How much help is too much help?



andrew wallace/torstar news service


Albert Delitala, at his grandparents’ North Toronto condo, says he was happy to take a mandatory course for first-year students living on campus.


Ontario universities and colleges, once known as places to learn life lessons in such subjects as failure and handling criticism, are now all about nurturing.

“It doesn’t have to be boot camp,” said Sheila Embleton, vice-president academic at York University. “There’s more attention on being supportive and encouraging so that people can do their best work.”

Others argue hand-holding pupils at university and college leads to students who are disinterested, pursue credentials not skills or knowledge, and have inflated beliefs in their academic abilities.

“We’re becoming more like high schools and that’s not a good thing,” said James Côté, a professor of sociology at the University of Western Ontario and co-author of the new book Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis. “It’s become a mass education system and whenever you do that, standards have got to drop to keep everybody in.”

In the meantime, student expectations have risen dramatically. Not only has the “F” become rare, the one-time average mark of “C” has crept up to a “B” at many institutions. Anything less is seen as a failure by many of today’s students.

With average undergraduate tuition and fees topping $5,000 a year at university and more than half that at colleges, there’s also a sense it’s an investment and high marks are one of the returns. Competition for spots in professional and graduate schools means there’s also a premium on good grades.

Universities and colleges are also under more pressure than ever before to help new students succeed. Dropouts cost schools funding and are seen as a waste for taxpayers.

But Côté contends “credentialism” has drawn more people into post-secondary institutions who aren’t strong enough to be there. They require more remedial classes once on campus because the grades they got in high school weren’t reflective of good work.

While not opposed to universities and colleges offering remedial programs and helping students succeed, Côté said “in an ideal world we shouldn’t have to do it because they should be coming here prepared and already engaged.”

It’s not new that lots aren’t. But there are concerns that the onus for student interest and success has switched from them to the institution. If you can’t meet a deadline on an essay, no problem. No way you’ll pass the course? Drop it at the last minute. Is that the best way to prepare young people for their careers?

“Sooner or later, reality happens,” said Steve Joordens, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough since 1995. “If we have too many safety nets at university, one cannot help but wonder if we are really being helpful to them in the future?”