By Donald Downs
For years now, college students have been busy committing themselves to extracurricular activities. On the whole, such commitment can be constructive. It contributes to civic engagement by the young and helps them to develop personal responsibility and character. Meanwhile, college officials claim that would-be employers are now demanding that colleges provide evidence that graduates are prepared to deal with real world issues and conflicts that will arise in the workplace. Many educators are starting to respond to this concern.
In recent days, the president of the University of Wisconsin system has risen to the occasion by proposing to the Board of Regents that students have two transcripts upon graduation. The first transcript would be the traditional one, which would list the classes the student took, and the grades that he or she received. The second transcript would depict what the Wisconsin State Journal described as "the student's personal development during college, such as whether the student interned for a company, directed a play, or edited the student newspaper." The University of Wisconsin system would be the national pioneer in this movement. This effort is supported by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, whose vice president recently said that companies seek graduates who can work "with diverse groups and have a sense of social responsibility and ethics," according to the State Journal story.
According to Reilly, the university needs to institute this policy because business leaders want "workers who can work with diverse groups and have a sense of social responsibility and ethics," according to the State Journal story. The second transcript would involve more than a typical resume. It would have to be approved by a faculty member, and show how the student's experiences outside the classroom represented a meaningful application of the student's classroom work. "We know when students get to the end of their time with us, employers and graduate school admissions officers want to know what you did besides get and A or B in philosophy," Reilly told the State Journal. "We think this will capture some of the educational experience."
Given the potential importance of extracurricular work, who but a curmudgeon could object to this brave new policy? Well, let this curmudgeon count the ways. First, students already have ample opportunity to make their extra-curricular work known to employers through the use of resumes and interviews. What would be gained by making the engagement in outside activities a formal part of the pedagogical process? Not much.
The first problem is something that all observant faculty members have witnessed in recent years: student padding and building of resumes in order to impress authority figures. To be sure, many - perhaps most - students are sincere about their outside work, and perform it because it is good to do so or because they need the money or experience, not simply because it builds a paper record. But no one should be so naive as to think that insincere inflation of resumes will not occur. And just how is a faculty member supposed to properly evaluate and substantiate this work? Such evaluation presents a fertile opportunity for subjectivity - and, therefore, favoritism - to run amok. And if you think that grade inflation is a problem in higher education today, just wait until you witness the fruits that "second transcripts" would bear.
Another problem is that second transcripts will probably favor those students who enjoy wealth or good connections. Many students today have to work hard outside of class in order to pay for their stunningly expensive educations, and simply do not have the time or the resources to excel in the types of activities second transcripts encourage. The last thing we need in higher education is a policy that exacerbates class advantage.
A third problem is that such transcripts will only further higher education's drift away from its core fiduciary responsibility: to provide knowledge to students, and to make them critical, responsible thinkers. Study after study has shown that college students are ignorant of basic political and historical facts. To pick just one example among many, a 1999 survey of students at 55 elite colleges and universities showed that 40 percent did not know in what half-century the Civil War took place. Why are we encouraging the use of second transcripts when it is evident that we are doing such a poor job of performing our primary duty?
Fourth, a second transcript movement threatens to further politicize the pedagogical process and the university. Recall the Association of American Colleges and Universities' desire to encourage students' "sense of social responsibility and ethics." Given the political orientations of many faculty members today, the "sense of social responsibility" is often a code word for a political or ideological persuasion. Will students feel free to work on activities that challenge the governing political and ideological orthodoxies of the campus? And what about students who are philosophically and ethically opposed to performing works of "social responsibility" in the first place? Will their moral resistance lead to negative and therefore damaging "second transcripts?" Or, more poignantly, what about those who believe in such work, but are opposed to performing it under the gaze of the paternalistic university that has now made such work more or less mandatory?
By formalizing the incentive to perform socially responsible work outside of class, the university would do for ethical responsibility what Good Samaritan laws do for morality: it will take all the joy and self-reliance out of deciding to do such work on one's own, and doing it for its own sake. The self-reliance of today's students is already jeopardized by the ubiquitous influence of "helicopter parents" who have controlled too many aspects of their children's lives. The university's intrusion into the important decision to perform outside activities amounts to the same thing, does it not? What kind of lesson in civic education is this?
Donald Downs is a professor of political science, law, and journalism at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He specializes in issues involving law, politics, and society, as well as political thought, and has recently published Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus.