AP Classes – Good or Bad?

Here’s a former college professor and high school AP teacher’s negative take on the value of Advanced Placement courses.  Most US high schools offer many AP courses, which generally require a greater level of effort for success and often help kids opt-out of intro level college courses.  What’s your opinion on the value of AP classes?

AP Classes Are a Scam, The Atlantic

The College Board earns over half of all its revenues from the courses—and, in an uncertain environment, students keep being suckered.

Charles Dharapak / AP
JOHN TIERNEY OCT 13, 2012
Fraudulent schemes come in all shapes and sizes. To work, they typically wear a patina of respectability. That’s the case with Advanced Placement courses, one of the great frauds currently perpetrated on American high-school students.

That’s a pretty strong claim, right? You bet. But why not be straightforward when discussing a scam the scale and audacity of which would raise Bernie Madoff’s eyebrows?

The miscellany of AP courses offered in U.S. high schools under the imprimatur of the College Board probably started with good intentions. The idea, going back to the 1950s, was to offer college-level courses and exams to high-school students. The courses allegedly provide students the kind of rigorous academic experience they will encounter in college as well as an opportunity to earn college credit for the work.

Sounds pretty good. And every year, millions of high-school students enroll in the courses that are offered in 39 different subjects. They do so at an annual growth rate almost ten times the yearly percentage increase in the number of high school graduates. If there weren’t something good about AP, would participation in the AP offerings be so high?

Interestingly, the evidence providing the clearest positive argument for AP participation is that high performance in AP courses correlates with better college grades and higher graduation rates, especially in science courses. But that’s faint praise. It’s the same as saying that students who do best in high school will do better in college and are more likely to graduate.

My beef with AP courses isn’t novel. The program has a bountiful supply of critics, many of them in the popular press (see here and here), and many increasingly coming from academia as well (see here). The criticisms comport, in every particular, with my own experience of having taught an AP American Government and Politics course for ten years.

  • AP courses are not, in fact, remotely equivalent to the college-level courses they are said to approximate. Before teaching in a high school, I taught for almost 25 years at the college level, and almost every one of those years my responsibilities included some equivalent of an introductory American government course. The high-school AP course didn’t begin to hold a candle to any of my college courses. My colleagues said the same was true in their subjects.
  • The traditional monetary argument for AP courses — that they can enable an ambitious and hardworking student to avoid a semester or even a year of college tuition through the early accumulation of credits — often no longer holds. Increasingly, students don’t receive college credit for high scores on AP courses; they simply are allowed to opt out of the introductory sequence in a major. And more and more students say that’s a bad idea, and that they’re better off taking their department’s courses.
  • The scourge of AP courses has spread into more and more high schools across the country, and the number of students taking these courses is growing by leaps and bounds. Studies show that increasing numbers of the students who take them are marginal at best, resulting in growing failure rates on the exams. The school where I taught essentially had an open-admissions policy for almost all its AP courses. I would say that two thirds of the students taking my class each year did not belong there. And they dragged down the course for the students who did.
  • Despite the rapidly growing enrollments in AP courses, large percentages of minority students are essentially left out of the AP game. And so, in this as in so many other ways, they are at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to college admissions.
  • The AP program imposes “substantial opportunity costs” on non-AP students in the form of what a school gives up in order to offer AP courses, which often enjoy smaller class sizes and some of the better teachers. Schools have to increase the sizes of their non-AP classes, shift strong teachers away from non-AP classes, and do away with non-AP course offerings, such as “honors” courses. These opportunity costs are real in every school, but they’re of special concern in low-income school districts.
  • To me, the most serious count against Advanced Placement courses is that the AP curriculum leads to rigid stultification — a kind of mindless genuflection to a prescribed plan of study that squelches creativity and free inquiry. The courses cover too much material and do so too quickly and superficially. In short, AP courses are a forced march through a preordained subject, leaving no time for a high-school teacher to take her or his students down some path of mutual interest. The AP classroom is where intellectual curiosity goes to die.

In short, somewhere along the way over the past half-century, the AP idea got corrupted.

Many critics lay the blame on the College Board itself, a huge “non-profit” organization that operates like a big business. The College Board earns over half of all its revenues from its Advanced Placement program — more than all its other revenue streams (SATs, SAT subject tests, PSATs) combined. The College Board’s profits for 2009, the most recent year for which records were available, were 8.6 percent of revenue, which would be respectable even for a for-profit corporation. “When a non-profit company is earning those profits, something is wrong,” says Americans for Educational Testing Reform. (The AETR’s “report card” on the College Board awards a grade of D and cites numerous “areas of misconduct” by the College Board.)

It’s clear the College Board has the mentality of a voracious corporation, charging $89 a shot for an exam to millions of students who have no business taking it.

The college admissions process today is a total crapshoot. At least for the most competitive colleges, nobody in the applicant pool has any certainty anymore as to what will secure admission. In the face of that uncertainty, one rational form of behavior is to take the shotgun approach, blasting away at the admissions committee with every weapon in the student’s armory: multiple AP courses, ridiculous amounts of extracurricular activity, and do-gooder volunteer work rivaling Mother Teresa’s.

Lots of guidance counselors will advise families and students that a rational alternative is to opt out of that race. Concentrate on one or two things. Excel at them. I agree.

But it shouldn’t be the customer’s responsibility to stop a scam. The customer buys into it because the con artist is so skillful and the world is so uncertain.  The only way to stop the College Boards of the world is to expose them. Tell people to be wary.

So, students and parents: beware.

How Helicopter Parenting Can Cause Binge Drinking

The Atlantic
The way some white professionals raise their children is exacerbating an alcohol problem on U.S. college campuses.

CAITLIN FLANAGAN SEPTEMBER 2016

I was a teenager in the 1970s. It was a different time. We did not drink—or do drugs or have sex—in captivity. We did those things in the wild, away from our parents, in the danger and thrill of the dark, sacred night. Our parents understood that it was the beginning of the end: We were leaving them. Some of us had curfews, others did not—but either way, you could get a lot done by midnight. Beyond us, on the other side of high school, was some sort of future, probably more or less in line with our parents’ larger plans for us, but maybe not. The average middle-class kid (as we were called back then, meaning: a white kid whose parents owned a house and whose father was steadily employed) was not burnishing dreams of Princeton. Go to class, show up for the SAT, fill out the applications, and then enroll in the best, or the most interesting, or the farthest from home, or the cheapest college that lets you in. We didn’t need much help from our parents to do those things. Which meant that at night, we were free. And we did many dangerous things. Mothers were not yet against drunk driving; cheerful ladies did not give you condoms at school. It wasn’t an arcadia, and many times things went terribly wrong. But most of us survived.

Today, of course, all of that is different: Professional-class parents and their children are tightly bound to each other in the relentless pursuit of admission to a fancy college. A kid on that track can’t really separate from her parents, as their close involvement in this shared goal is essential. Replicating the social class across a generation is a joint project. That’s why it’s so hard to break into the professional stratum of society: The few available spots are being handed down within families. From this has flowed a benefit that parents love—deep emotional closeness throughout adolescence, with no shadow of a future parting. Kids don’t rebel against their parents anymore; why would they? Would you rebel against the concierge at the Hyatt?

Which leaves only the problem of the dark, sacred night. What to do about it? It’s full of everything parents fear the most: physical danger, unknown companions, illegal substances, and the development of a separate and secret life. And so, to keep their children close, to keep them safe, and to ensure that they do not escape into the wild freedom of an adolescence unfettered by constant monitoring, drinking in captivity has become a popular alternative. Drinking isn’t like doing drugs—it’s not something parents recoil from in horror. It’s something they can make an accommodation for, and so they practice “social hosting,” as the law refers to the custom: allowing teens to get hammered in the comfort and safety of the rec room. Let Charlotte and her pals suck down flavored vodka and giggle while watching Netflix; indulge Jack’s desire to have a party in the backyard. Collect the car keys, make sure no one gets into trouble, peek out from an upstairs window, bustle into the TV room with a tray of alcohol-absorbent pizza bites, and then relax in the knowledge that the kids are all right. They have the freedom to experiment that they crave and the physical protection that your peace of mind requires.

Of course, not all parents are down with this approach, and so at high-school gatherings that include parents—sports events, back-to-school nights, college fairs—you can overhear the adults gingerly sounding out one another. They speak in a kind of code, but this is what they want to know: Are you a Good Parent or a Get-Real Parent?
Good Parents think that alcohol is dangerous for young people and that riotous drunkenness and its various consequences have nothing to recommend them. These parents enforce the law and create a family culture that supports their beliefs.

Get-Real Parents think that high-school kids have been drinking since Jesus left Chicago, and that it’s folly to pretend the new generation won’t as well. The horror stories (awful accidents, alcohol poisoning, lawsuits) tend to involve parents who didn’t do it right—who neglected to provide some level of adult supervision, or who forgot to forbid anyone to get in a car after drinking.

Get-Real Parents understand that learning to drink takes a while and often starts with a baptism of fire. Better for Charlotte to barf her guts out on the new sectional than in the shadowy basement of a distant fraternity house. On the nights of big high-school events, Get-Real Parents pay for limos, party buses, Ubers—whatever it takes to ensure that their kids are safe. What is an Uber except a new kind of bike helmet?

In the beginning, everyone is a Good Parent. Bring up teen drinking among parents of elementary-school students and it will elicit the same shiver of horror as the word adolescence itself. But slowly people start defecting. At first, it’s easy to demonize the ones who chuckle fondly about their kids’ boozy misadventures. But by junior year, it feels as though everyone is telling these funny stories. The Good Parents comprise a smaller and smaller cohort, one that tends to stay quiet about its beliefs. Get-Real Parents can be bullies—they love to roll their eyes at the Good Parents, so it’s best not to expose yourself.

The top colleges reward intensity, and binge drinking is a perfected form of that quality.
Ridicule is not the only disappointment in store for the Good Parents. For one thing, high schools turn out to be more in the Get-Real business than they were a generation ago. Go to a parent meeting on some topic like “Teens and Drinking” and you’re likely to get an earful about how to keep your teen drinker safe. Teach her to recognize signs of alcohol poisoning in her friends; tell her it’s always okay to call 911; advise her to check in on conked-out partygoers every 15 minutes or so to make sure they’re just sleeping it off and not unconscious. The message doesn’t involve any moral or emotional imperatives; it has to do only with not ending up dead or in jail.

Furthermore, the Good Parent who naively assumes that preventing a teenager from drinking will help him or her in the college-admissions stakes is dead wrong. A teenager growing up in one of the success factories—the exceptional public high school in the fancy zip code, the prestigious private school—will oftentimes be a person whose life is composed of extremes: extreme studying, extreme athletics, extreme extracurricular pursuits, and extreme drinking. Binge drinking slots in neatly with the other, more obviously enhancing endeavors. Perhaps it is even, for some students, necessary. What 80-hour-a-week executive doesn’t drop her handbag on the console table and head to the wine fridge the second she gets home? Her teenager can’t loosen the pressure valve that way—he has hours of work ahead. A bump of Ritalin is what he needs, not a mellowing half bottle of Shiraz. But come Saturday night? He’ll get his release.

The top colleges reward intensity, and binge drinking is a perfected form of that quality. Moreover, it’s highly correlated with some of the activities admissions officers prize most, such as varsity sports: High-school athletes are less likely to use drugs and more likely to drink alcohol than their fellow students. Colleges complain like hell about binge drinking, but their admissions policies favor the kind of kids most likely to take part in it.

By 12th grade, parents have made their decisions, and made peace (more or less) with the decisions of their peers. The year grinds on, seeming to last forever, until, abruptly, it’s over. After an oddly moving blast of “Pomp and Circumstance” on a hot morning, there it is: childhood’s end. The summer is a strange, liminal time, and then the cars are loaded up, the airplanes boarded, and the parents stand on green lawns in college towns and say goodbye. Now the teenagers are far from home, with only the remembered counsel of the people who love them most to help them negotiate what lies ahead.

College drinking, including extreme heavy drinking, has been a tradition since the 19th century. Because of this, it can be hard to convince middle-aged people that something has changed. But the consistent—at times urgent, at times resigned—report from college officials is that something has gone terribly awry and that huge numbers of students regularly transform the American campus into a college-themed spin-off of The Walking Dead. They vomit endlessly, destroy property, become the victims or perpetrators of sexual events ranging from the unpleasant to the criminal, get rushed off in ambulances, and join the ever-growing waiting lists for counseling. Depression and anxiety go hand in hand with heavy drinking, and both are at epidemic proportions on campus.

The National Minimum Drinking Age Act—the “21 law”—is often blamed for the college drinking problem, on the theory that it pitted students against campus authorities and drove drinking underground, where it became an extreme, ritualized behavior. But the truth is more complex. Overall drinking rates on campus have gone down since the law’s passage in 1984, as they have among 18-to-21-year-olds not in college. The law’s public-health benefits are undeniable. And yet many of the students already primed to be heavy drinkers have begun consuming alcohol in the intense new manner, chasing not a high but oblivion.
How much are these students drinking? We don’t know. In 1994, Harvard’s College Alcohol Study established what is still the prevailing definition of a college binge: five or more drinks in a row for a man, and four or more for a woman. But while this measure may have been useful a quarter century ago, it’s essentially useless today, when bingers often have 10 or more drinks in a night. The change on campuses may involve not the number of students drinking but the intensity with which they drink—by the traditional measure, fewer students are binge drinking, but of those who do, a sizable number are now doing so to the extreme. A study published in 2011 in the American Journal of Health Education found that 77 percent of college freshmen “drink to get drunk”—and what today’s college student calls being “drunk” is oftentimes something an expert would define as being in a blackout.

Who are these students? By and large, they constitute the most privileged subset of undergraduates, and those who would (unwisely) emulate them. The students at the center of this culture are most likely to be the children of white, college-educated parents, young people whose free time is probably spent not working to help support themselves, but rather participating in certain activities, most notably Greek life and athletics. They are at the center of the most visible social scene on campus, and while their sorrows and travails unfold in private, their wild partying is a public spectacle.

Black students drink less than all other races on campus.
Some less privileged students look on in disdain, while others gaze in envy, imagining that if they only pour enough booze down their throats, they will join the crowds of wealthy white sorority sisters, with their polished hair and bouncy cheerfulness. But for these kids, who lack the layers of protection and support that cocoon the richer and whiter kids, the consequences can be harsh.

Black students drink less than all other races on campus. Why? The question hardly merits an answer. Drinking while black can be downright dangerous, as local police officers tend to take a dim view of young black people breaking laws. Last year, a black University of Virginia student sustained head injuries requiring 10 stitches after he was arrested by three state law-enforcement officers for the outrageous act of trying to enter a student bar. “I go to UVA, you racists!” he yelled at the men, blood streaming down his face. Not long after the Ferguson riots, at a New Hampshire outfit named Keene State College (87 percent white), a local event called Pumpkin Fest turned the area around the campus into a kind of war zone in which young people—including students from Keene and other local colleges—took part in a massive drunken riot that included throwing billiard balls and full bottles of alcohol at cops, pulling street signs out of the ground, setting fires, overturning a car, and reportedly threatening to kill police officers. In the disappointed characterization of Keene State’s president, the children failed to “pumpkin responsibly.” How long would those behaviors be tolerated if they were committed by young black men?
This kind of spectacle, with its confusing mixture of misery and social power, encourages Good Parents and Get-Real Parents to make their very different decisions. Good Parents want their children to avoid the unhappiness that binge drinking can result in. They may also wish to transmit to their children larger values—of abiding the law, or of religious practice, or of aligning themselves with activities that will uplift rather than diminish a person. Intuitively, the Good Parent understands something public-health research confirms: that when it comes to alcohol use, adolescents take their parents’ counsel into strong consideration. Today’s young people—unlike members of my own, ’70s generation—don’t ignore their parents’ guidance on important matters; they seek it. Even if the child of a Good Parent decides to drink, she has a lodestar that many of her peers do not. When she wakes up in the mess and humiliation of a morning after, she thinks: This isn’t what my parents want for me.

What about the Get-Real Parents? Don’t they love their children? Of course they do. Some of them even think they’re helping their kids by teaching them to drink while they’re still at home—like “the Europeans,” or, more specifically, “the French.” Leaving aside the fact that the French have their own burgeoning teen-drinking problem, the research shows that college binge drinking is a performative behavior, with its own customs and vocabulary and a high degree of intentionality. Kids don’t binge instead of drinking moderately; they do it in addition—they perceive the two behaviors as distinct. You can teach a young person to enjoy a glass of good wine with dinner, but this will not be a protective factor when it comes to binge drinking. It will probably be irrelevant. Kids don’t binge on pinot noir and braised lamb shanks. They binge on flavored vodka and cinnamon whiskey, and they do it until they puke. As for letting them drink heavily with their pals so they can “learn their limits”—the way parents did back in the day—that notion is out-of-date. The point of college binge drinking today is that there are no limits. Blacking out isn’t a mistake; blacking out is the goal.
The real question about these parents (many of whom pay for their kids’ alcohol, revel in their stories about the shit show, delight in emails from campus highlighting new services for the plastered, such as golf-cart rides back to the dorm by helpful safety officers) is this: Why have they so cheerfully handed over their children to this ugly and worthless experience?

To a large extent, what many Get-Real Parents are interested in is success. Ever since returning home from the maternity ward, they have been in the business of raising winners. Winners make varsity, winners take Advanced Placement classes, winners apply early decision to selective colleges, and winners are at the top of the social hierarchy at their competitive high schools—which means they boot and (more important) rally. Perhaps, for some of the more mercenary and lucrative professions—including stock trading, investment banking, and high-stakes sales—there are actually benefits to heavy drinking. A binge drinker emerges from college both elevated and coarsened: educated enough to compete in the market and sullied enough by the hard knocks of binge drinking that he won’t be too shocked by what he finds there.

No wonder these young people keep drinking. The hollowness at the center of their lives—the increasing abandonment of religion, the untethering of sexuality not just from relationships but even from kindness, the race to jump aboard the stem express because that’s where the money is, the understanding of eventual parenthood as something that will be subordinated to the management of two successful careers, and the understanding that their own parents care so little about them that they will happily allow them to sustain the kind of moral injuries that blackout behavior often engenders—would make too much consciousness hard for anyone to take.

What are these kids really vomiting up every weekend at their fancy colleges? Is it really just 12 shots of apple-flavored vodka? Or is it a set of values, an attitude toward the self and toward others, that has become increasingly hard for them to stomach?

The College Twitter Happiness Index can help students

The Washington Post

Here’s an interesting Washington Post opinion piece from CSH Jr. Grace Isford, a former CSH Middle School student!

By Grace Isford, Published: December 27

Grace Isford is a high school junior in Greenwich, Conn.

The college hype machine is overwhelming. So I decided to bypass the sugar-coated information of tour guides, review books and even adults seeking to help — and instead harness social media to slice through the conventional wisdom.

As a tour guide at my high school, I know that tours convey only surface information.Adults exacerbate the problem by telling students which schools are best despite having limited information and relying primarily on institutions’ reputations. And books on collegesuse simplistic labels such as “party” or “suicide” schools, catch-all terms that attract or deter students for the wrong reasons.

Twitter is a good way to get a sense of what the general public thinks about a particular topic. So I searched tweets about a number of well-known schools and divided the results into three general categories: positive, negative and neutral.

The six schools I chose to study — not necessarily ones to which I plan to apply next year — range from large state schools to private research universities. Many have entrenched reputations that veer to extremes.

The results were surprising.

To tabulate my College Twitter Happiness Index, I compiled a pool of 100 unique tweets from public personal accounts mentioning each university. To calculate the percentage of happy students at a college, I added positive tweets, subtracted negative ones and discounted neutral tweets.

There is, to be certain, a subjective element in determining whether a particular tweet is positive or negative. But Twitter is not a medium known for subtlety, and the distinctions usually are clear.

The University of Chicago is often said to be a school “where fun goes to die.” Yet my College Twitter Happiness Index registered 70 percent happy for the university. As one University of Chicago student wrote, “I am seriously so in-love with this school. #UChicago.” I found a similarly unexpected outcome at Cornell University, which has a reputation for exceedingly pressured students and was the subject of media attention in 2010 for student suicides. Yet my calculations pegged the school’s happiness index at a robust 58 percent. My calculations for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a school often stereotyped to have a less-than-vibrant social life, found the student happiness index to be 67 percent. Party on!

Conversely, universities with reputations for being “party schools” seemed to produce unhappier students. For example, the University of Southern California , where students bask in the Golden State sun, came in at 46 percent. One USC student tweeted, “So much studying #USC #Stressed.” Similarly, the University of Colorado had a 43 percent happiness index. And by my calculations, the University of Florida, a.k.a. Party Central, had a happiness index of only 39 percent.

Perhaps the University of Chicago, the place where fun supposedly goes to die, actually creates a much happier environment than do party schools such as USC or Florida. Students who attend the University of Chicago may be happier because they work harder at engaging subjects, or perhaps many of them merely use Twitter as a means of positive expression.

Whatever the reason for the disparities between public perceptions of colleges and the reality on campus, prospective students ought to be careful. Teenagers shouldn’t let the influence of the college hype machine dictate where they apply because a school cannot be accurately assessed from tour guides, rankings and know-it-all adults. It’s better to make decisions based on where students actually are happiest.

I’m only one high school student, but tools such as my College Twitter Happiness Index are a way to cut through the clutter.

As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry

The New York Times

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

At Stanford this month, Jeremy Dean showed graduate students how to use Rap Genius to teach the classics in the digital age.

By 
Published: October 30, 2013

STANFORD, Calif. — On Stanford University’s sprawling campus, where a long palm-lined drive leads to manicured quads, humanities professors produce highly regarded scholarship on Renaissance French literature and the philosophy of language.

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Tanya Llewellyn, a graduate student in English at Stanford, at a workshop on a database analysis of 18th-century novels.

They have generous compensation, stunning surroundings and access to the latest technology and techniques of scholarship. The only thing they lack is students: Some 45 percent of the faculty members in Stanford’s main undergraduate division are clustered in the humanities — but only 15 percent of the students.

With Stanford’s reputation in technology, it is no wonder that computer science is the university’s most popular major, and that there are no longer any humanities programs among the top five. But with the recession having helped turn college, in the popular view, into largely a tool for job preparation, administrators are concerned.

“We have 11 humanities departments that are quite extraordinary, and we want to provide for that faculty,” said Richard Shaw, Stanford’s dean of admission and financial aid.

The concern that the humanities are being eclipsed by science goes far beyond Stanford.

At some public universities, where funding is eroding, humanities are being pared. In September, for example, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania announced that it was closing its sparsely populated degree programs in German, philosophy, and world languages and culture.

At elite universities, such departments are safe but wary. Harvard had a 20 percent decline in humanities majors over the last decade, a recent report found, and most students who say they intend to major in humanities end up in other fields. So the university is looking to reshape its first-year humanities courses to sustain student interest.

Princeton, in an effort to recruit more humanities students, offers a program for high school students with a strong demonstrated interest in humanities — an idea Stanford, too, adopted last year.

“Both inside the humanities and outside, people feel that the intellectual firepower in the universities is in the sciences, that the important issues that people of all sorts care about, like inequality and climate change, are being addressed not in the English departments,” said Andrew Delbanco, a Columbia University professor who writes about higher education.

The future of the humanities has been a hot topic this year, both in academia and the high-culture media. Some commentators sounded the alarm based on federal data showing that nationally, the percentage of humanities majors hovers around 7 percent — half the 14 percent share in 1970. As others quickly pointed out, that decline occurred between 1970, the high point, and 1985, not in recent years.

Still, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences issued a report this spring noting the decreased funding for humanities and calling for new initiatives to ensure that they are not neglected amid the growing money and attention devoted to science and technology.

In The New Yorker in August, the writer Adam Gopnik argued for the importance of English majors. The New Republic ran an article, “Science Is Not Your Enemy,” by Steven Pinker, a Harvard cognitive scientist. A few weeks later came a testy rebuttal, “Crimes Against Humanities” by Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, rejecting Dr. Pinker’s views on the ascendancy of science.

“In the scholarly world, cognitive sciences has everybody’s ear right now, and everybody is thinking about how to relate to it,” said Louis Menand, a Harvard English professor. “How many people do you know who’ve read a book by an English professor in the past year? But everybody’s reading science books.”

Many distinguished humanities professors feel their status deflating. Anthony Grafton, a Princeton history professor who started that university’s humanities recruiting program, said he sometimes feels “like a newspaper comic strip character whose face is getting smaller and smaller.”

At Stanford, the humanists cannot help noticing the primacy of science and technology.

“You look at this university’s extraordinary science and technology achievements, and if you wonder what will happen to the humanities, you can be threatened, or you can be invigorated,” said Franco Moretti, the director of the Stanford Literary Lab. “I’m choosing to be invigorated.”

At Stanford, digital humanities get some of that vigor: In “Teaching Classics in the Digital Age,” graduate students use Rap Genius, a popular website for annotating lyrics from rappers like Jay-Z and Eminem, to annotate Homer and Virgil. In a Literary Lab project on 18th-century novels, English students study a database of nearly 2,000 early books to tease out when “romances,” “tales” and “histories” first emerged as novels, and what the different terms signified. And in “Introduction to Critical Text Mining,” English, history and computer majors use R software to break texts into chunks to analyze novels and Supreme Court rulings.

Dan Edelstein, the Stanford professor who ran this summer’s high school program, said that while it is easy to spot the winners at science fairs and robotics competitions, students who excel in humanities get less acclaim and are harder to identify.

“I got the sense from them that it’s not cool to be a nerd in high school, unless you’re a STEM nerd,” he said, using the term for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

True, said Rachel Roberts, one of his summer students.

“I live in Seattle, surrounded by Amazon and Google and Microsoft,” said Ms. Roberts, a history buff. “One of the best things about the program, that made us all breathe a sigh of relief, was being in an environment where no one said: “Oh, you’re interested in humanities? You’ll never get a job.”

For university administrators, finding the right mix of science and humanities is difficult, given the enormous imbalance in outside funding.

“There’s an overwhelming push from the administration at most universities to build up the STEM fields, both because national productivity depends in part on scientific productivity and because there’s so much federal funding for science,” said John Tresch, a historian of science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, since the recession — probably because of the recession — there has been a profound shift toward viewing college education as a vocational training ground.

“College is increasingly being defined narrowly as job preparation, not as something designed to educate the whole person,” said Pauline Yu, president of the American Council of Learned Societies.

While humanities majors often have trouble landing their first job, their professors say that over the long term, employers highly value their critical thinking skills.

Parents, even more than students, often focus single-mindedly on employment. Jill Lepore, the chairwoman of Harvard’s history and literature program, tells of one young woman who came to her home, quite enthusiastic, for an event for students interested in the program, and was quickly deluged with messages from her parents. “They kept texting her: leave right now, get out of there, that is a house of pain,” she said.

Some professors flinch when they hear colleagues talking about the need to prepare students for jobs.

“I think that’s conceding too quickly,” said Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia. “We’re not a feeder for law school; our job is to help students learn to question.”

His university had 394 English majors last year, down from 501 when he arrived in 1984, but Professor Edmundson said he does not fret about the future. “In the end, we can’t lose,” he said. “We have William Shakespeare.”

But for students worrying about their own future, Shakespeare can seem an obstacle to getting on with their lives.

“Students who are anxious about finishing their degree, and avoiding debt, sometimes see the breadth requirements as getting in their way,” said Nicholas Dirks, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley.

Many do not understand that the study of humanities offers skills that will help them sort out values, conflicting issues and fundamental philosophical questions, said Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College.

“We have failed to make the case that those skills are as essential to engineers and scientists and businessmen as to philosophy professors,” he said.

Are You Ready for the Post-College SAT?

The Wall Street Journal

Employers Say They Don’t Trust Grade-Point Averages

      By

DOUGLAS BELKIN

    image

    Joe Philipson for The Wall Street JournalDavid Pate, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at St. John Fisher College outside Rochester, N.Y. The college will offer the new CLA + test.

    Next spring, seniors at about 200 U.S. colleges will take a new test that could prove more important to their future than final exams: an SAT-like assessment that aims to cut through grade-point averages and judge students’ real value to employers.

    A new test for college seniors that aims to be the SAT for prospective employers is the latest blow to the monopoly long-held by colleges and universities on what it means to be well-educated. Doug Belkin and Michael Poliakoff, American Council of Trustees and Alumni V.P. of Policy, discuss on Lunch Break. Photo: AP.

    The test, called the Collegiate Learning Assessment, “provides an objective, benchmarked report card for critical thinking skills,” said David Pate, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at St. John Fisher College, a small liberal-arts school near Rochester, N.Y. “The students will be able to use it to go out and market themselves.”

    The test is part of a movement to find new ways to assess the skills of graduates. Employers say grades can be misleading and that they have grown skeptical of college credentials.

    “For too long, colleges and universities have said to the American public, to students and their parents, ‘Trust us, we’re professional. If we say that you’re learning and we give you a diploma it means you’re prepared,’ ” said Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “But that’s not true.”

    The new voluntary test, which the nonprofit behind it calls CLA +, represents the latest threat to the fraying monopoly that traditional four-year colleges have enjoyed in defining what it means to be well educated.

    Even as students spend more on tuition—and take on increasing debt to pay for it—they are earning diplomas whose value is harder to calculate. Studies show that grade-point averages, or GPAs, have been rising steadily for decades, but employers feel many new graduates aren’t prepared for the workforce.

    Meanwhile, more students are taking inexpensive classes such as Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, but have no way to earn a meaningful academic credential from them.

    HNTB Corp., a national architectural firm with 3,600 employees, see value in new tools such as the CLA +, said Michael Sweeney, a senior vice president. Even students with top grades from good schools may not “be able to write well or make an argument,” he said. “I think at some point everybody has been fooled by good grades or a good resume.”

    The new test “has the potential to be a very powerful tool for employers,” said Ronald Gidwitz, a board member of the Council for Aid to Education, the group behind the test, and a retired chief executive of Helene Curtis, a Chicago-based hair-care company that was bought by Unilever in 1996.

    Only one in four employers think that two- and four-year colleges are doing a good job preparing students for the global economy, according to a 2010 survey conducted for the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

    Meanwhile, GPAs have been on the rise. A 2012 study looking at the grades of 1.5 million students from 200 four-year U.S. colleges and universities found that the percentage of A’s given by teachers nearly tripled between 1940 and 2008. A college diploma is now more a mark “of social class than an indicator of academic accomplishment,” said Stuart Rojstaczer, a former Duke University geophysics professor and co-author of the study.

    Employers such as General Mills Inc. and Procter & Gamble Co. long have used their own job-applicant assessments. At some companies such as Google Inc., GPAs carry less weight than they once did because they have been shown to have little correlation with job success, said a Google spokeswoman.

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    At Teach for America, which recruits college students to teach in rural and urban school districts, the GPA is one of just dozens of things used to winnow nearly 60,000 applicants for 5,900 positions. Candidates who make it to the second step of the process are given an in-house exam that assesses higher-order thinking, said Sean Waldheim, vice president of admissions at the group. “We’ve found that our own problem-solving activities work best to measure the skills we’re looking for,” he said.

    The Council for Aid to Education, the CLA + test’s creator, is a New York-based nonprofit that once was part of Rand Corp. The 90-minute exam is based on a test that has been used by 700 schools to grade themselves and improve how well their students are learning.

    The CLA + will be open to anyone—whether they are graduating from a four-year university or have taken just a series of MOOCs—and students will be allowed to show their scores to prospective employees. The test costs $35, but most schools are picking up the fee. Among schools that will use CLA + are the University of Texas system, Flagler College in Florida and Marshall University in West Virginia.

    The CLA + is scored on the 1600-point scale once used by the SAT “because everyone is familiar with that,” said Chris Jackson, director of partner development at the Council for Aid to Education. Instead of measuring subject-area knowledge, it assesses things like critical thinking, analytical reasoning, document literacy, writing and communication.

    Cory LaDuke, a 21-year-old senior at St. John Fisher, said he had mixed feelings about taking the CLA + but understood why employers might be skeptical of some graduates because “some people don’t work that hard and fake their way through it,” he said.

    “It kind of sucks that an employer can’t trust your GPA, but that’s the way it is right now, so this also an opportunity,” said Mr. LaDuke. “It’s another way to prove yourself.”

    Other groups also have been seeking ways to better judge graduates’ skills. The Lumina Foundation, which aims to boost the number of college graduates, is offering a way to standardize what students should know once they earn a degree. The MacArthur Foundation has helped fund a system of “badges” for online learning to show mastery of certain skills. Last Thursday, President Barack Obama said he wants the federal government to devise a ratings system to gauge colleges’ performance based on student outcomes.

    Meanwhile, established testing companies are introducing new tools. Earlier this year, Educational Testing Service, which developed the Graduate Record Exam, announced two certificates to reward high marks on its Proficiency Profile, which assesses critical thinking, reading, writing and math.

    And ACT, the nonprofit that administers the college-admission exam of the same name, has a National Career Readiness Certificate, which measures skills such as synthesizing and applying information presented graphically.

    Educational Testing Service was surprised to learn through a survey last spring that more than a quarter of businesses were using the GRE to evaluate job applicants, said David Payne, an ETS vice president.

    Sean Keegan, a 2011 graduate of Tufts University, has posted his GRE on his resume because he landed in the 97th percentile, even though he isn’t applying to graduate school. “I think it shows I’m relatively smart,” said Mr. Keegan, who is looking for work in finance. “So far, I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from employers.”

    Colleges Adapt Online Courses to Ease Burden

    The New York Times

    Jim Wilson/The New York Times

    Katie Kormanik preparing to record a statistics course at Udacity, an online classroom instruction provider in Mountain View, Calif.

    By 

    SAN JOSE, Calif. — Dazzled by the potential of free online college classes, educators are now turning to the gritty task of harnessing online materials to meet the toughest challenges in American higher education: giving more students access to college, and helping them graduate on time.

    Virtual U.

    This is the third article in a series that examines free online college-level classes and how they are transforming higher education.

    Max Whittaker for The New York Times

    Sebastian Thrun, a research professor at Stanford, is Udacity’s chief executive officer.

    Nearly half of all undergraduates in the United States arrive on campus needing remedial work before they can begin regular credit-bearing classes. That early detour can be costly, leading many to drop out, often in heavy debt and with diminished prospects of finding a job.

    Meanwhile, shrinking state budgets have taken a heavy toll at public institutions, reducing the number of seats available in classes students must take to graduate. In California alone, higher education cuts have left hundreds of thousands of college students without access to classes they need.

    To address both problems and keep students on track to graduation, universities are beginning to experiment with adding the new “massive open online courses,” created to deliver elite college instruction to anyone with an Internet connection, to their offerings.

    While the courses, known as MOOCs, have enrolled millions of students around the world, most who enroll never start a single assignment, and very few complete the courses. So to reach students who are not ready for college-level work, or struggling with introductory courses, universities are beginning to add extra supports to the online materials, in hopes of improving success rates.

    Here at San Jose State, for example, two pilot programs weave material from the online classes into the instructional mix and allow students to earn credit for them.

    “We’re in Silicon Valley, we breathe that entrepreneurial air, so it makes sense that we are the first university to try this,” said Mohammad Qayoumi, the university’s president. “In academia, people are scared to fail, but we know that innovation always comes with the possibility of failure. And if it doesn’t work the first time, we’ll figure out what went wrong and do better.”

    In one pilot program, the university is working with Udacity, a company co-founded by a Stanford professor, to see whether round-the-clock online mentors, hired and trained by the company, can help more students make their way through three fully online basic math courses.

    The tiny for-credit pilot courses, open to both San Jose State students and local high school and community college students, began in January, so it is too early to draw any conclusions. But early signs are promising, so this summer, Udacity and San Jose State are expanding those classes to 1,000 students, and adding new courses in psychology and computer programming, with tuition of only $150 a course.

    San Jose State has already achieved remarkable results with online materials from edX, a nonprofit online provider, in its circuits course, a longstanding hurdle for would-be engineers. Usually, two of every five students earn a grade below C and must retake the course or change career plans. So last spring, Ellen Junn, the provost, visited Anant Agarwal, an M.I.T. professor who taught a free online version of the circuits class, to ask whether San Jose State could become a living lab for his course, the first offering from edX, an online collaboration of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    Dr. Junn hoped that blending M.I.T.’s online materials with live classroom sessions might help more students succeed. Dr. Agarwal, the president of edX, agreed enthusiastically, and without any formal agreement or exchange of money, he arranged for San Jose State to offer the blended class last fall.

    The results were striking: 91 percent of those in the blended section passed, compared with 59 percent in the traditional class.

    “We’re engineers, and we check our results, but if this semester is similar, we will not have the traditional version next year,” said Khosrow Ghadiri, who teaches the blended class. “It would be educational malpractice.”

    It is hard to say, though, how much the improved results come from the edX online materials, and how much from the shift to classroom sessions focusing on small group projects, rather than lectures.

    Finding better ways to move students through the start of college is crucial, said Josh Jarrett, a higher education officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which in the past year has given grants to develop massive open online courses for basic and remedial courses.

    “For us, 2012 was all about trying to tilt some of the MOOC attention toward the more novice learner, the low-income and first-generation students,” he said. “And 2013 is about blending MOOCs into college courses where there is additional support, and students can get credit. While some low-income young adults can benefit from what I call the free-range MOOCs, the research suggests that most are going to need more scaffolding, more support.”

    Until now, there has been little data on how well the massive online courses work, and for which kinds of students. Blended courses provide valuable research data because outcomes can easily be compared with those from a traditional class. “The results in the San Jose circuits course are probably the most interesting data point in the whole MOOC movement,” Mr. Jarrett said.

    Said Dr. Junn, “We want to bring all the hyperbole around MOOCs down to reality, and really see at a granular level that’s never before been available, how well they work for underserved students.”

    Online courses are undeniably chipping at the traditional boundaries of higher education. Until now, most of the millions of students who register for them could not earn credit for their work. But that is changing, and not just at San Jose State. The three leading providers, Udacity, EdX and Coursera, are all offering proctored exams, and in some cases, certification for transfer credit through the American Council on Education.

    Last month, in a controversial proposal, the president pro tem of the California Senate announced the introduction of legislation allowing students in the state’s public colleges and universities who cannot get a seat in oversubscribed lower-level classes to earn credit for faculty-approved online versions, including those from private vendors like edX and Udacity.

    And on Wednesday, San Jose State announced that next fall, it will pay a licensing fee to offer three to five more blended edX courses, probably including Harvard’s “Ancient Greek Heroes” and Berkeley’s”Artificial Intelligence.” And over the summer, it will train 11 other California State campuses to use the blended M.I.T. circuits course.

    Dr. Qayoumi favors the blended model for upper-level courses, but fully online courses like Udacity’s for lower-level classes, which could be expanded to serve many more students at low cost. Traditional teaching will be disappearing in five to seven years, he predicts, as more professors come to realize that lectures are not the best route to student engagement, and cash-strapped universities continue to seek cheaper instruction.

    “There may still be face-to-face classes, but they would not be in lecture halls,” he said. “And they will have not only course material developed by the instructor, but MOOC materials and labs, and content from public broadcasting or corporate sources. But just as faculty currently decide what textbook to use, they will still have the autonomy to choose what materials to include.”

    While San Jose State professors decided what material should be covered in the three Udacity math courses, it was Udacity employees who determined the course look and flow — and, in most cases, appeared on camera.

    “We gave them lecture notes and a textbook, and they ‘Udacified’ things, and wrote the script, which we edited,” said Susan McClory, San Jose State’s developmental math coordinator. “We made sure they used our way of finding a common denominator.”

    The online mentors work in shifts at Udacity’s offices in nearby Mountain View, Calif., waiting at their laptops for the “bing” that signals a question, and answering immediately.

    “We get to hear the ‘aha’ moments, and these all-caps messages ‘THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU,’ ” said Rachel Meltzer, a former clinical research manager at Stanford and mentor who is starting medical school next fall.

    The mentors answer about 30 questions a day, like how to type the infinity symbol or add unlike fractions — or, occasionally, whether Ms. Meltzer is interested in a date. The questions appear in a chat box on-screen, but tutoring can move to a whiteboard, or even a live conversation. When many students share confusion, mentors provide feedback to the instructors.

    The San Jose State professors were surprised at the speed with which the project came together.

    “The first word was in November, and it started in January,” said Ronald Rogers, one of the statistics professors. “Academics usually form a committee for months before anything happens.”

    But Udacity’s approach was appealing.

    “What attracted us to Udacity was the pedagogy, that they break things into very small segments, then ask students to figure things out, before you’ve told them the answer,” said Dr. Rogers, who spends an hour a day reading comments on the discussion forum for students in the worldwide version of the class.

    Results from the pilot for-credit version with the online mentors will not be clear until after the final exams, which will be proctored by webcam.

    But one good sign is that, in the pilot statistics course, every student, including a group of high school students from an Oakland charter school, completed the first, unproctored exam.

    “We’re approaching this as an empirical question,” Dr. Rogers said. “If the results are good, then we’ll scale it up, which would be very good, given how much unmet demand we have at California public colleges.”

    Any wholesale online expansion raises the specter of professors being laid off, turned into glorified teaching assistants or relegated to second-tier status, with only academic stars giving the lectures. Indeed, the faculty unions at all three California higher education systems oppose the legislation requiring credit for MOOCs for students shut out of on-campus classes. The state, they say, should restore state financing for public universities, rather than turning to unaccredited private vendors.

    But with so many students lacking access, others say, new alternatives are necessary.

    “I’m involved in this not to destroy brick-and-mortar universities, but to increase access for more students,” Dr. Rogers said.

    And if short videos and embedded quizzes with instant feedback can improve student outcomes, why should professors go on writing and delivering their own lectures?

    “Our ego always runs ahead of us, making us think we can do it better than anyone else in the world,” Dr. Ghadiri said. “But why should we invent the wheel 10,000 times? This is M.I.T., No. 1 school in the nation — why would we not want to use their material?”

    There are, he said, two ways of thinking about what the MOOC revolution portends: “One is me, me, me — me comes first. The other is, we are not in this business for ourselves, we are here to educate students.”

    This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

    A version of this article appeared in print on April 30, 2013, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Colleges Adapt Online Courses To Ease Burden.