurting students?
The original intention of this 1974 law was to protect parents’ access to students’ educational records, but it has been abused by colleges to do just the opposite. Although courts have ruled that the law applies only to “educational” records like grades, colleges have misinterpreted it to apply to every document in the college files. Under this interpretation, colleges withhold important information that parents should know. A student can be raped, arrested, assaulted or injured and parents are never notified. Students can attempt suicide, be taken to the hospital for treatment of alcohol poisoning, or not show up to classes for weeks and colleges withhold the information. There is a provision for students to sign a waiver of their rights under the law, but colleges often fail to tell parents about it because they dislike interference from parents, who they often refer to as “helicopter” parents.

What policy changes and reforms do you suggest?
-Require that students who need remedial academic help get it in high school where it is free, instead of in college, where they must pay for it.

-Require that all college seniors to pass a “value-added” exam to prove how much they have learned in college and that they meet basic standards for a bachelor’s degree.

-Repeal FERPA and replace it with a law that encourages parents to be more involved in the higher education process.

-Require colleges to get tough with students who drink themselves into unconsciousness, and with fraternities that haze pledges by forcing them to drink [potentially] lethal amounts of alcohol.

-Encourage students to take a “gap year” program for one or two years between high school and college. Many high school grads are too immature to take their studies seriously and waste their time and money. Students who are a few years older are much more responsible and ready for college studies.

Official book site of “The Five-Year Party”

The Best Four Years?