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December 09, 2009 3:21 PM On Lowering Academic Standards

By Daniel Luzer

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In an update to the case of SUNY-Cobleskill and the (possible) whistleblower dean, George Leef argued yesterday in the conservative John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy’s Clarion Call that lowering academic standards was nothing new in higher education:

SUNY-Cobleskill wouldn’t be the first college to lower its standards and make it easier for students to hang on despite weak academic performance.
[One] way is to water down the curriculum so that difficult courses become optional, allowing students to graduate with having taken and passed a lot of “bunny” courses. For instance, students might fulfill their math requirement with a course like “Consumer Math” that doesn’t call for math capabilities beyond those that high school students should have.
Colleges have for decades been making adjustments designed to keep students—especially marginal ones—happy, enrolled, and continuing to pay them money. SUNY-Cobleskill has had the bad luck to get caught red handed, if the allegations are true.

Leef’s point is interesting. Of course colleges raise and lower standards all the time to meet their financial needs or improve their prestige. Certainly the high birth rate in the late 1990s enabled lots of previously unselective universities to begin to improve rankings because they simply had more students to reject. Lowering admissions standards is simply the reverse of that; colleges do this all the time based on their needs. There is no magic number of national merit scholars or students with perfect SATs one ought to, or even can, admit.

But that’s not what Thomas J. Hickey, the former dean, argues was going on in the Cobleskill case. Hickey says that SUNY Cobleskill deliberately admitted unqualified applicants, applicants who did not have the intellectual ability or disciple to succeed in college, applicants who probably could never graduate.

SUNY-Cobleskill changed school policy so that a student would only enter academic probation once his GPA dropped below 1.0. A GPA cutoff of 1.0. That’s a D average. This means the student is going to fail.

There’s nothing wrong with maneuvering policies and practices a little here and there to try and create or maintain the university administrators want. Admitting (and then not helping) students who will not succeed is not “making adjustments designed to keep students happy.” That is called screwing students over.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer