Educational Achievement: Why Are We Afraid?

By Sosamma Samuel-Burnett, J.D.
Founder/President, G.L.O.B.A.L Justice

May is the month for most high school and college graduations across the U.S. Commencement exercises mark a key milestone in the life of the student. For some it’s the end of their formal education, for others a marker toward the next educational or professional milestone, and for all, it’s the start of the rest of their lives. Whatever the context, graduation certainly is worth celebrating. But in the United States, graduation progressively has become more about being “done” and getting that diploma, rather than recognition of achievement and educational advancement. The term achievement has progressively become less “PC” in American lexicon, and the idea of advancing in education has become less accepted. The result is a decline in educational motivation and mobility in America. And the consequences of that decline can be significant for not only students but for our American society as a whole.

Educational achievement matters. No, the level of education will not be the sole determinant of success or happiness in life. But the priorities and efforts that go into educational achievement help to develop and measure the work and aptitudes of individuals in various contexts. It is less what the student studies but more how they study and how they are shaped by their studies that is the most significant part of the educational experience. The type of focus and determination that goes with educational achievement translates to professional and other contexts. Such achievement is important in preparing students for further achievements.

A correlation exists between educational levels and overall societal well-being. Educational mobility — the ability to advance from one stage of education to another – is not only connected to higher earnings in the workplace but also higher standards in health, community and civic engagement, and overall societal connectivity. What is troubling in the U.S., however, is the fact that fewer students are concerned with advancing to the next level of education. Interest in working, the challenges of school, cost of higher education, etc are among the explanations for why they do not wish to pursue college or graduate school. However, this type of thinking, and the related lack of interest in educational advancement, has much broader implications than for just the student. The decline in motivated students may result in a future workforce with lower levels of knowledge, skills, or drive, and perhaps less connection to the broader society.
However, the education trends globally pull in a different direction than what we see in the U.S. Various studies show that U.S. graduation rates are dropping as compared to worldwide figures The United States ranks only about #18 among the world’s major countries for high school graduation. While that figure is troubling, the related figures in college graduation may be more troubling. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s “Education at a Glance” report has studied 28 major countries and ranked the US at #19 for college graduation as of 2014. In 1995, the US was ranked number one. The same study noted that about half of young people in OECD countries have at least matched their parents’ level of education. But in the United States, a larger-than-average proportion had less education, while a smaller-than-average population had more education.

What explains this plummet in ranking, especially given the otherwise strong global status of the US? Until recently, the US maintained its position as the world’s superpower not only politically and militarily, but economically. And despite the various debates over education funding and educational disparities in the U.S., most of the population has access to public education. Perhaps the drop in ranks has very little to do with the U.S. political or economic status, and more to do with its social status. Some considerations for the plummet may be: 1) stronger educational opportunities and emphasis in other developed or developing opportunities, especially in recent decades; 2) personal concerns in the US about educational costs and work opportunities; and 3) a de-emphasis by U.S .family and society on the role and significance of education, particularly advanced education.

Educational importance and related improvements are significant in recent years around the world – both in industrialized and developing countries. But countries such as China (now the world’s top economic power) and India have long placed a high value on education. They have culturally adopted education as a norm and an expectation for the younger generations. And they recognize it as the key to economic and social mobility. Particularly in the technology and medical sectors where specialized education is necessary, these countries have not only demonstrated the value of education for their own purposes, but they have become the primary areas for outsourcing because of their higher education levels and lower costs.

In the U.S., by contrast, education has become a pricey endeavor, especially at the collegiate and graduate level. Many students today do not see the value of education given the price tag. In previous generations, the idea of spending large amounts for a highly reputed school was not only accepted but almost a badge of honor to demonstrate the importance of that education. Today’s students seem more concerned with their current financial status than what an expensive investment might offer in the future. And, higher education in the U.S. sometimes seems to focus on the elite or at least those who can afford the costs of more traditional education. Certainly non-traditional programs can help make education more accessible and affordable, but they haven’t as of yet provided the broader motivation for educational advancement across the student spectrum.

U.S. families and society also play a role in how students today view and value education. Many in the US did not have the opportunity to go to college or graduate school. While previous generations who lacked those opportunities seemed to emphasize the importance of such access for the next generations, current generations seem to be more interested in maintaining status quo. Educational advancement is not prioritized. Many also disagree on political, philosophical, or religious grounds with some of the content and context within public or higher education, and as such undervalue that education.

Lastly, a developing approach within education itself may also play a role in the achievement or educational advancement gap. From grade school forward, students are often told it is important to be a good member of society, but they are not always told it is important to be an achieving member of society. The idea of achieving, getting the good grade, or accomplishing more with the educational experience, is downplayed and sometimes disrespected. A recent study showed that when groups of high achieving students were placed with other high achieving students, they were more likely to pursue further opportunities for achievement. But when high achieving students were placed with lower achieving students, they were less likely to pursue these opportunities. Why would these capable students be less likely to pursue what would further their capabilities? Perhaps the peer pressure of not achieving is sometimes stronger than that to achieve.
Why are we holding back on educational achievement – why do we not want to achieve or want others to achieve? While the factors already discussed play a significant role, they are not necessarily the key reason for not pursuing advanced education. Fundamentally, the educational achievement and advancement gap is driven by fear. Whether its fear that those who advance educationally may leave behind others that do not, whether its fear that advancement rattles the status quo, or whether its fear of success itself – these underlying fears prevent students from achieving. These students are somehow  taught that if someone stands out, than others don’t; that merit is no longer meritorious; and that success is how well one assimilates with the “norm.” But the result of this approach is not good students or good citizens, but instead mediocrity.

Within the halls of every educational institution are students who have capacities and opportunities greater than what is being presented as the acceptable norm. It is not enough for them to be good citizens; they must also be achieving citizens. It is these achievements that collectively in the future that will bring great insights and discoveries for ending certain diseases, addressing environmental concerns, inventing new technologies, and determining better ways to govern. While there are a rare few who have the ability to bypass education and strive toward such achievements, all the rest of us require some form of preparation. And that preparation comes principally from personal, academic, and professional education, followed by application of what we learned and how we learned to the workplace and to community.

We should not be afraid of achievement – but instead fear what our U.S. society will be like after a generation or two of mediocrity. For the U.S. society to advance and deal with the major global issues that we face now and will face in the future, we need to prioritize a well prepared, well studied, motivated citizenry – equipped with educational achievement, moral understanding and a conviction to better society as a whole.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice. We are a faith-based, nonpartisan organization that seeks to extend the conversation about justice with a posture of dignity and respect.