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Why Has Gen-Z Come to Mistrust Higher-Ed?
by Daniel Nuccio
Gen-Z got something right – or at least they’re starting to. They trust universities less than any other age group. They get that college is a scam. Higher-ed is a bloated bureaucracy whose business model is to convince the world that their outdated product is the minimum qualification necessary for any job that doesn’t require a name tag, or (ugh!) manual labor, and therefore is so important everyone should attain said product, regardless of cost. But Gen-Z is seeing through the deceit! Or at least that’s what I initially thought when I first came across recent headlines regarding Morning Consult’s special report on America’s most trusted universities.
One of the key takeaways from the report was “Gen Z adults report the lowest trust in U.S. universities of any generation”. The report itself says little about why this might be, coming off more like a market research white paper with a far greater emphasis on branding and social media presence than any kind of analysis as to why a seemingly large minority of Gen-Z-ers do not trust higher-ed. But, initially, to me, the important thing seemed to be that at least a certain large portion of Gen-Z was coming to recognize that higher-ed is untrustworthy.
There are plenty of reasons for them not to trust higher-ed. For more than two years universities have lied to students about the risk they face from COVID, imposed draconian restrictions on them to the detriment of their education and mental health, and eventually coerced many to take an experimental vaccine they didn’t need while downplaying the potential risk for side effects such as myocarditis in young men and alterations to the menstrual cycles of women. But other reasons for mistrust in universities predate COVID considerably. Perhaps the largest reason is centered around questions of what exactly are students and their families paying for.
Remedial Life Skills for the Cognitively and Emotionally Stunted
The first time I ever taught a college course was the semester after I completed my master’s degree in psych. It was 2015. The course (somewhat oddly) was an intro to biology lab. Although my background at the time was technically in experimental psych, I had taken a number of upper level and graduate neuro courses, spent a year cutting up rat brains, and had a pretty good relationship with several professors in the bio department at what was now my alma mater. My plan for after my master’s was to go on for a PhD in the lab of a pretty well-respected psychostimulant researcher in the department, but he was low on funding at the time and couldn’t take on a new grad student. Hence, the department let me in as something of an over-glorified grad student at large for a semester, placed me in a lab that had an opening, and gave me a a pretty low-level teaching assignment – something akin to an introductory biology lab for mostly non-majors. Yet, what I learned pretty quickly, was most of what I was teaching wasn’t really “Intro to Biology”. The most polite description I can muster for it is probably something more along the lines of “Remedial Life Skills for the Cognitively and Emotionally Stunted”.
Each week I would teach three sections of roughly 20 students each, presenting them with brief lessons about some scientific topic either in the news or relevant to daily life while stressing the importance of punctuality, turning work in on time, and being able to quietly remain seated at a desk. Sometimes these lessons would serve as a sort of wrapper for some rudimentary computer skill. Other times the biology content would be presented through allegedly fun class activities that any self-respecting middle-schooler would dismiss as little-kid-stuff.
Over the course of the semester, we learned to use keyboard shortcuts in Excel. We learned to make PowerPoint presentations with minimal plagiarizing. We shopped at a pretend grocery store set up in the teaching lab so everyone could learn about how to put together a healthy meal. We played STD BINGO to emphasize the importance of safe sex. We made cell phone video PSAs about the dangers of antibiotic resistant bacteria. We also had a few more standard labs where we did things like dissected rats or learned to take basic physiological measurements before and after exercise. But, in the end, the class was undeniably a joke.
To some extent, I actually felt a degree of guilt during that time for my involvement in a system that was encouraging young adults to spend money many of them didn’t have for what amounted to a very expensive weekly trip to a children’s science museum. Some days I was tempted to have a something of a Good Morning Vietnam moment with them, but, given that I needed the money from this position and that my supervisor was a real stickler for ensuring TAs promote a positive attitude towards the class and its activities amongst the “Remedial Life Skills” students, I chose not to risk it. The closest I got was voicing these concerns to a fellow grad student who happened to work closely with the professor who developed the course. The response I received was pretty much a more positively spun acknowledgment of my observations.
The class wasn’t really intended to teach biology – or what most biologists would consider biology. The point of the class was to give non-majors an easy means to fulfill the school’s undergraduate lab requirement (a staple at most universities) with something less scary than chem while also instilling in them a positive attitude towards biology as they learned some biology-informed lessons relevant to health or society. It was also intended to get everyone on the same page in terms of basic computer skills and adulting before they got too far along in their academic careers.
Yet, if one reflects on such a course description, several questions naturally come to mind. Why should a university have a lab requirement for anyone who has no plans to ever work in a lab? If a university is going to have such a lab requirement, but not actually teach students skills pertinent to working in a lab, what is the point of the requirement? If the point of the lab is to teach putative adults things they should have learned in middle school, how did an intro to bio lab become the place to do this? Also, how representative are courses like these? And what does the existence of such a course say about the American educational system?
But, returning to the question of what exactly are students paying for, if a student ever had a course like this, it is understandable that they might start to ask questions similar to those listed above, as well as, “I took out an extra $1200 in student loans for this?” If a student has several courses like the “Remedial Life Skills” course that I taught over the course of their academic career, it would only be natural for them to question the standard higher-ed sales pitch that a college degree is necessary to get a good job with a good salary – or at least that the degree is anything more than a meaningless credential they are given at the end of a four year performative exercise. They might start to see higher-ed as something of a scam. Such views might be further cemented if they watched an older sibling struggle to find a job after college or end up deep in debt only to end up in a $40K per year office job that, at least in terms of doing the job (as opposed to getting the job), probably didn’t require any degree at all.
Then again, perhaps Gen-Z knows college is something of a scam, doesn’t care, and would rather not be confronted with anything more.
Moving Students Along the Educational Assembly Line
In our culture, earning a college degree is the final step to complete before becoming an adult, at least for those from middle class families or families with aspirations of becoming middle class. For most members of Gen-Z, completing the previous steps towards adulthood were largely performative anyway (whether they know what this means or not). And any exhortation to meet any standards is a challenge for which they are ill-prepared.
As risible as my aforementioned “Remedial Life Skills for the Cognitively and Emotionally Stunted” course may have been, the saddest part is that a certain portion the students in that course actually found it exceptionally challenging. They made up the “Cognitively and Emotionally Stunted” portion of the course title. And, unfortunately, having taught other biology and psychology courses elsewhere, my sense is there wasn’t just a little extra lead in the water at that one particular university.
In fairness, I have instructed some very intelligent, very hard working undergrads in the classes I taught, as well as worked with or mentored some incredibly promising ones in a couple different research labs in which I have worked. I have also taught some reasonably intelligent, reasonably hard working undergrads who knew how to properly adult in a college classroom and presumably went on to successfully earn the minimum credential they sought. Yet, every year there seems to be a growing number of students whose primary and secondary school teachers clearly failed them by not failing them.
Every year a growing number of this class of student view deadlines as mere recommendations. Despite showing all outward signs of having lived their entire lives in the United States, they cannot write a coherent English sentence. A certain portion of them casually complete assignments by going to Wiki and hitting “Ctrl + c” then “Ctrl + v” once back in Word. Upon losing points for any of this, many become confused or frustrated or argumentative, especially upon finding out they don’t get a redo.
Although gripes about the decline of young minds have only been made by everyone who has ever taught anything ever, there remains a legitimate question of whether things have in fact been getting worse – and if the answer is yes, the obvious followup is why.
High school educator and frequent Quillette contributor Shane Trotter, who has covered the decline of American education extensively, provides considerable insight into the matter. By Trotter’s account, told through a series of essays on Quillette, by the time students enter high school, many are still incapable of taking notes or writing a coherent, grammatically correct essay (or even email) and become confused by anyone who tries to hold them to meaningful academic standards, suggesting the problem begins well before high school. Administrators, presumably with the well-intentioned goals of saving young adults from the stigma of being held back or suffering the social and economic consequences of being a high school dropout, exacerbate these problems by placing explicit or implicit expectations on teachers to bump kids to a C, pushing for a decreased emphasis on such basic skills as reading, writing, and note-taking, and encourage expanded windows to turn in late work and a dilution of the value of assessments. A consequence of this, whether intended or not, is a shift in responsibility from the student to earn a good grade to the teacher to ensure the student does not receive a bad grade. Another is the responsibility for actually educating students is continually kicked down the road until students have a high school diploma they can hang above some soccer trophy they received despite never scoring or stopping a goal.
Afterwards, a certain portion of these students who were passively moved through twelve years of an educational assembly line with poorly enforced quality control measures, inevitably do the respectable middle class thing and attend university, irrespective of whether they are actually capable of college-level work. Those who aren’t simply expect to passively be moved through another four years of a similar educational assembly line. Oftentimes, these expectations seem to be met thanks to professors and TAs who will gladly coddle students, sometimes due to pressure from university administrators who have adopted a customer service model of higher education, as well as some who have chosen to adopt alternative grading philosophies because expecting students to perform well on a test after only one try or turn an assignment in on time is racist or inequitable or something. Yet, when professors or TAs refuse to engage in such practices by imposing consequences for late, incomprehensible, or plagiarized work, they challenge the performative nature of education with which many students have grown up, and subsequently, these young scholars become upset.
Many are not in college to be educated. They are not there to learn how to think or how to think critically. Many outside of STEM or a few other fields are not even there to learn actual skills relevant to a job they hope to one day attain. They are there to passively be moved through the American educational system, to receive a final gold star, a final trophy, a final credential for which they or their families are paying a considerable sum, that they can then use to demonstrate to employers that they were able to do just enough to not not get it.
Thus, although there are surely Gen-Z-ers who distrust higher education because they have grown tired of two years of maltreatment or become disillusioned with what higher-ed has devolved into, one cannot help but wonder how many mistrust higher-ed because they know what a university education now is but encountered one too many instances of instructors cluelessly clinging to the customs of a time before a college diploma simply became a final gold star.