College and University Blog

Dumbed Down: Has College Gotten Too Easy?

If you’ve ever seen The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, you might be familiar with the segment known as “Jaywalking.” The recurrent skit features the comedian walking down the street, asking random people various general knowledge questions. Most of the responses he receives are completely off-base. Their ignorance definitely gives viewers a laugh, but if “Jaywalking” is any indication, lots of people out there aren’t incredibly intelligent.

Are American Colleges Being Dumbed Down?

Thanks to dual enrollment programs which allow high school students at high risk of dropping out to earn community college credit and the fact that a college education is accessible by nearly anyone with a laptop and internet connection, some people are wondering if college has gotten too easy. Are our colleges and universities really being “dumbed down?”

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, a book by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, caused quite a stir when it was released in January 2011 due to its examination of the current state of higher education in the United States.

Today’s Students Not Prepared for College Level Work

Academically Adrift and its findings—such as Arum and Roska’s analysis which found that 45 percent of over 2,300 undergraduates at 24 colleges and universities demonstrated no significant improvement in a range of skills during their first two years of college—has caused many people to question the need for a college education.

According to Is College Worth It?, a new study released by the Pew Research Center on May 15, 2011, a majority of college presidents feel that public high school students are starting college “less well-prepared” than their counterparts of a decade ago. More than half of the college presidents surveyed said that today’s college students study less than students from 10 years ago, and over 60 percent of the college presidents who responded think President Barack Obama’s goal of achieving the highest number of college graduates in the world by 2020 is unlikely.

Colleges Lowering Standards to Keep Students from Dropping Out

Following the release of Academically Adrift, the Times Union suggested that colleges have dumbed down their academic standards to keep students from dropping out of school: “Since high schools are doing a poor job of preparing students for higher education, colleges have to choose between maintaining high standards and letting kids fail, or dumbing down the curriculum to meet the academic abilities of their incoming students,” education reporter Craig Brandon wrote on January 23, 2011.

Brandon is also the author of The Five-Year Party: How Colleges Have Given Up on Educating Your Child and What You Can Do About It. The book’s website claims to “unravel the mystery of why so many of our colleges have become so dysfunctional” and even states that “party schools operate more like adolescent resorts than higher education institutions.”

ACT Scores Show Low Academic Skills

The Wall Street Journal reported that data released in 2010 found less than 25 percent of 2010 high school graduates who took the ACT even had the academic skills necessary to pass entry-level college courses. “High schools are the downfall of American school reform,” Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington, told the newspaper. “We haven’t figured out how to improve them on a broad scope and if our kids aren’t dropping out physically, they are dropping out mentally.”

The topic may be making more headlines today than it did just a few years ago because of the lackluster economy and the number of young adults saddled with massive student loans, but people have been wondering if college has gotten too easy for quite some time now.

2002 Poll Compared High School and College Students

A 2002 poll conducted by opinion polling and market research firm IBOPE Zogby International claimed Today’s College Students Barely More Knowledgeable than High School Students of 50 Years Ago. A random sample of American college and university students scored little or no higher than high school graduates of a half-century ago on a test of 15 questions assessing general cultural knowledge.

In 2006, The Boston Globe reported that a National Center for Education Statistics study found that only 31 percent of college graduates could read a “complex book and extrapolate from it.” The study also found that far fewer college graduates were leaving school with skills needed to comprehend routine data, citing “reading a table about the relationship between blood pressure and physical activity” as an example.

Grade Inflation Occurring at Colleges

If today’s college students are so much dumber than those of years past, how are they still getting good grades and earning degrees? In 2009, Stuart Rojstaczer wrote a Christian Science Monitor article which claimed grades are continuing to go up regardless of the quality of education. His research found that the average GPA at public schools is 3.0 (with many flagship state schools having average GPAs higher than 3.2) while private colleges’ GPA average is 3.3. Rojstaczer has even created a visual of recent GPA trends.

Is that claim that colleges are being “dumbed down” disturbing? Yes.

Is the claim actually true? That seems to depend on who you ask.

Students Suggest Colleges Offer High Standards

Interestingly enough, “don’t dumb down curriculum just so students can pass” was among the many suggestions provided by a group of Texas students surveyed for In Their Own Voices: Young Texans Talk About the Barriers to College Completion, a partnership of the public-opinion research organization Public Agenda, the Lumina Foundation’s Productivity Initiative, and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

The people have spoken.


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.