In my previous post, I looked at how universities’ reliance on adjuncts and the resulting grade inflation in freshman composition classes trickles back to the high school level, depressing minimum SAT/ACT English scores (“benchmarks”) correlated with earning passing grades in college writing courses. I think, however, that there is another major factor at play at as well here: not only are composition instructors pressured to award higher-than-merited grades, but at many institutions, the classwork itself has become less demanding. This phenomenon seems especially pronounced at less-selective college, which enroll the vast majority of students with low scores.

While writing the original piece, I got curious about the general state of freshman composition and looked up courses at a wide swath of U.S. universities, public and private, of varying degrees of selectivity. After reading through numerous course descriptions, I started to notice a pattern emerging: highly competitive private and public schools generally emphasize a fairly traditional set of academic writing skills—essentially what would be expected from an introductory college-writing class— even if they present them within a framework of contemporary topics. Less prestigious schools, in contrast, seem to be moving toward a definition of composition that de-emphasizes academic writing, and that in some cases is expanded to encompass even non-writing activities such as podcasts and films.

A particularly illustrative case here is the University of Michigan and Michigan State—the former a “public Ivy” with an admission rate below 20% and average SAT/ACT scores of 1435/33; the latter a more typical, less selective state schools that accepts nearly 90% of its applicants and has solid but not spectacular average scores of 1270/27.

From a freshman composition course-description at the University of Michigan:

Good arguments stem from good questions, and academic essays allow writers to write their way toward answers, toward figuring out what they think. In this writing-intensive course, students focus on the creation of complex, analytic, well-supported arguments addressing questions that matter in academic contexts.

Pretty standard, right?

Now, compare this to an equivalent Michigan State course whose units include the “Learning Narrative Project”:

[Students are invited] to engage inquiry as a means to discover and communicate new knowledge about something they already know pretty well: their own histories as learners. In telling their stories of learning, this project ask students to consider their experiences with learning in and out of school to encourage them to reflect on the relationship between their learning histories and their present lives.

And the “Cultural Artifacts Project,” in which students:

inquire into cultural values in which they are implicated as learners by choosing an everyday object as the focus of guided exploration. This experience gives them further practice in processes of inquiry (formulating questions and forming theories of cultural value).

Looking past the pretentious clutter of academic-ese, one can gather that these classes are designed—at least in part—not to expand students’ horizons but to encourage a kind of navel-gazing totally at odds with the type of analytical writing generally required in higher level college classes. It also suggests that a significant number of freshmen are entering MSU with such a tenuous knowledge base that focusing on an academic subject while developing their writing skills would tax their abilities to a point beyond what instructors could reasonably manage. No doubt, students with a tenuous grasp of basic writing skills no doubt find  “other communicative forms such as body language, visual language, and social media” to be more accessible.

The introduction of AI LLM tools such as ChatGPT threatens to explode the traditional composition-as-writing model even further: there is simply no way that an overworked, underpaid adjunct work force can adequately police assignments for authenticity, particularly given that accusations of cheating will inevitably incur threats of legal action. No university administration will want to contend with that.

I suspect that prestigious four-year colleges, and even some elite ones, will be more likely to follow MSU’s example, replacing papers with less intellectually taxing assignments such as podcasts and films. (One Stanford freshman comp class description even boasts that students get to use play doh.) While these changes will no doubt be presented with the justification that they are more “relevant” to current students, and while they may involve a significant amount of time and activity on students’ part, they are not the equivalent of academic writing. Learning to structure one’s thoughts logically and coherently from the level of the sentence to the level of an entire essay; to manipulate grammar and syntax in a way that produces specific effects; to convey one’s ideas clearly to a reader who may or may not have a background in a particular subject…  These are demanding, often tedious, un-flashy tasks, and they do not lend themselves well to social media; however, they can be immensely rewarding in both the short and long term, and they have traditionally formed the basis of a university education for good reason.

As much as colleges’ watered-down approaches to teaching writing will result in students who are neither competent writers nor particularly well prepared for actual well-compensated white-collar jobs—which may or may not make use of AI—they are entirely understandable: universities that admit students not genuinely prepared for college-level academics essentially have no choice but to make coursework easier. Otherwise, they risk having both their freshman retention and overall graduation rates drop, depriving them of tuition dollars, deterring prospective applicants, and hurting their standing in the USNWR rankings.

The bifurcation between selective and less-selective institutions does not bode particularly well for higher education, however. Undergraduate enrollment has dropped starkly since the pandemic, and an increasing number of families have become become skeptical about the value of college. In fact, to be honest, after sifting through so many freshman comp-course descriptions, a good number of which read like parodies of academia, it is easy for even me to understand why many Americans now view higher education as a questionable investment.

Anecdotally, the split confirms my experience as an employer: over the years, I’ve hired people for a variety of roles (formatters, proofreaders, social media help, etc.), and I’ve consistently observed a striking gap between the quality of writing from recent graduates of selective vs. non-selective institutions. I’m actually not talking about high-level stuff here either—just the ability to explain, in a coherent and specific way, why one is well suited for a particular role. To be clear, it is entirely possible to receive a stellar education from a no-name school; and on the flip side, there is also absolutely no guarantee that one will necessarily graduate from an elite college with top-notch skills (trust me, I’ve encountered that too). On a very broad level, however, there is generally some correlation between the ranking of an institution and the skills of its graduates. And despite the pooh-poohing of the Ivy League and its brethren, some of it quite justified, the existing disparities may be about to get even bigger.