Another commencement address nobody asked me to give

May 20, 2004
Once again I have prepared an address for presentation at a university commencement and, again, no university has invited me to speak.
View other Ron
Khol editorials

So I will present my remarks here, with my comments designed to counter the insipid commencement addresses issued by the thousands at this time of year.

Tap, tap, tap, is the microphone on? Can you hear me in the back? Dr. and Mrs. Pedagogue, esteemed faculty and honored guests, graduating seniors, and parents. We'll open by noting that a well-known university in the Midwest will be doubling its student recruitment budget over the next five years, bringing it to about $4 million.

One would presume the objective is to increase enrollment. But don't be fooled. That isn't the primary motive. What the university wants to do is get more students to apply for admission so it can reject more of them.

You are wondering, of course, what the point is. Well, last year the university accepted some 75% of those who applied, which means it rejected only 25%. What it wants to do is increase the number of applicants so that it can reject 65% of them without having enrollment drop. If my math is correct, that means the school will have to more than double its pool of applicants.

By increasing the percentage of students rejected for admission, the university will become more "selective," thereby increasing its stature among other universities with which it competes for students. The university also plans to enlist alumni in its efforts to get more applicants. I wonder whether or not the alumni recruiters will know their efforts will largely be aimed at providing cannon fodder for the university rejection process. And we presume the cost of collecting a bigger pool of rejected applicants will in part be met by the 10% increase in tuition the university is planning, bringing the annual tab to $26,500. Selectivity doesn't come cheap.

In defense of the university administrators, efforts to increase the pool of rejected applicants aren't unique to this particular school. This behavior is widespread and the inevitable consequence of the public paying attention to the annual rankings of universities by the magazine U.S. News & World Report. Among the standards by which the magazine rates schools is their enrollment selectivity. The more students a university rejects, the higher it rises in the magazine rankings. These ratings are meaningless, but a gullible public pays attention to them. And almost every university in the United States tries to develop enrollment policies that raises its standing in the USN&WR rankings.

Turning to other matters, last year my commencement address talked about grade inflation in colleges. And there is more to say this year. The problem is so bad that at one school, the merit pay of faculty was reduced because they gave out too many A's.

At a university in Pittsburgh, a vice president of the school sent a memo to department heads expressing concern over the fact that grading was too liberal. In one class, almost all students got A's. Six of the faculty, including two tenured professors, had their $2,000 merit pay cut to $1,000 because they awarded too many A's. The affected faculty, all teaching undergraduate courses, gave students A's at rates ranging from 50 to 80% of their classes. The faculty reaction? One of the professors, instead of promising to reform, expressed outrage over what he termed the administration's intrusion on academic freedom.

Finally, I'll say a few words about tuition costs. Students now typically graduate from college with a debt of $19,000 for student loans. But that hasn't cut back the urge to party. Two of the hottest destinations for spring break this year were Cancun, Mexico, and the Bahamas. So much for the financial sacrifices required to earn a college degree.

Thank you for your kind attention, and good evening. Thunderous applause builds to pandemonium until Dr. Pedagogue steps to the podium to announce, "Mr. Khol has left the auditorium."

-- Ronald Khol, Editor
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