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Too Dense

Are Utah students too lazy to read?

By John Rasmuson
Posted // March 22,2012 -

Kara Miller, a teacher at Babson College in Massachusetts, wrote an op-ed in The Boston Globe describing students whose lack of preparation for college-level work was exacerbated by their laziness. “We’ve got a knowledge gap, spurred by a workethic gap,” she wrote.

Ewa Wasilewska, a teacher at the University of Utah, wrote an op-ed in The Salt Lake Tribune lamenting the accommodations expected by students who “dictate how much they don’t want to learn.” And, she noted, many don’t want to read long passages of dense prose.

Alex Quitiquit, a student at the University of Utah, wrote an op-ed in The Daily Utah Chronicle defending the use of SparkNotes. Wrote Quitiquit: “I not only don’t have the time to read the entire novel, I also don’t care much in the grander scheme to put much effort in understanding why Charles Dickens said this or that.”

I am not much of a Dickens fan, either, but I do like the “best-of-times, worst-of-times” sentence that opens his novel, A Tale of Two Cities. I find that the Dickens binary works pretty well in characterizing the classes at the University of Utah I have attended for the past three years. From a desk at the back of the room, I have taken the measure of my fellow students—the best and the worst. The former are attentive, articulate and eager to engage the professor with ideas or questions. The latter have a laptop in front of them and a phone hidden in their lap. Between texts, e-mail and Facebook, there is no time for any engagement with the professor. They ask no questions, take no notes. I was not surprised to learn that 4 in 10 of my classmates fail to get a degree.

The University of Utah may not have the worst graduation rate in the West, but it is nothing to brag about. At 58 percent, it is among the lowest in the Pac-12. The U is in 10th place, to be exact. To rub a little salt in the wound, BYU’s graduation rate is 77 percent.

Why is Utah’s flagship university in the cellar? You don’t have to rummage much to come up with a handful of reasons. Like Miller’s students at Babson, a lot of young Utahns are simply unprepared for college. Results from the ACT, a standardized test that measures a high school student’s readiness for college-level work, show that only 27 percent of Utah freshmen are up to the challenge. (That’s roughly the same percentage as in New York City.) Many need remedial classes, especially in math, a subject mentioned ruefully by many dropouts. However, it doesn’t seem like students are flunking out in droves.

On the contrary, Wasilewska alludes to accommodation and the lowering of academic standards in an effort to maintain enrollment. “I won’t do it!” she writes. Other professors apparently are not so steadfast. In their recent book, Academically Adrift, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report, “Half of the students do not write 20 pages all semester long, and 30 percent of them do not read more than 40 pages a week … so if you’re not reading, if you’re not writing, it’s hard to think that you would develop these skills that we all believe college should teach.” Those who expect to find a corresponding decline in gradepoint averages will be surprised. Just as all the kids in Lake Wobegon are above average, 73 percent of letter grades given to college students nowadays are A’s and B’s, according to a study published in the Teachers College Record.

Is there an underlying “work-ethic gap,” as Miller asserts? Are too many Utah students too lazy to go the distance? Maybe yes; maybe no. It might be that they are pulled in too many stress-inducing directions. Many are married. A significant majority of U of U students work 30 hours per week, so there is less time available for study. Quitiquit doesn’t have time to read a Dickens novel, he says. On average, he and other college students spend 14 hours a week doing homework. That’s considerably less than their grandparents who, as undergraduates in the 1960s, put in 24 hours each week.

Here’s the worry. Whatever the reasons for the U’s low graduation rate—or high dropout rate—the future belongs to those with a college degree. Today, 38 percent of Utahns between 25 and 34 have one. By 2018, two-thirds of all new jobs in Utah will require a college certificate or degree. Some of those jobs will come from the Oracle Corporation. Mark Hurd, co-president of Oracle, recently told the Utah Technology Council that Utah would have to compete with China and India. Without being versed in science and math, Utah graduates will lose out to their talented Chinese and Indian contemporaries who have engineering degrees and fire in their bellies.

A career in the military is also beyond the reach of 75 percent of young Americans. There are three reasons for the jaw-dropping number. You can’t enlist without a high school diploma, an unblemished criminal record or the ability to push-up, sit-up and run two miles.

From what I have observed in U of U classrooms—where the ratio of best-to-worst students is roughly 1 to 10—Miller and Wasilewska are on the right track. Quitiquit’s defense of plot-summary expediency is a case in point. The U’s graduation rate may well be another. As it searched for a new president in fall 2011, the university lay claim to furthering “its mission of excellence by joining the Pac- 12, one of the country’s most prestigious conferences, both athletically and academically.” To measure up will require emphasis on bootstraps, not jockstraps.

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Posted // December 21,2012 at 16:04

I agree that unprepared students are certainly a significant part of the problem. Even so, you'd have to be blind to ignore the U’s institutional problems.

I’m returning to the U this spring. I’ve been out for a while now. My experience so far has been hit-and-miss.  The online application is terrible. Even after my fee cleared my card, they couldn’t find my application. My transcripts from another school were lost and had to be reordered. When they arrived, they told me they were in the wrong format, and would have to be re-re-ordered. Fortunately, before I had a chance to waste any more money and time, the policy changed, and I was spared.

Online course registration and tracking of degree requirements are awful. I’ve had to sign on five separate times in a single visit to get what I needed. Looking through the lens of a seasoned developer, I hope this nightmare of  a Web experience wasn’t the product of our CS department!

Unfortunately, my complaints don’t end there. I have had to practically beg my academic advisor to respond to my calls and emails. Even when meeting in person, it was clear to me that my advisor was completely unprepared for the visit I had scheduled weeks in advance.

I have gone full circle chasing information from department to department searching for answers to what I thought were pretty straight forward questions. I’d desperately like to believe this was an anomaly, but I’ve spoken to several other students and graduates of the U whose experience was exactly the same.

I’m not worried whether I’ll be able to maintain the workload and get good grades. I am deeply concerned whether or not I’ll get the support I need from the University to succeed. Navigating the bureaucracy shouldn’t be the most difficult part of getting a degree.