Is the Smartness Culture Getting in the Way of Helping More Students Graduate?

In reading my twitter feed, I came across a Chronicle of Higher Education article, “Obsessed with Smartness” by James M. Lang.

The article is an insightful commentary on Alexander W. Astin’s 2016 book Are You Smart Enough? How Colleges’ Obsession With Smartness Shortchanges Students. The book is a book worth reading. When I read it, with the ideas on student success being discussed, I could not put it down until the last chapter.

In his article, James Lang writes: “According to a 2016 book by Alexander W. Astin, a longtime analyst of higher education, the collective desire of our colleges and universities to fill beds and seats with the brightest students suggests we have lost our way. … Astin argues that our narrow-minded pursuit of the smartest students not only contradicts the very purpose of higher education, but perpetuates the economic inequalities that many faculty members fight against in their work.”.

Lang further interprets that Astin believes that “the real purpose of a college education, by contrast, should be to develop smart students.“ As Lang points out, “Their development depends not on the quality of the entering class but on the quality of our teaching and the ability of our institutions to cultivate intellectual and affective skills. If our campuses were driven primarily by a desire to develop student talents, the quality of the incoming class would matter far less than it does now. Our concern would shift away from acquisition and toward development.”

In my research on college graduation rates, I have observed that graduation rates at a particular college tend to be consistent year after year.  If a college’s requirements for admissions (ACT, SAT, GPA) are the same, with about the same amount of support staff, this makes sense.  However, if a college embraces developing the quality of teaching and support culture, this would lead to developing “smart “ students, even for students who enter college underprepared and one could expect an increase in the graduation rate.  

Lang draws this observation: “Institutions of higher education need to shape our smartest students into leaders and thinkers who will change our future, so helping our most talented students find direction and gain new knowledge and skills should remain a priority for top universities. No doubt.

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t find ways to draw more students from the underprepared population, help those students succeed in college, and shift our rhetorical focus away from acquisition and toward development of student talent.”

I agree.

James Lang concludes that Astin’s book “ offers two sobering reminders: Our quest for social justice for our students can begin on our own campuses. And faculty voices can make a difference in changing a culture that values the students we admit more highly than the students we graduate.”    A point worth remembering!


Cindy Veenstra, PhD, ASQ Fellow

Veenstra and Associates