Unless you’ve been in some sort of cave for the last decade, you’ve probably heard conversations about students, which begin with the phrase, “Today’s students are… less engaged/less able to write/weaker at math/not as curious/not as academically inclined…” The obvious question of “compared to when” is usually left unanswered, and depends to some extent on the age of the person doing the kvetching; solipsistically, I always assume they’re talking about 25 years ago (when I started university). Usually, the implication is that students are coming out of high school less university-ready than they used to be, and hence, that high schools aren’t doing as good a job as they used to.
So, is it true? Well, to start, we have to come to grips with what we mean by “students”. The student body of the 1980s looks a lot different than the student body of 2013 – and I don’t just mean in terms of the changing ethnic or age mix.
Take a look at the following graph, which shows the change in participation rate of 18-21 year olds in Canada, over time.
Participation Rate (in percent) of 18-21 Year Olds, Canada, 1980-81 to 2010-11
Cool, huh? We tripled access rates in thirty years. Remember this the next time you hear that accessible education is dead.
Now, assume for the moment that the fraction of Canadians who go to university are all at the top-end of the academic ability scale – that is, it was the 10% most academically able students in university in 1980-81, and it’s the top 30% now. I know that’s not literally true, but it’s true-ish, so bear with me. Today’s median student is therefore in the 85th percentile of academic achievement. Prior to 1988, when access rates were below 15%, we would not have even let that student into university.
Given this, it would be very surprising if today’s students weren’t, on average, academically weaker than those from 25 years ago. But it doesn’t follow that students coming out of high school are getting worse. To compare like-to-like you need to ask the question: is the average student of the top-half of this year’s university class better-or-worse prepared than the average student of 1988? Pose the question that way, and I think you get a different answer.
Expanding access to universities brought in a new type of student whose academic orientation was different – but the curriculum and the student support system didn’t always change to match their abilities and expectations. These are completely understandable reasons for the persistent disconnects and the complaints about “unprepared students” – but they don’t support the thesis that high schools are doing their job any less well than in the past.