Defying what has become the conventional wisdom that American students today are not as academically able as their predecessors, two national surveys of college and university deans suggest that students in the humanities, science, and engineering are as good as or better than those of the past five years.
The Higher Education Panel of the American Council on Education, which conducts surveys on topics of interest to academic and government policymakers, canvassed senior academic officials (primarily college deans) in the humanities and science disciplines at more than 1,700 institutions around the nation.
According to the findings of the science and engineering survey, academic officers at three out of five colleges and universities said there was no significant change in the quality of undergraduate majors in those fields over the last five years.
About 25 percent of the officials said there was significant improvement in the quality of the students; 15 percent said the quality of the students had significantly declined.
In the survey of humanities deans, about 62 percent said the quality of students had not changed significantly in the past five years. Some 22 percent reported a significant decline in the abilities of students, while 16 percent reported significant improvement.
Shifts in Majors
Nearly two-thirds of the senior academic officials who responded to the humanities survey said the most able students were “shifting away’’ from majoring in the humanities. Thirty percent saw no shift, and 5 percent said they believed a shift toward the humanities had taken place, according to the report.
The senior academic officers attributed the declining interest to “limited opportunities after earning a baccalaureate and after completing graduate studies.”
These findings contrast sharply with those of the science and engineering survey, which indicated a large shift of able students toward these disciplines.
Some 40 percent of the officials in these fields said many bright students who might in past years have majored in other disciplines had decided in recent years to major in science and engineering.
More than half of the science and engineering deans said there was no shift and only 7 percent of the deans said they thought good students were shifting away from these fields.
The study indicated that those institutions that produced high proportions of baccalaureate degrees in the sciences and engineering were drawing the largest numbers of bright students to those disciplines. The deans cited the availability of employment as students’ dominant reason for choosing science and engineering majors.
Both surveys indicated that a large majority of college and university deans believe that students applying for graduate-level study or completing graduate pro-grams are as good as or better than the graduate students of several years ago.
Some 57 percent of those surveyed said no change had occurred in the quality of graduate-school applicants in the humanities over the last five years. Twenty-six percent believed there had been a significant improvement, and 16 percent said there was a significant decline.
Three of every five science and engineering deans said the quality of applicants for these fields had not changed significantly. Only one in eight thought the quality of applicants had declined.
In comparing the quality of those who received Ph.D.'s in 1981-82 in the sciences and engineering with those from 1976-77, two-thirds of the science and engineering deans said they saw no significant difference between the two groups. Of the remaining one-third, however, four out of every five said they thought the 1981-82 group was significantly better qualified.
In the humanities, nearly 72 percent of the deans said the quality of doctoral recipients had remained the same since 1976-77. Some 19.4 percent said that the 1981-82 group was significantly better qualified, while 8.8 percent said they believed the older group was better qualified.
The reports were supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Copies of the reports, “Student Quality in the Sciences and Engineering: Opinions of Senior Academic Officials” and “Student Quality in the Humanities: Opinions of Senior Academic Officials,” are available at no cost from the Higher Education Panel, American Council on Education, One Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C. 20036.--sr
A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 1984 edition of Education Week as College Students Found Equal To Predecessors