'Woke' colleges 'stroke' student egos, study argues

A new study shares survey responses from over 200 professors and suggests that, unless universities address the tension between calls for equity and merit, they cannot restore faith in higher education.

Reponses diverged based on respondents’ political orientation, with moderate respondents more likely to agree that 'watering down courses' does a 'disservice to more academically gifted students.'

A new study reveals a crisis in higher education attributed to expensive tuition, “woke” culture, and universities that lower academic rigor, whether over sympathy for indebted students or social justice. 

“‘Undeserved’ Grades or ‘Underserved’ Students?,” published in Higher Education Politics & Economicspresents a professors’-eye view of grade inflation. 

Professors Mark Horowitz, Anthony L. Haynor, and Kenneth Kickham shared survey results from over 200 professors at public universities to suggest that, unless universities address the tension between calls for equity and merit, they cannot restore faith in higher education as an institution that educates well-rounded citizens. 

Horowitz and Haynor are sociology professors at Seton Hall University, and Kickham is a political science professor at the University of Central Oklahoma. 

They begin their argument by exploring the three factors that erode the value of higher education, making “diploma mill” a search term that “appears over half a million times.” 

The “broke-woke-stroke” triad, according to the authors, describes the “corporatization” of higher education; a campus climate hostile to ideas outside the orthodoxy on race or gender-related issues; and faculty who give students high grades in response to their sensitivity, different academic abilities, or loan debt. 

Data on grade inflation show that the percentage of “A” grades increases by five to six percent every decade. The authors blame “the college-for-all creed.” 

[VA schools withold test scores citing equity, costing top students college scholarships]

“If this view is correct,” they write, “the material factor (‘broke’) is likely the main driver of grade inflation, as cash-strapped universities tap an ever-larger market of students expected to go to college, whatever their preparation or intellectual readiness.”

Survey respondents also perceive grade inflation. 48 percent of respondents “agree that grade inflation is a serious problem,” 33 percent “admit to reducing the rigor of their courses over the years,” and 47 percent “agree that academic standards have declined.”

When respondents diverge, however, there are major differences in political orientation. There is a “stairway pattern” in survey responses, including a question in which “radicals” or “liberals” were more likely than “moderates” to “agree that virtually all students admitted with serious academic deficits can excel in a challenging curricular environment with sufficient academic and university support.”

In a statement to Campus Reform, Haynor wrote, “Although it may not be stated explicitly in the paper, I strongly support a robust student support infrastructure.” 

Yet I worry that given the pressures working against academic standards, we’re losing sight of the importance of motivating our most gifted students to excel to their maximum potential,” he continued. 

In a question about whether “watering down courses” does a “disservice to more academically gifted students,” 71 percent of moderates answered that they agreed, compared to only 38 percent of radicals and 39 percent of liberals.

”We in higher education need to support and challenge all of our students if they are to meaningfully contribute to the solution of pressing societal problems,” Haynor told Campus Reform

The polarized responses, the study argues, will make addressing the broke-woke-stroke triad and the resulting devaluation of a college degree all the more difficult. Earlier in the study, they pointed to an argument that evidences an unwillingness to engage with these issues. 

An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education “advocate[d] for more structured course assignments and ‘inclusive teaching’ methods,” according to the authors’ summary. 

“Apparently, it may not be ‘fair or valid’ to hold students to such ‘normative expectations’ as ‘reading,’ ‘arriving to class on time,’ ‘participating in discussion,’ or using ‘standard English,’” their criticism read. 

[RELATED: University of California system weighs ending letter grades due to ‘bias and inequities’]

Horowitz told Campus Reform that there is only one solution that addresses differences in student performance: “a return to public financing of higher education.”  

”If, unfortunately, a professor needs to fail some number of students, they should be able to do so without miring the students in further unsustainable debt; or, with corporatization, threatening their own academic program’s survival by lowering student pass rates and the number of graduates in their program’s major,” he continued. 

The authors concluded by suggesting that universities should not avoid taboo conversations and instead need a “serious self-interrogation about the product students are buying and the economic landscape they are inheriting.” This, they said, is necessary to restore higher education as an institution of civic virtue and not just one for learning job skills. 

“The broader public must buy in, quite literally, to not just the market value but the civic value of a college degree,” they wrote. “We cannot make that case by eroding standards or diminishing the traditional values of hard work and merit.”

Campus Reform contacted all relevant parties listed for comment and will update this article accordingly.