Too Many Kids Go To College: A Fourth Conversation With Myself

Links to the first, second, and third conversation with myself about teaching.

William Glum again, eh? What happened this time?

Matt In my Algebra Sans Algebra class, I asked a student to go to the board and work out whether the times series (0.7, 0.7, 0.7, 0.7, 0.7, …) was an example of linear growth, exponential, or both.

William Time series—

Matt —Don’t even try and tell me it’s difficult. We have been covering this material for two weeks. It should only have taken a day, but I spent two solid weeks going over and over and over the same things.

William You taught the equation of a straight line and an exponential line for two weeks?

Matt You know that I did. This student could not get started. I even sketched the axes of a graph on the board. All she had to do was to plot those numbers.

William Some people are shy when they’re in front of a class.

Matt Shyness wasn’t this student’s problem. I asked the whole class, “Help her out. What should she do?” There were various suggestions, most of them wrong.

William Aha! You said “most.” That means that some students knew the answer!

Matt I sometimes worry about you. The title of this series is “Too many kids go to college” notAll kids should not go to college.” What bothered me was that a majority of the class was clueless. That makes it hard to thrill to the few who understood.

William What happened?

Matt I finally had to tell her, “Just draw a horizontal line anywhere on the graph. Any horizontal line.” Can you guess what she said?

William I won’t play that game anymore.

Matt Exactly. She had no idea what a horizontal line was. And don’t claim “Nervousness!” or something equally idiotic. She told me, “I don’t understand.” I started qi-gonging the air, waving my hand in a straight line. “Just draw a flat line across the graph!”

William So she eventually got it.

Matt Yes, I suppose she eventually did manage to scrawl something that resembled a line.

William All’s well etc.

Matt But it didn’t end well. The graph, don’t forget, was not the answer to the question I had asked.

William This was just one student, you know. Nobody ever claimed that all students can understand math.

Matt It wasn’t just one student, it was many. And lots of people make that claim. Not to be abrupt, but did you hear the story of Victoria Ying, a CUNY professor teaching second-year Anatomy and Physiology class?

William Second year?

Matt According to the paper, “Ying, who began teaching full-time at City Tech in 2006, realized something wasn’t right one day in her second semester after she gave a lecture on arteries and veins. ‘A student came up to me and asked: “What is an artery?”‘ recalled Ying, 31.”

William This is the second year anatomy class?

Matt Then the poor lady had her wallet stolen, called the cops, who came, but informed her that the thieves were under-aged. She reported these events to her higher ups, which is when her troubles really began.

William How so?

Matt The school accused her of having a “sexual relationship” with a student. She says it’s a lie meant to shut her up.

William Is it?

Matt Who knows? But that artery story smells fresh to me.

William Hmm.

Matt And then there’s Richard Quinn down in Central Florida. Some senior “business” students got hold of Quinn’s exam and shared it out with the class. Many took it and cheated.

William What happened?

Matt He said he received some “tip-offs from students that classmates had been bragging about cheating”, which won’t surprise you. The bragging, I mean. Quinn is making everybody take a re-test, and the school itself is going to kick out those who don’t confess.

William And lose valuable tuition dollars?

Matt What’s interesting in that video of Quinn reading the riot act to the kids, is that one student can be seen in the foreground playing on his laptop, studiously ignoring Quinn.

William Perhaps he was taking notes.

Matt Sure he was. But the big question, the one I want to ask students, is, Why cheat on something that you can master in minutes?

William Kids these days have a lot of social commitments.

Matt Maybe it’s better you don’t talk at all, if you’re going to say things like that. And there’s the student who has to miss my next exam because he has a court date, the necessary consequence of being arrested.

William Well…

Matt This school even made the national papers of late, telling of its reputation as a “drinking college.”

William Not good.

Matt The opposite is true: it’s a positive boon! Many kids choose to come here because of that reason. This reputation is so lucrative that the administrators ought to goose it and do a deal with beer companies. Rowdy drinkers could be portrayed wearing the college’s colors in commercials, for example. Just think of how enrollment would swell!


  1. Speed

    I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe. A long form and not very entertaining version of Briggs’ experiences teaching Algebra Sans Algebra.

    Amazon’s description:

    Dupont University–the Olympian halls of learning housing the cream of America’s youth, the roseate Gothic spires and manicured lawns suffused with tradition… Or so it appears to beautiful, brilliant Charlotte Simmons, a sheltered freshman from North Carolina. But Charlotte soon learns, to her mounting dismay, that for the uppercrust coeds of Dupont, sex, Cool, and kegs trump academic achievement every time.

    Mounting dismay, indeed.

  2. Bernie

    It will be interesting to see your RateMyProfessor comments after this semester!

    Do you have any thoughts on what is happening in the UK with the reaction to the future increases in tuition?

  3. SteveBrooklineMA

    “… the school itself is going to kick out those who don’t confess.” That’s hilarious.

  4. j ferguson

    Has any of you any idea where all these cheaters wind up in later life? My technical career seems to have insulated me from them although I did think I’d run into a few in sales.

  5. Screwtape

    I know someone who teaches business law. She ran her students’ assignments through a service that detects plagiarism. The majority of the assignments were plagiarized. Perhaps that’s not a surprise.

    But when the students were confronted, they were dumbfounded. They not only had no qualms about plagiarism, they could not imagine doing anything else.

  6. Ray

    years ago I read a study that estimated about a quarter of high school graduates were functionally illiterate. They couldn’t read what was written on their diplomas and explain what it meant. Those people are evidently now in college.

  7. Mike B

    Lehrer was, I believe, a Math Professor.

  8. j ferguson

    During an office visit to Stanley Elkin, my freshman English instructor, a visit addressed to my development in spelling and punctuation, Elkin showed be another student’s (name obscured) paper and an article from Time magazine. They were identical.

    He told me that when the student had been confronted with the “evidence” of his plagiarism, he had absolutely denied that he had done it. Elkin had asked him how that could possibly be given that the words were the same, the sentences, the paragraphs, beginning to end. Not only that, the style fit very much with Time’s style du jour.

    Elkin told me that the student didn’t miss a beat. It was very clear that the subject and discussion could best be conveyed using very specific phraseology and that anyone who really understood the material would write exactly the same thing.

    Elkin told me he didn’t know what to do. This was his first year at WU (1960) and he imagined that the university might have policies about this sort of thing but he didn’t want to pursue it.

    I never found out who it was but since the paper had to have been written by someone in my class, I spent the rest of the year wondering.

    We had a couple of outbreaks of plagiarism in architecture school where floor-plans meeting the requirements of a particular assignment were copied from architectural magazines. This could save a lot of time in a 2 week assignment and allow the copier to spend much more time drawing up the results which would tend to improve his grade.

    The Dean was confronted by a class of irate students after one such indignity. He waffled it away with something like “There’s nothing new under the sun.”

    One of these miscreants eventually became Partner in Charge of a very prosperous office with an international client base. I hope the magazines were able to keep him fed with ideas.

  9. Wade Michaels

    I have maintained that oral/non-presentation examinations are the only possible way to accurately determine the knowledge of the student. The Socratic Method trumps all.

  10. Briggs


    I’ve heard that some in the professoriate are trying to escape overseas.


    Amen to that.

  11. Doug M

    Does this mean that these students don’t understand the premise of Bob Seger’s “Horizontal Bop”?

    J Ferguson asks, “Has any of you any idea where all these cheaters wind up in later life?”

    They go into management where they can make a living taking credit for other people’s work.

  12. j ferguson

    Doug M,

    “They go into management where they can make a living taking credit for other people’s work.”

    My God, You have it; almost the definition of management.

  13. Bernie

    Doug and J Ferguson:
    I must protest. You paint with too broad a brush. They undoubtedly become lawyers or policemen or politicians or climate scientists or folks who sell Gold on Fox or liberal arts professors!

  14. j ferguson

    Help us Bernie,
    I actually meant the question seriously.

    I spent my career – mostly in construction – with people who either had to know what they were doing or be really really good at pretending. I do remember a couple of the latter who circulated in Chicago engineering offices until eventually everyone knew them. I think they went back to drafting shop drawings which is likely where they belonged.

    So the question is, if you cheated your way through college, what are you doing now? Screwtape’s friend must surely know.

    Interestingly, the only guy in Elkin’s class that I thought sharp enough to come up with the inevitability of language theory, is now a professor out west.

  15. George Steiner

    Mr. Brigs

    I have kept my mouth shut, or more like, my fingers to myself during your several similar postings. But enough is enough. This is not a teaching problem, nor a cheating problem but a problem of a liberal totalitarian society such as yours.

    In such a society a plumber, an electrician, a machinist, a toolmaker, and such like are acknowledged to be blue collar jerks. In such a society it is understood that a jerk like that can’t possibly know something about art, history, literature, even less about philosophy.

    But it is not so. Those of us from prehistoric times and from insignificant places know otherwise. If you think that too many kids going to college is a problem then stop wasting your time teaching. If it is not a problem then go back to discuss important things like woman’s fashion.

  16. Briggs


    Your fingers to yourself? I’m not sure exactly what you had in mind, but I’d just as soon not know about your fingers.

    But how about this: I don’t quit teaching, as you suggest, and I instead teach bright, able, willing students who want to learn, want to better themselves, want to do more than just get a “degree” that, as you so rightly point out, society demands that they have. A demand that is often absurd.

    Could be you’re right about quitting teaching these kids, though. Stay tuned.

  17. SteveBrooklineMA

    Briggs may be wasting his time, but at least he is getting paid to do so. The students he’s describing are wasting not only their time, but also their (or their parents’) money. My experience teaching in college is that those plumbers, electricians, etc who are a little older and go to college on their own dime are often among the best students to have. They are among the ones Briggs describes above at 6:36pm.

  18. Katie

    I don’t believe that anyone is trying to put down the trades or implying that such a career path is not decent nor well-regarded. It is a fact that some trades and craftsmen command a much higher hourly rate than lowly adjunct professors or senior book editors. That said, some of the students in the Algebra sans Algebra class might have difficulty in an apprenticeship program for electricians, machinists, or steamfitters if they can’t plot a straight line.

  19. Wm Schulte

    Winston Churchill said something about never giving up.
    Briggs reminds me of that!
    We all should encourage him in what apparently he does naturally.

  20. Alex Heyworth

    I suspect the problem is that for most students, college is the new high school.

  21. Wolfgang Flamme


    it took you two weeks of teaching (at least) to finally notice that most of your students have no idea of how to display data in a Cartesian coordinate system?

  22. Briggs


    Ah, excellent. But, no. It took me two weeks to finally notice that some of my students had no idea what the word “horizontal” meant. My fault, if it could be called that, lay in failing to anticipate that my college-enrolled students would not know so basic a word. I had already long recognized that the equation for a straight line was either not interesting enough or too difficult for about half the class.

    On Monday, we went through the homework I had assigned over the weekend. I asked the first student in the first row, “What did you get when you did this problem?” Answer, “I didn’t do it.” Me: “Did you do any of the work?” Answer, a little sheepishly, “No.”

    I then asked the next student, “What did you get?” etc., for about eight students. Each said that they did not do it. I asked a few, “Why not?” Answer: “I don’t know.”

    But I cheated. I knew they would not have done the work. For whatever reason, the students on the left side of the room are the lazy and unable, while many on the right side are the opposite. Like congregates with like, I suppose. The left side outnumbers the right side. The student who did not know “horizontal” came from the left side. I asked those on the left whether or not they have done their work to try and shame them into it.

    No success of course.

  23. Ken


    I really don’t “get” the point of these ‘some students ought not be students’ blogs complaints.

    In fact, I think you’re completely missing the point.

    I just guessing here but Universities/colleges should have some minimal standards. Once upon a time that’s how it was. Students that don’t measure up are simply failed (though second chances via “Incompletes” might be used to address unusual non-recurring extenuating circumstances & so forth). Quickly, only students that “should” be in school (including some that ought not for various reasons be there but nevertheless are capable enough) remain.

    But, for some reason, the long- and well-established art of failing students seems to have fallen out of vogue — THAT colleges/universities are willing to coddle unacceptable performance seems to be the real issue.

    It just seems to me that if a school had a reputation of ejecting those that don’t measure up two things would happen very quickly: 1) some students would perform, and 2) many would leave & those of their ilk would neither apply or get admitted. And the problem would go away.

    So, maybe the problem isn’t the students and is the school’s policies & their [lack of] enforcement?

  24. Briggs


    Universities have declining admission standards. And they have declining graduation standards. This is the consequence of enrolling students who are not prepared.

    Universities will not begin wholesale flunking of students who, under the old standards, would be flunked. Far too few students would ever enroll in such a school. That hurts the bottom line. Worse, it hurts the bottom line of the bureaucrats who run the schools.

    The problem is not linear; neither is the solution.

  25. Richard Smith

    As Kingsley Amis said many years ago about the planned expansion of Higher Education in the UK, more will mean worse.

  26. JH

    Too many kids graduate from high school without basic skills in the 3 R’s!!!

    When my younger daughter was little, she asked, “If everyone were smart and studied hard, who would want to work at McDonalds?”

    (Yes, she didn’t like my lectures/nagging on the importance of hard work.)

    I didn’t know the answer. I said, “I hope it wouldn’t be you!”.

    She then asked, “What’s wrong with working at McDonalds?”

    Really, what kind of world would it be if everyone were smart and studied hard? We probably would have a different sort of problem.

  27. Alan Bates

    Anne 2010 11 11 12.19 p.m.asked:

    So, what is wrong with plagiarism. Just because the internet makes it easier?

    I going to assume this is a genuine question and since no one else has answered it, I will try.

    I would give 2 reasons:

    Firstly, quoting information from someone else is not the key feature from my point of view. It is not giving credit for it by giving a source to which someone else can refer. Hence, you are stealing someone else’s material for your advantage because, by default, you are claiming it as your own.

    Provided huge chunks are not taken, and
    provided you are giving credit for the material and
    provided you are using it to illustrate (say) an argument or support a point of view

    then I don’t think it would be plagiarism. It could almost be described as scholarship (provided it was relevant!).

    Secondly, I want to learn. I’ve always asked questions like, “Why”, “How”. I want to understand. Maybe I’m the ideal student except that I am a pedant as well. Rarely do I come across a piece of text which really explains something to me in terms I accept. Sometimes the text is confusing, too full (rambling …) or too short. I then have to work it out for myself, often by looking at several texts. At the end, I know that I know that I understand it. Or, at least, I think I do.

    If I then write my own argument down then the tutor can either say, “You’ve got the essence of that” or, “You’ve missed an important point here” or, “What a load of nonsense, you’ve got the whole thing wrong”. Whichever, I learn and my tutor knows that I have understood or totally missed the whole point. He might then think that others perhaps haven’t got it and then go over it again in a different way. Again, either way I and the class gain.

    If I plagiarise without really understanding what I am talking about, the tutor might guess, he might have plagiarism detection software (in which case, I’m in trouble), he might even think I understand. The teaching moment when I could have got to the key issue has been missed and I’ve wasted my time which, at this stage (I am 65 and studying for a second degree because I want to) is also wasteing a significant part of my remaining life.

    If you really don’t want to learn, what the **** are you doing in further education??! Go and get a life and leave a space for someone else who wants to learn.

  28. Alan Bates

    The general view ios that those who cheat and plagiarise at Clloege/Uni go on to do the same thing in management, particularly, stealing other people’s work and taking credit for it.

    I have been lucky, perhaps, not to have managers like that.

    I learnt early on that a manager does his work through people but he does it by providing an atmosphere within which the junior can grow and flourish. A manager is one who develops people so that can achieve their potential and, yes, even go on to surpass their current manager. A good manager, in my view, is one where staff rotate into and out of his group – not because they can’t stand the sight of the manager and want to escape to another job but because they have been developed and are moving on to better things. I have worked with and obserbved several managers like this and I hold them in high respect.

    If you steal (ideas, work, effort)from your staff then they won’t work so effectively for you. So you miss out. Others, more discerning, will see you are failing in your job as a manager. So you miss out. Key staff escape to other, more congenial, emplyment. So you miss out.

    I followed the example of my former managers as I moved on to manage a small group (3 others). Or at least I tried. I know I succeded with at least one of them.

    If you are trapped with a plagiarising manager, I feel great sympathy for you.

  29. Alan Bates

    Sorry about the splelling above!

  30. max

    it makes e wonder what ever happened to the good old days when there were only 3 ways to get through collage.

    1) go to most of the classes, read the text book covering the section of the next class before class and ask questions about the parts you don’t understand, do the assignments

    2) read the text the night before the final exam in a borrowed book (you sold yours for drinking money about half way through the semester), show up for the final half-an-hour late and blind-stinking drunk, whiz through the final to get a B in 45 minutes about half of which are devoted to not throwing up. WARNING only works for those who absolutely brilliant AND have managed to take classes where the final exam is the entirety of the grade AND have a good enough drunken sense of direction to be able to find the correct exam room when you only went to one class at the beginning of the semester. (the lattermost is why I had to abandon this technique myself, although I am rather proud that I managed to get C on a final exam for a physical geography class when I studied for a botany class)

    3) be a great con man and talk your professors into passing you

    Anyone who was able to graduate using one of these techniques had a bright future in business ahead of them. The first is the model employee, the second won’t be a good employee BUT every fourth one of this type hired will come up with something so ingenious that it’s worth paying for twenty duds, while the third makes a great salesman. Too many try the second and third techniques when they are only suited for the first.

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