A “C” student from Princeton is still a “C” student.

24 08 2010

Thanks to Inside Higher Ed, I just saw this relatively old Huffington Post article for the first time. It reminds me of something I’ve known since I graduate from Penn back in the day, namely that an Ivy League education is no guarantee that you actually learned something:

As president of a DC-based think tank, I have over the years hired many recent college graduates and interviewed many more. Because the quality of so many of the graduates was so poor, ITIF has taken to giving the small share of the most promising applicants (based on their resumes and cover letters) a short test that we email them to complete at home in one hour. The questions are pretty simple: “Go to this person’s bio online and write a three or four -sentence version of their bio for us to include in a conference packet,” or, “Enter these eight items in a spreadsheet and tell us the average for the ones that end in an odd number.”

What is amazing, at least to me, is how few can do even these very simple tasks adequately. In our current hiring process (for an office manager/research assistant) we have so far given the test to approximately 20 college grads. Only one did well enough to merit an interview. And most of the 19 are not from “second tier” colleges, but rather, from top-ranked institutions. One applicant, a recent Princeton grad, submitted a test that was full of spelling and grammar mistakes. Didn’t they teach “spell check” at Princeton? A Boston University grad couldn’t accurately complete a simple excel spreadsheet. (By the way, I am not picking on these particular schools but just citing actual examples.)

By now, every professor in America has seen such problems. The question then becomes, what do you want to do about it? the author’s solution is implicit in this diagnosis of the problem:

Colleges are focused on teaching kids content, not on teaching them skills, and too many students are focused on passing the multitude of tests in the multitude of classes they take, rather than really learning. One of the best college grads I ever hired (a graduate of Dartmouth) majored in history. In his job at ITIF (a technology policy think tank) he didn’t need to know history. What he needed to know was how to think, how to write, how to speak intelligently, how to find information and make sense out of it, how to argue coherently, and how to do basic math. Fortunately, he had acquired these skills. But other graduates of colleges such as Kenyon, Bowdoin, Bates, or the University of Pennsylvania, whom I have hired over the years, clearly had not, or at least not nearly as well.

I have a lot of sympathy with this position. Indeed, I’ve changed all my courses over the years to increasingly emphasize the teaching of skills that I haven’t seen from my students. Indeed, I recently came to the shocking realization that I’m going to have to start teaching reading as a skill since every other skill (let alone most of the content knowledge) that I teach flows from that one.

However, let us not hang this one entirely on higher education. The teaching of the kinds of skills that this guy has been testing his job applicants for should have begun in high school. If it’s new to them when they hit college, things will get very difficult for students very quickly.

That said, college professors certainly do have some responsibility for making sure that their students have the skills to survive in the workplace, but it’s only our fault if we keep giving them good grades without learning what they have to learn.

After all, a “C” student from Princeton is still a “C” student. Maybe he should ask for transcripts the next time he wants to hire someone.


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