American Higher Education: Failing, Entitlement

American higher education is on life support and not doing particularly well. We have a growing consensus emerging from industry and academia alike arguing that the institutions are not serving the needs of students. And clearly from my own experience as well as the experiences shared with me by so many in the last six or seven months it’s not serving the needs of the instructors (permanent, tenured, non-tenured, and contingent) either. There are certainly lots of reasons — a 2010 study of Ivy League Universities found our approach to tenure, reliance on part-time instructors, and crazy bureaucracies suck the life and quality out of higher education.

For me, there are two factors that we don’t talk about in an organized way that are just sucking the life and soul out of higher education — student entitlement and an over-reliance on contingent faculty. Now, before anyone gets their shorts in a wad — I believe that contingent faculty (i.e., adjunct and fixed-term contract folks) do their level best but I just don’t think they are likely to have the same opportunities to develop and execute as effective of a class as a full-time faculty member does. So my adjunct friends, just cool your jets :). However, because of the instability and poor pay, contingent faculty, that need the job, don’t have a chance to be at their best as faculty members. The adjunct issue is something I’ll talk more about later — but it’s complicated by an emergent and cancerous student culture where students think that it’s alright to ‘get faculty in trouble’ if something happens in a class they don’t like. For me, the basis of this cancer is a culture of entitlement amongst Gen Y’ers or Millenneals that is substantially different from any cultural attitude we have seen. That’s why I want to focus on this element.

Student Entitlement is Killing the Passion for Teaching

Most of us in education know exactly what I mean when I talk about ‘entitlement’, but let’s be specific about it …. Anderson, Halberstadt, and Aitken (2013) define entitlement as an exaggerated or unrealistic belief in what a person thinks s/he deserves. And is it any wonder that our students have it? We’ve cultivated a fake “self-esteem” generation where American students are the most self-confident in the world, yet know very little. For too long, there’s been a focus on being nicey-nice, not upsetting overly aggressive parents at the elementary and secondary levels of education, and now as a result of a generation of self-esteem it’s ruining the college experience as well.

So, instead of preparing our students for the real world by focusing on critical thinking, information vital to their majors, and being tough on them we have to cope with students ill-prepared for higher education and ill-prepared for life. Yet, many of these same students think they’re awesome and when you suggest their work is not they don’t know what to do with the information other than to evaluate the instructor as being wrong. And why wouldn’t they? Most people in their lives have said they poop roses. So, not only do we have to manage students but we’re increasingly having to manage their parents as well — one of the reasons many of us went into higher education and not primary/ secondary education … we didn’t want to deal with parents. But guess what? Lawn mower parents don’t turn off when the kid turns 18. Increasingly, these parents are petitioning faculty directly for improved grades for their kids, complaining to administrations if something happens in the classroom they don’t like, and forcing their kids to sign away their right to confidentiality with their faculty. Their argument — “I’m paying, it’s my right”. Well — while that might be the case that they can wield the financial mace against their children, they do more emotional and developmental damage than they can even imagine.

Let me offer a few examples from my own experience….

  • Before class one day, students and I were chatting about normal kinds of stuff and one of the students said something kind of sarcastic about “giving” everyone good grades because they deserved it and I had an equally sarcastic response — no big thing. One of the girls in class says (not being sarcastic), “That’s not nice — you’re paid to be nice to us.”… my response, “Oh sweetie, you clearly misunderstand — I’m not paid to be nice to you, I’m paid to educate you.” Snickers from the rest of class aside, this seems to be an operating assumption — we’re there to make them feel good and extol their virtues.
  • I had an advisee who had ‘failed to prioritize’ his school work, was a good kid, and we were devising a strategy for getting through the “problem” semester and looking forward. And then I got an email from his Mom asking my advise on whether she should lodge a complaint about a professor who had the audacity to fail him because he hadn’t been in class saying, “This isn’t the real world, doesn’t this seem overly harsh”. I then spent a considerable amount of time/ space explaining why (1) her complaint would be inappropriate, (2) why it is better for him to learn this lesson now when it’s just an “F” rather than in the real world where he’d lose his job, and (3) that it’s important for him to grow and develop as a person and make strategic decisions for himself. To her credit, this mother took it well and ultimately agreed. Yet for the next year, I received periodic emails and consultations on how to manage her child. My basic response was always something along the lines of, “He’s doing fine — I have him in two classes and his good practices in my classes seem consistent with the rest of his performance.” The kid was great to work with, his mother sucked time away from my research, my instruction, and frankly other students.
  • I had a student — nice kid, but decided to stop coming to class and didn’t turn a single assignment in all semester. Yet, about two-thirds of the way through the semester realized he was in academic trouble and came to me. So, my theory is that I usually give students enough rope to hang themselves. Sometimes they surprise me, but usually not. I made a deal with him for putting all of his eggs in his final project — if he did that well then his grade would be based on the project (which was the lion’s share of the course grade anyhow), he could pass the class. However, I also told him that he had to be in class each day. Fast forward to the end of the semester where the student hadn’t come to class and didn’t submit his final project and not surprisingly his grade was an F. Then, what I loved most was that around New Year’s he emailed me his project (grades were submitted before Christmas) and I said ‘sorry’. The next day his Mom emailed me and asked why I couldn’t make an exception — seriously…. At that point I explained the situation, appealed to fairness, and then said hell no.

Parents are damaging their kids

I may bitch and complain about the entitlement culture, but let’s face it — it’s their parents’ fault. Gen X’ers and Baby Boomers have royally screwed up when it comes to raising their kids. This generation of students are mostly nice, interested in issues of social equality, and care about the environment and all of those kinds of things. Unfortunately, they’re also ill-equipped to deal with the real world. Their parents have largely sanitized everything in their environment — removing struggle, failure, and connecting good performance with being a good person. The result is that we have a generation with high self-esteem, but not healthy self-esteem. What I mean by this is that our Millinneals are often unable to critically evaluate situations on their own, worry that failure at a task means they’re not a good person, and cannot take constructive criticism.

Let me give you an example… I had the opportunity to work closely with a fantastic student who I’m convinced is really going to change the world. She cares about people, cares about the underprivileged, and is working very hard to serve her community. We were working on a project and she emailed me a draft of her work and it was just terrible. We’d been working together for a while and so I gave her an  honest assessment with a lot of areas for improvement. She revised it and then didn’t really make any changes. My second round of feedback was more direct about the poor quality of the work and that until it was re-written I didn’t want to see it again. Well, she came to me and was crushed because she thought that it meant that I didn’t like her anymore. When she said that to me, I must have looked at her like she was completely daft but then had to explain the difference between finding her work bad and finding her a bad person. Yet, as I worked more closely with more folks from her generation, I’ve found that they have been told they poop roses so much and their parents, coaches, and earlier teachers have all told them they’ve done a good job (regardless of whether that’s actually true) and therefore they’re a good person. Now, they get to adulthood and they don’t know how to cognitively process getting negative feedback about their work without internalizing it as meaning that they’re a bad person. This became something I’d talk about with students on the first day of class and periodically throughout the class so that we could focus on improving their knowledge and skills.

Yet, this is the negative psychological side of this entitlement culture — we all complain about the parts that we see and are annoying that suck the fun and interest out of our jobs, but I also don’t think we often realize that there are also negative psychological consequences for this generation and the happy clappy everyone gets a prize because you all are awesome approach to life.

So, our institutions of higher education are screwed because they’re placating a bunch of over-indulged parents who think their kids can do no wrong and we’re raising a generation of kids who frankly don’t have the coping skills to deal with being adults. Awesome. In the mean time, those of us in higher education are finding fewer and fewer full-time positions as universities staff on the cheap, those with more marketable skills are probably looking outside of academia, but our job is fundamentally becoming worse and worse. And if you don’t think that ultimately affects the quality of education, think again. Yet, it’s sometimes hard to be sympathetic to our students when they and their parents are abusively emailing instructors demanding their grades be changed, complaining to administrations, and increasingly suing (or threatening to sue) universities over grading and faculty issues.