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Voices: We can’t test for personal responsibility

Adams State University President David Svaldi argues that students should be held more responsible for their own academic outcomes.

The lowest admission index (a combination of test scores and G.P.A.) among Adams State University freshmen last fall belonged to a young man with a high school G.P.A. of 1.4. However, he’d just completed military service and was determined to make the best use of his G.I. Bill education benefits. He completed his first year of college with a 4.0.

As a moderately selective university that values educational access, we sometimes walk a fine line in admission decisions. It’s unfair to admit students with a minimal chance of success, especially if they will incur debt. But test scores can’t reveal a person’s motivation or sense of responsibility.

Who owns college students’ non-success? Nationally, a significant number of first-year college students are no-shows for their sophomore year. Some transfer and enroll at another institution, but others flunk or drop out. President Obama has threatened institutions with high drop-out rates and low completion numbers with the loss of federal Title IV Financial Aid. Indeed, it is a bipartisan activity for various government officials to rue falling retention and graduation rates, along with growing student debt, all vowing to hold institutions accountable.

Since it is much less expensive to retain college students than to go out and recruit an entirely new class, there is really no motive for any legitimate public or private institution to intentionally drive students away. Perhaps some of our business practices may unintentionally do so (like requiring payment for last term’s classes before registering for the next term).

While I agree there have been some abuses within the for-profit (and public) higher education sector, I must ask: where is the real responsibility for college student nonperformance? Eighteen-year-olds legally are considered to be adults; they’re old enough to vote and serve in the military. Why are they not held accountable for their academic nonperformance? They enrolled, applied for financial aid, signed up for loans, presumably attended some classes, enough to understand course requirements, but some – more than any of us would prefer – fail and drop out.

Too many new college students have not truly addressed why they are going to college or university – they are there because it is expected, or because their friends are going, or because they don’t know what else to do. The government should remember we are all responsible for our own behavior, instead of targeting the “young folk’s homes” to which these unmotivated youths flock and then fail.

After 41 years in this business at five different institutions ranging from highly selective to open enrollment institutions, I know that ultimately students can and do succeed – some in spite of daunting barriers – if they are determined and internally motivated.

Students who thrive and succeed should be celebrated; those who fail should be held responsible for their own outcomes.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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