How does college selectivity affect the jobs of professors?


Sometimes when I talk about teaching — and interactions with students in general — folks don’t really get where I’m coming from. Faculty experiences vary a lot from campus to campus.

I was talking with some folks in recent months about the different kinds of faculty jobs, and how to figure out what you want in a faculty position at a teaching institution. One person was arguing that the selectivity of undergraduate admissions was an important factor. At first, I disagreed, but on reflection, I see that selectivity of admissions is associated with a number of things that affect your day-to-day experience as a professor.

We all know correlation ≠ causation. Selectivity might not directly affect on our lives. But, that selectivity does say something about the students coming into our labs and classrooms.

The selectivity of university admissions is a complex beast — it’s no surprise that every university that wants to stay in business has a whole office dedicated to “enrollment management.” If too many students enroll, you’ve got a huge bubble that you can’t accommodate, and if too few students enroll, you might have trouble paying your bills. Selectivity is affected by the size of the institution, its prestige, the size of the endowment, the wealth of the applicants, public funding, geography, and who knows what else. I don’t work in enrollment management, after all.

But I do research and teach and spend time on university-level committees. And I’ve been a few kinds of places. On the professorly side of things, I think there are two things tied to admissions selectivity that do affect what our job is: how entitled the students are, and how prepared the students are. These vary greatly among institution types. Over course every place is different, but at the risk of overgeneralizing, here goes:

entitlementfigure.pages copy

The mean levels of academic preparation and entitlement among undergraduates vary among institutions.

When folks complain about entitled students, I know what you’re talking about. I’ve been there. I get you. I think respecting our students as adults and treating them as we wish to be treated is paramount. I think that’s true even when some students have absurd expectations of their professors as a result of over entitlement. Expecting things to be graded yesterday, asking you to change a grade without a valid reason, expecting you to be available 24/7, and demanding a recommendation letter with two days’ notice. It’s hard to not grow a thick callous when dealing with overentitled students.

But when people complain about how this new generation of college students are annoying and entitled and “we were like that?” I am so not there with you. I don’t get you. I don’t know of any reasonable evidence to support the notion that college students are more entitled now than they were when you were in college, whenever that was. And frankly, I deal with entitlement issues a lot — but my problem is underentitlement. The students that I work with have grown up with an educational system in which little was expected of them, and if they expected much out of their own institutions they would become disappointed in a jiffy. Students rarely ever come to me with unreasonable expectations. I am, however, frustrated that they often don’t advocate for themselves as much as they need to. Whenever a student comes to me asking to change score on their exam, it’s because I made an obvious screwup in grading. So, how many students who got graded incorrectly lacked the adequate quantity of temerity to approach me about fixing their grade?

I remember what it’s like teaching as a not-so-selective private institution where the students didn’t need stratospheric grades to get in, so long as they were paying full tuition. Both over- and under-entitlement pose professional challenges,  which are distinct from one another, especially when training researchers. If you had to choose a student population that leans on the over- or under-entitled side, which one would you choose? That’s not for me to say, obviously. I think if you approach people with respect, so that people are comfortable with you then they’ll be more comfortable with themselves in your classroom, and these problems get minimized. You’d think that empty office hours is not as bad as a line out the door of students who need something from you, but both kinds of entitlement problems harm learning outcomes one way or another.

Now for academic preparation. When a lot of people compare universities, they talk about the quality of the student population. Stuff like, “These undergraduates are great quality, they’re easy to teach, really bright and motivated, and I can get deep into complex material.” Or on the other side of the coin, “My students are of variable quality, I can’t really teach everybody in the room because there are other students who aren’t so smart and they’re holding others back.” Or something along those lines. And I have to tell you, whenever people talk about “student quality” it just makes me want to barf, if I don’t get furious instead. This link about “quality” sums up my thoughts on this really well. In short, some students are more prepared than others. If that makes teaching easier, then why do you even want to teach?

If you have students that more academically prepared, then they’re easier to teach because they’ve learned how to teach themselves. You could teach badly, and they’ll still learn. That’s not the case if your student population doesn’t have the study skills and experience with well-resourced high schools and family members that have attended college. How you teach, and maybe even what you teach, is structured by how well prepared your students are for college.

For students who are not academically well prepared, then they only have a couple options for college. They can go to a regional public university that will accept them on account of low admissions thresholds for GPA and test scores, or they can pay their way into a private institution that doesn’t have the endowment to attract students with high scores and grades. You can imagine working with students who are paying $5,000 per year for their college education is really different than working with students who are paying $50,000 per year for their college education.

I think institutions that have more academically prepared students enroll are a lot more variable in nature. There’s a huge campus cultural component to student entitlement, and in some large universities, the degree of student preparation (or motivation) is often highly variable. This variability might make the job harder. I think it’s difficult to generalize — I might suspect that some universities that have a high degree of student preparation might also tend to have overentitled students, but lacking direct experience with (say) Ivy League institutions other than brief visits, I’m not one to say so.

As for that time I said that selectivity is unrelated to our jobs as professors, I take it back. That said, in my job, I spend my time dealing with individual students all of whom have had distinct experiences. I’m not teaching and mentoring a population of students. I’m working with people. I’m sure hope I don’t let generalizations about the mean affect how I work with any individual.


2 thoughts on “How does college selectivity affect the jobs of professors?

  1. I don’t know that everyone has to want to teach for the exact same reasons. Some want to cruise in high gear, others are proudest to help the underprepared.

  2. I’m teaching at an open admission community college: let me tell you, I feel you on the lack of advocating for themselves! The students who actually come up and ask me for help, to clarify, or to ask for a correction, are invariably the most prepared students (often they already have a degree, but are taking perquisites for a grad program). Rarely do I see the students who dearly need my help. I have students with perfect attendance, who turned in every assignment, who still failed by a wide margin and never came to talk to me despite my repeated offers to give them extra help. Because I’m so early in my teaching career, I’m still finding strategies to deal with this, both in the classroom, and on a personal front. I want them to succeed so much, but I’m not willing to give up rigor, particularly because I teach introductory classes. I’d hate to pass them like so many others have, then have them end up failing after accumulating more debt and credits that they don’t need. I’d love to hear more on this topic from you Terry. Or maybe I just need to head down to LA this summer and have a long talk with you about teaching over a beer. :)

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