Published on 2012/03/07

Degrees Are Earned, Not Sold

Degrees Are Earned, Not Sold
Earning a degree requires hard work and dedication—qualities that you can’t replace with money. Photo by Cliff.

There is an old saying that, “Education is the only purchase people make where they complain if they get too much for their money.” Although everyone can complain about something relative to higher education, in my opinion, the largest problem today is the decline in the level of education provided compared to 20 or 30 years ago. We, as educators, have allowed the students to determine how much education is enough in any given course. We have also, in many cases, allowed grade inflation which, to some extent, has fueled the decline in the level of instruction.

Thirty years ago the volume and depth of material covered in an introductory class was much greater than it is today. Students complain if they are required to research and write a 20 page paper written in proper English with proper punctuation. The common complaint heard is, “This is not an English class.” We, as professors, have coddled our students, given them grades they did not truly earn, and written them recommendations they did not deserve. We do all of this for several of reasons. First, the student goes away happy and we have less hassle. Second, if the students go away we can get back to our research which will earn us a raise and promotion while teaching gets us neither. Third, the department head/dean gets no complaints and therefore believes all is well. Fourth, it is easier.

We need to make students more responsible for their education. We need to give only grades that are truly earned and we need to have the guts to tell a student, “I cannot write you a glowing recommendation because you did not perform well in my class and that is the only basis I have for recommending you.” These are not fun things to do and they do not lead to raises and promotions. But, if we are to provide quality education we need to begin doing these things again.

We also must stop being afraid that our students will say we are not fun in class. In this light, however, we must be sure that we speak coherent English, cover the material in full, and keep it from being boring. We need to accept that those students who do assimilate most of what we try to teach will use only what we provide. The students will sleep during class if it is boring or not attend class at all. And, most of all, if we bore them to death, we need to know they will not learn.

Because this country has decided that everyone is entitled to a college education, we have bent over backwards to make it possible for all students to get a college degree. That should not be what we do.  We should agree that everyone who wishes has an opportunity to earn a college degree. However, we should not provide college degrees to those who do not earn it. There is a huge difference between providing an opportunity to earn a college degree and ensuring that everyone who wishes gets a college degree

We need to ensure that students take more responsibility for their education. What happened to telling the students, “Look to your right and look to your left, only one of you will be here on graduation day.”  Yes, as an entering freshman that was a scary message. But, it did encourage the students to take responsibility for their education and degree. It also let the faculty and staff know that it was okay to fail a student who is not producing.

Both faculty and students have to stop believing that because a student enters college, they are entitled to a degree. We need to provide valid and interesting information. We need to grade what is appropriate and we need to admit that not everyone who enters college will earn a degree. We also need to remember that degrees are supposed to be earned and not sold.

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Readers Comments

Chuck Schwartz 2012/03/07 at 12:04 pm

Integral to this, though, is making sure students actually want to learn what we’re teaching them. It’s unfair to give a horrible grade to someone who was uninterested in the material — that’s our fault for not drawing them in better.

    Jennifer Brown 2012/03/12 at 3:29 pm

    Chuck, What does a student’s interest in a subject have to do with the grade the student earned? Regardless of a student’s interest in a subject (and how well or poorly the professor draws the student in), a student is responsible for class deliverables, whatever they may be. It’s part of the “going to school” process.

    An athlete who doesn’t like the coach’s play and does what he wants to on the field/court will be benched – and eventually kicked off the team. An employee who doesn’t like the project assigned to him and does a poor job on it will be fired. A student who does not perform well in class and on assignments earns a “horrible grade.” It’s simply how things work – and should work.

Karen 2012/03/12 at 3:28 pm

Susan, I love your article. It’s true that we have certainly allowed higher education to be turned upside down. While it is wonderful for students to be engaged and interested in class, this should not be the main objective. Education is supposed to…well…educate. And it often turns out that something a student thought was boring and not useful on day one of a class transforms into the key element they use for a larger chunk of their education. I make every effort to engage students, and students year-after-year tell me I hold their interest better than many instructors. However, I am clear in my mind that I am not there to entertain and that GOOD education is not always fun. You are also right about depth. I can remember doing more work in high school courses (regular not advanced) than is required in some college classes. We need an overhaul–it seems most writers here on this site agree–but to do it we must stop fearing the temporary bad opinion of students. As a culture we need to revisit the value of hard work and self-discipline. Yeah, I know those remarks will not make me a lot of friends. 😉

William Badke 2012/03/12 at 3:35 pm

I agree with both Susan and the first commentator. Part of our challenge is that, as educators, we are bombarded with the message that the world has changed, that technology had replaced academic publications with the products of Google, that today’s youth can no longer sustain a prolonged argument, and that students are “customers.” Academia is losing the reality that it is we who are supposed to set the agenda. Sure, we need to understand the employment market waiting for our students. Sure we need to make everything as interesting and engaging as possible. But it is our task to educate. The only way to get a good education is to work for it. We have to set the task.

SUSAN LONG 2012/03/14 at 12:33 pm

Chuck: I don’t agree that we have to make the students interested. We have to only make them realize what we’re teaching is relevant to them. I teaching corporate finance and statistics. In corporate finance I teach Time Value of Money by showing them how it can help them figure out how much their monthly payments will be on their new car or their mortgage. In statistics we talk about the political polls. The students need to see the relevance of what we’re teaching. But, it is not important to make it entertaining. If the students don’t care, we almost can’t make them care.

Cheryl Smith 2012/03/15 at 9:54 am

John Pyktel’s article (published yesterday) seems to say it’s the educator’s responsibility to make learning appealing to students. Check it out:

Frank Palatnick 2012/03/15 at 2:59 pm

The definition of a successful educative practice, to me, is that the student learns. I will use anything in my toolbox to make it so. Even if it means adding a little humor. The Ron Clark Story is a good example of what I’m trying to convey. You do whatever is necessary for facilitation to be successful.

Elizabeth 2012/03/26 at 3:38 pm

In grade school, I once had a Math teacher – who did not appear the least bit athletic, had a paunch and a bald spot, and wore a navy suit and tie to class every day.

For someone who did not know him, you would assume the class on Math would be boring.

However, he did a cartwheel down the hallway for every child that scored 100% on a test. He also did not allow the other students (who received less than 100%) to see him in the hallway doing cartwheels.

It was pretty exciting to be one of the privileged few students in the class to see my math teacher attempt multiple cartwheels down the hallway with his tie in his face while he was upside down.

I had one of the highest math scores that year in school. If I remember correctly, his classes had the most students with perfect scores.

I’m still inspired by that memory of his teaching: he taught me that no one or no topic needs to be boring, and there are always new ways to inspire and ease learning through engagement.

Frank Palatnick 2012/04/17 at 3:12 pm

On a video by ‘ TIAA-CREF ‘ about 5 years ago, one of the professors from the Arizona State University stated to one of the interviewers ” If the student doesn’t care, then I don’t care ” . What is that telling society about the importance of the student. The student, based on the concept of student centered teaching and learning has the capability to show how he/she learns as well as assess his/her own work. Education is a process that is based on motivating the student to question ideas and concepts in life and use that new understanding to make a positive impact on society. How can education be interesting if you don’t stimulate or create a spark in the student’s mind. Let the student show you what and how he/she wants to learn as long it encompasses the topics in the curriculum.

Nina Smith 2012/04/28 at 1:03 pm

Performing mandated tasks (assignments, tests) and learning are two different things. Being taught about something and learning it are also different things. No real change in education happens before we educators can understand and accept the difference between what is taught and what is learned.

I absolutely agree that degrees should not be purchased – in fact, coming from Finland where even Higher Education is free, I had hard time understanding how the cost of education in the U.S. can be as high as it is. Nor do I think that students should be entertained in class (regardless the grade or level of education) because I have a firm belief of students actually wanting to learn, as it is an in-built need for us as humans.

For the best educational outcomes I think every student should be held accountable for her/his own learning. This of course means the teachers’ and professors’ main responsibility to be the facilitators of this learning. Student responsibility and accountability grow with transparency (of communication and assessment) and with empowerment.

How do you utilize these tools in your teaching?

Ted Rockwell 2012/05/23 at 10:38 am

“Because this country has decided that everyone is entitled to a college education, we have bent over backwards to make it possible for all students to get a college degree.”

REALLY?! When did we decide as a country that everyone is entitled to a college education? The last I checked University budgets were being slashed and burned, tenure is threatened, scientific knowledge is suspect, and the rising cost of education is being used as a straw man by those who would want to destroy higher education.

This off the cuff comment about a fictional ‘decision’ Americans have made exposes the bias the author brings to the article; that students want a college degree for the same reasons they did a generation ago. Higher ed IS an investment that people make and see it as something they are buying. That is just a fact of life.

However, a generation ago the meaning of obtaining a college degree was not as closely tied to ‘getting a job’ as it is today. When my parents got their college degrees, they could afford to ‘discover themselves,’ partly because tuition was so low and partly because that was what the culture expected the college years to be.

Today, college education is as expensive as buying a home. It is seen as a strategic investment. A monetary purchase. Add to that an entire generation of students whose focus is on memorizing what will be on the standardized tests and the cultural meaning of a college degree quickly shifts to “I am buying a degree.”

There is a reason students say ‘this isn’t English class.’ It is because WE HAVE TRAINED THEM TO DO SO since they were 5 years old. I am afraid that the cultural forces at work in that mindset are too strong for a group of professors to change.

If we, as a country, had actually decided that ‘everyone is entitled to a college degree’ we would be FUNDING our higher ed institutions, repealing the Byzantine standardized tests, and concentrating on preparing the youth of America to be challenged once they come to University.

If they are admitted expecting to purchase a degree we have already lost the battle.

Steven Starks 2012/06/13 at 9:18 am


I really enjoyed reading this article! Thank you for having the courage and conviction to speak the hard truth about the pervasive sense of entitlement among many higher education students. Students should not only expect challenge, they should welcome it as an opportunity for growth both professionally and personally.

Susan Farber 2013/01/05 at 1:10 pm

Successful teaching and learning is the result of connection – students connect to the topic and make the effort to connect. Instructors – at any level, in any setting, formal or informal, communicate how their connection with the topic or skill can be infectious and relevant.
Instructors also have to provide opportunities for students to engage with the topic and experiment with the skills for students to grasp the relevance and benefit of knowing and using the knowledge and skills.

As Elzabeth described, this math teacher rejoiced in the students’ success; this is a form of connection.
As Frank indicated, he will use multiple tools to reach students; another form of connection.
As Karen and Susan Long both described, pointing out the relevance and teaching for depth has helped them create stimulating and beneficial learning opportunities.
As Jennifer indicated, the outcome of education (within a responsive environment) should result in some product or change. If it does not, if the student fails to understand the purpose of most of the course’s instructional activities, then failing grades are appropriate.

Philip Lucas 2013/02/18 at 6:35 pm

I am willing to be the deveil’s advocate on this one.

Degree’s would be better to be sold then earned. The current higher education system does not provide an equal opportunity for all to ‘earn’ a degree or attend a college or university.

In fact it can be said that degrees are purchased and not earned since the few who can get in are the priviledged.

Education at all levels up to a primary university degree or college diploma must be free for all and this includes books and supplies and if the course they want to take is not offered at their local college then residence is also free.

Retaking a class and even a year is also free, in fact the goal the student wants to reach is guaranteed, in that if they are willing to apply the effort so is the school and the entire educational system system in getting them to their goal.

Sure this is a radical idea, and the cost, up front it is high, but think about the saving. Lower enemployment, higher North American innovation and competitiveness. Kids get out of school without debt, they immediately become tax payers and contributors to the economic engine of their countries, and their parents are not forced to spend huge amounts to help the kids or pay for a degree.

We can hve a an educational levee on industry and the public and on any company that imports goods from off hore or creates goods off shore. This fund pays for the education of the most needy, the poor and most at risk in our nations.

If we can boost this group into the economically sustainable and even the advantaged, our countries will soon be debt free, and world leading in commerce and innovation.

The word is only mightier than the sword if it is placed in the hands of the poor and less advantaged.

lori perkovich 2013/04/10 at 10:47 am

I recently completed an undergraduate program and was shocked by many of my in class experiences. Including disruptions from talking loudly during lectures, Facebook, texting, Skype, etc. What I was most surprised by though, was how many of my fellow students even made it to the university level. During the process of peer reviewing essays I realized that a staggering amount of my classmates could not distinguish between “there” and “their” and “presents” instead of “presence ” or “were” instead of “where” – which for me, are basics that should have been taught before completing high school.

In my experience, I knew that I did not want to attend a university immediately after high school and my family did not insist, which worked in my favor. I opened my own business in my early 20s and it wasn’t until my late 30s that I was ready for a career change that required a specific degree.

I think professors should expect and demand more of students with regard to education as well as classroom behavior. Those students unable to do the required work should not be allowed to carry on with low GPA’s; they should be dropped from the program. Moreover, I think the core of the problem stems from years of students receiving passing grades in elementary education, where they clearly did not learn basic reading, writing, math and science skills.

anna bb 2013/06/26 at 9:11 am

This is a very informative article. However, I’ll argue the devil’s advocate position here. Thus, given the high costs incurred in an attempt to get a degree, kicking students out of programs because they did not do well enough may not be appropriate. The “look to your left and right and only one of you will make it” perspective sounds good in countries where education is free or close to free, but here that seems a little unfit. Maybe one way to go about addressing the issue of student unpreparedness would be addressed by being highly selective and admitting only the students who are really ready and qualified for college, and that is fine. But, as long as a university’s goal is to increase enrollment to increase the amount of money it receives from state appropriations + tuition and fees to pay for its faculty (which, by the way, the majority do not teach undergrad. courses) then it is quite inappropriate to have a faculty body with the “weed out” students goal in mind. Hence, the problem is with the university, not the students, because sells quite expensive dreams to people who are not supposed to be there; and the faculty are caught in between. My two cents.

M Shyam 2013/07/24 at 1:29 am

Good Education is an asset and having professional degree from top university can equip students to remain productive and competitive throughout his work life. But, now students and parents are more interested in buying degrees, as it qualifies them for Job market. Also, students now want to go to colleges and universities that help them in buying printed degrees, not learning and knowledge. They want degrees fast track or even in back dates, as this is requirement of workplace. So, standard of education has really fallen down compared to education is past. In olden days, a person went to school if he really wanted to become man of education. Today, we need degrees as status symbol or for getting admitted to job place or some professional body. Unless we redefine our educational motives people will continue buying printed degrees.

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