The New York Times staff writer Richard Perez-Pena discussed the effects increased rate of college attendance, stale teaching methods and failing education standards have American universities with UConn students this Monday.
“It’s both too safe and not nearly safe enough,” Perez-Pena said during his lecture “Is College Too Tame?,” presented by UConn’s Undergraduate Student Government.
Perez-Pena said the students at highest risk were women, people of color and lower income students, who all face lower graduation rates than average.
“You’re talking about people whose parents didn’t go to college,” Perez-Pena said. “If you’re a middle or upper middle class person, I don’t think you understand how unsafe that is.”
While not attending to college is limiting in itself, Perez-Pena believes the worse situation a young adult can find herself in is paying tuition for a degree she never received.
“That happens to a startling number of people,” Perez-Pena said.
The main focus of the evening was on how colleges’ lax academic standards are setting alumni up to fail in the job market.
“The documented proof is students spend less time studying than ever,” he said. “Grade inflation is also well documented.”
Perez-Pena attributed this in part to the current relationship between students and the professors and TAs that teach them. While many teacher’s assistants lead discussion sections or lower level classes, their main focus is often on getting their PhD.
“How much of that assessment is on teaching? The average is zero,” he said. “They have no incentive.”
He suggested that this can lead to a mutual “nonaggression pact” where TAs go easy on their students in order to devote their energy elsewhere. He said this can also be the case with professors, who are often focused on research.
“The fact is, a lot of their reputation, the way their peers think of them, is not going to be based on teaching,” Perez-Pena said.
This is the system of thought that can lead to powerpoint slides being read verbatim to silent lecture halls.
“That’s not good teaching,” he said. “As a professor said to me, the person who is doing the work is doing the learning.”
This isn’t the case in every classroom, of course. The best lectures Perez-Pena has sat in on weren’t lectures at all. In one chemistry classroom, for example, the professor had her students solve problems off the board. They would then submit their answers through an iClicker quiz and someone would be selected at random to explain their solution to the class using a randomized app containing their names.
“She knows immediately who gets it and who’s not getting it,” he said. Paul DaSilva, a sixth-semester political science major who attended the lecture, said he is also concerned about the lack of emphasis on intellectual growth over making the grade in college.
“It seems like it’s one more step on the assembly line of getting you that finance job,” DaSilva said.
Thom Mathews, a sixth-semester business and political science major who helped organize the event, said he hopes it will encourage students to think critically and become more engaged with their education.
“As students at a public university and students in general, I think we should demand more,” Mathews said. “We’re really trying to cultivate that need and demand for learning.”
PerezPena stressed that the blame was not on colleges alone, however. Faltering K12 education standards in the U.S. and the influx of jobs demanding a college degree have put the pressure on schools.
“People used to come to college knowing stuff,” he said. “I actually do worry about what this means for the future, in that way I don’t think we’re safe at all.”