Thursday, September 01, 2005

Move In Day, Moving Standards

Classes will be starting here at Ohio University next Tuesday, and the dorms are officially open for moving in today. This year's freshman class is the largest on record for Ohio University: like many other colleges and universities in Ohio, Ohio University has had to increase freshman enrollments and raise tuition in order to make ends meet. In order to get more freshmen enrolled, we had to lower our admission standards.

That's not something that our administration likes to admit, let alone talk about. At a time when our new president has redefined our peer institutions, rejecting the old Miami University in favor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as the University We Most Want To Be Confused With, it can be a rather embarrassing topic. Right now there's not much similarity between Ohio University and UNC, other than the word "University" in the two titles. Having taught at both institutions, however, I am happy to say that there are good and bad students everywhere. I've also taught at Duke University, Rutgers, and the University of Richmond, and I can't honestly say that the students at any of those institutions were obviously head-and-shoulders above the students at any of the others. Everywhere you go, you will find some folks who are willing to work hard and who have sufficient intellectual curiosity to make them genuine college material, just as you will find some other folks who are there for the sports program. The difference lies primarily in the proportions, I suppose, but in disciplines like philosophy and classics the material tends to be self-selecting: you can't bluff your way through elementary classical Greek, and if the course is taught properly you can't really bluff your way through philosophy, either.

So perhaps the lowering of admission standards is not the end of the world. Perhaps it opens up higher education to some folks who, given the right circumstances, will find ways to excell and in ways that the standard predictors of college success can't measure. It's possible. It's also possible that performance will decline, but I think the jury is still out on this: we must wait and see. But it is essential that the material that is presented not be dumbed down. That standard of what counts as a liberal education ought to be raised, if it is changed at all. With lower admission standards, that will mean that students have to work harder, but the payoff will be greater if they persevere.

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