I taught in higher education for almost ten years before becoming a high school teacher: three and a half as a TA, one year as a graduate instructor, two years as a visiting assistant professor, and three years as an assistant professor. I taught at large state institutions, a flagship Big Ten school in grad school and regional state universities afterward. While I loved teaching undergraduates, I was often amazed at how students approached their increasingly pricey education with a mix of apathy, contempt, and disengagement. Many failed classes simply because they could not be bothered to show up or complete their work. The biggest moment of despair came sometime in the second half of the fall semester, when the once bright-eyed, eager freshmen of the start of the year became just as jaded and cynical as the older students.
While the small, independent school where I teach now is very different from those state institutions, I've found that teaching high school students has given me great insight into the frustrations I once had with undergraduates. I have learned that on the one hand, universities are expecting too much of many of their students (though not in the classroom, necessarily.) I have learned that the attitudes that many students have towards college have been fostered well before they showed up. I have also learned that universities foster an environment that squelches the remaining love of learning that many students have left.
As far as the first point goes, high school students receive a great deal of care. When they start doing poorly in their classes, their teacher might take them aside, their parents might come in or at least put pressure on their children. High school students get a lot of attention, and the educational methods used to teach high school students are getting increasingly rigid and structured with the advent of greater standardized testing. (Gladly this is not an issue at my school.) These 18 year olds get to college, and they do not know how to function without said structure. No one is making sure they go to class, and they are free to get blitzed on a Thursday night and blow off their Friday classes and studying. For students raised with helicopter parents (which is increasingly the case), they have been given unprecedented freedom without any of the tools necessary to use it responsibly. No wonder failure rates, especially for first year students, are so high. If colleges want to increase graduation rates, and the quality of education more generally, they are going to have to take a hands on approach with their students. They show up to school effectively still teenagers, and with current parenting and educational trends, it is ridiculous to expect them to act like responsible adults who can manage on their own.
On the second point, students come into college with a certain understanding of what college is supposed to be for. From the most elite schools on down, the majority of students view their college education as completely instrumental. Among the undergraduates I once taught, many didn't even seem to know why they were even there, other than some vague sense that going to college was just what one did after high school. They and others more highly placed see their schooling simply as a stepping stone to employment. The college application process, which has become even more arduous and ridiculous in affluent sections of society, reinforces the instrumentality of college education. In this world the selectivity of a school is an indicator of one's merit and ability. The point is not to learn something at an elite college, but merely to get accepted. Everything that comes after showing up on campus is merely icing on the cake. The idea that a college education exists to make one a better, more rounded person is taken to heart by a minority of incoming students.
Lastly, colleges and universities themselves are to blame for the cynical student attitudes that treat each class as a useless chore/obstacle to be completed with as little work as possible. Students are often presented with a dizzying array of required courses, courses that students have little interest in, and which they often take in their first year. The main goal seems less learning than making it through an obstacle course. Many universities show so little interest in undergraduate education -especially in introductory courses- that the students can obviously see it, and respond accordingly. Being jammed with 600 people in a giant auditorium while a professor gives an incoherent lecture taking the most obscure angle on a particular course is as sure a sign of the university's contempt for the students as anything else. I've taught high school students at both public and private schools, and their enthusiasm for learning never fails to hearten me. Yes, many students approach college in a mercenary way, but most universities do little to suggest an alternate viewpoint. Those students who see their education as the tool to get a future job often do have a reservoir of interest in learning that gets tapped more often in more personal high schools than in impersonal colleges. Universities need to focus more intently on their undergraduate population, and to understand that the 18 year olds coming to campus need more guidance and attention, and that if they are treated like cogs in a machine, that's exactly the expectation they will conform themselves to.