The sacrifice of academic rigor

This year, Illinois jumped on the performance-based funding bandwagon.

According to George Reid, executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, the state has two goals for performance-based funding.

The first is that 60 percent of Illinois residents of college age or older will have some type of postsecondary education by 2025.

The second is to close the prosperity and achievement gap between white citizens and underrepresented groups, which include Latinos, African-Americans and first-generation college students.

In its inaugural year, performance–based funding appropriations will account for only 0.6 percent of the higher education budget in Illinois.

The state intends to increase this percentage each year until it reaches 10 to 15 percent of the total higher education budget.

When coupled with the huge push from the federal government to increase graduation rates, institutions have been backed
into a corner.

To meet the requirements being imposed at both state and federal levels, institutions are forced to sacrifice the very thing they have the responsibility to protect — academic rigor.

Craig Brandon, writer for Times Union Newspaper, discussed the results of a recent study.

Using a sample of 2,300 undergraduate students, he said researchers found that almost half showed no significant improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning or writing after their sophomore year.

After their fourth year, 36 percent of these students still did not show significant improvement in
these areas.

These are startling facts given the importance of these skills in coping with a wide variety of
life experiences.

The scariest fact is that many of these same students graduated.

Our institutions have essentially told them that they have acquired the skills necessary to earn a bachelor’s degree.

If this is the case, then what is the value of their diploma?

Brandon clearly expressed the dilemma that faces our colleges and universities and how it became so easy for institutions to settle for less than academic excellence.

“Students are happy when they don’t have to do as much work,” he said. “Faculty don’t have to issue as many failing grades. Parents get to show off their children’s bachelor degrees. Administrators can keep all that tuition money and brag about their increased retention rates.”

This loss of academic rigor is even more troubling because the stakeholders mentioned by Brandon are not purposely perpetuating the problem. They have all simply lost sight of the purpose of
higher education.

Institutions must remember that they exist to educate students despite the overwhelming pressure they face to improve
graduation rates.

To preserve the integrity of higher education, schools must teach at a level that stimulates the highest achieving students.

Courses are organized in a way that benefits the average student, who is able to pass even though he or she may not fully understand the material.

Furthermore, the most prepared students are able to pass courses without having to devote much time or effort.

It is true there are institutions with honors courses that exist for high achieving students.

However, it is not solving the larger problem if we provide rigorous courses only to the students who are most likely to succeed.

The overarching issue is that all students should have to put forth effort to succeed in college.

Average students should have to seek help through tutoring services, study groups or their professors to keep up with other students who are better prepared.

College is not intended to be easy. It should be stimulating and challenging for all students.

We should not structure higher education in a way that helps every student earn a bachelor’s degree, especially when they have not acquired the skills that should accompany a college education.

Our universities have been forced to lower academic standards by the state and federal governments as well as the consumer mentality that students and parents have regarding higher education.

It is time for institutions to stand up for academic excellence and remember that our most important mission is education, not retention.


Rachel Sveda

Financial aid specalist
Rend Lake College

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