Rigor Mortis?

UV Letter - Volume II, #13

In the wake of the college affordability crisis, Paypal co-founder and Internet bon vivant Peter Thiel has garnered a great deal of media attention for his Thiel Fellowship: $100k grants to 20 college students who drop out of college in order to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams. Last month Thiel was skewered in a 60 Minutes profile for his hypocrisy (degrees in philosophy and law from Stanford perhaps contributing in some small way to his success?). But several comments made by Thiel Fellowship recipients themselves went “unchallenged” by Morley Safer & crew:

Morley Safer: Did you feel that you were being fully challenged when you were at university?

Eden Full: Challenged in the wrong ways. I wasn't challenged in the things that I was interested in and so I struggled a lot.

Sujay Tyle: I was a pre-med student at Harvard. And so I was challenged. But as Eden said, not in the ways I wanted to be.

Thiel’s primary critique of higher education is affordability and return on investment. But a secondary point seems to be that we are not challenging students in the ways they want to be challenged. On the latter point, Thiel could not be more wrong: higher education has strayed too far in this direction. A correction is needed in order to improve quality and silence critics like Thiel.


Our last letter prognosticated on the emergence of an international market for online programs and the large export opportunity for the U.S. and UK if founded soundly on some key principles. The first principle is ensuring that our programs – especially those delivered online – are rigorous.

Inherent in rigor is the notion of challenging students in ways they may not want to be challenged. Being educated does not mean being challenged only in what you’re interested in. There is widespread agreement in academic that an educated student, in the words of Yale’s Rick Levin, must have “acquaintance with certain fundamental modes of organizing experience: mathematics, empirical science, historical, philosophical and literary interpretation.” Being challenged only in what you’re interested is better characterized as fun than education, and certainly cannot constitute a complete education.

And so assuring our online – and on-ground – future is more challenging than one might think considering the trend:

  • Whereas highly structured course requirements were the norm 50 years ago, America’s colleges and universities now take a more latitudinarian approach. General education courses used to comprise over half of total graduation requirements. Now it’s below 30%. The average number of mandatory courses has fallen from 10 to under 2.
  • Over the past 50 years, the amount of time college students study outside of class has been cut nearly in half – from 24 hours per week to somewhere between 12-15 hours. About 1/3 of students study less than 5 hours per week. On average, students spend 27 hours per week in study and class – roughly the same time commitment they made in kindergarten.
  • In their 2011 report Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa found that half the seniors they surveyed reported not having written a paper of more than 20 pages in their final year of college.
  • Academically Adrift found that 36% of students made no significant gains in critical-thinking skills in college.

As a metaphor for the state of rigor in American higher education, you could do worse than last week’s announcement from several videogame companies encouraging gamers – er, students – to strive for Bs:

We're proud to bring you the 2012 Twitch & Alienware Scholarship Program brought to you by SteelSeries. With this scholarship, we hope to encourage the most active and successful gamers in pursuing higher education while continuing to compete or participate in their own gaming communities at the highest levels.
Award Components:
Five (5) $10,000 scholarships with certificates awarded to students selected by the 2012 Twitch/Alienware Scholarship committee.
- Prior year or over-all G.P.A of 3.0 (Scholarship funds will be awarded to the student upon evidence of submission requirements and proof of registration in an accredited post-secondary institution).
- High Level of Achievement in game of choice. This can include—but is not limited to:
- High in-game rankings
- Top tournament placements
- Regular game streaming on Twitch.TV
- Regular involvement with games or gaming groups
- Other significant involvement in gaming as judged by judging committee


The demise of rigor in American higher education can be attributed to the fact that colleges and universities are increasingly treating students as customers while faculty are happy to focus on research and other pursuits. From the increasing importance placed on student ratings to the need to retain and complete students for rankings, higher education is increasingly catering to what faculty and students want rather than what students need to be successful in the 21st Century. Student instruction and learning outcomes must be the core of the higher education mission. But that is a different proposition from treating students as customers. Either students know exactly what’s good for them – in which case, they’re already educated and, in a poof of logic, colleges and universities have rendered themselves irrelevant – or this line of thinking requires serious peer review.

A second factor is another accommodation to a cultural norm. Higher education aims to produce more economically productive, better citizens who will live better, happier lives as a result. In short, higher education should improve performance. And when we think about improving performance and its component parts – natural talent and hard work – Americans consistently attribute exceptional performance to talent instead of hard work: about 75% to talent and 25% to hard work. A 2011 Gallup poll on American education asked whether the ability to reach is the result of natural talent and training; talent won 70% to 28%.

In reducing distributional requirements, mandatory courses, reading assignments and lengthy papers, our colleges and universities have come down on the side of allowing students to “nurture” their talents rather than putting them through their paces. But this Myth of Talent has been exploded by studies that establish direct correlations between training and performance. Research like the Florida State study of violinists (best violinists are those who have practiced the most) has led to the “10,000 hour rule” for mastery, popularized in the Malcolm Gladwell book Outliers. Psychologists estimate practice and hard work are responsible for about 75% of performance – much more important than innate talent. Of all our institutions, universities ought to have the wherewithal to pivot away from the cultural norm and towards the empirical evidence, which demonstrates that more rigor is required. This is particularly important for online programs, where the predominance of pre-professional and professional programs leave less room to maneuver to our shared goals of what constitutes an educated student.


A short story by Isaac Asimov goes something like this: in a future society education occurs instantaneously through direct computer-brain interface. Brain scans at the age of 18 indicate professional aptitude and – zap – the student is educated and enters the dictated profession. The protagonist dreams of becoming a computer programmer, but when his brain is scanned he’s told his brain is unfit for any form of education and he’s sent to a House for the Feeble Minded. After an escape and various adventures, it is revealed: the House is actually an Institute of Higher Studies where original thinking advances science and civilization. The protagonist is determined to reconceive education. People ought to learn in ways other than being zapped and fast-tracked to a profession, such as by reading books and rigorous study and discussion.

The best response higher education can provide to Peter Thiel is to reject zapping and challenge students on exactly what they’re not interested in. By embracing rigor, our colleges and universities can not only win the digital future globally, but also make progress in addressing the affordability concerns of Thiel and 312 million other Americans.

University Ventures (UV) is the premier investment firm focused exclusively on the global higher education sector. UV pursues a differentiated strategy of ‘innovation from within’. By partnering with top-tier universities and colleges, and then strategically directing private capital to develop programs of exceptional quality that address major economic and social needs, UV expects to set new standards for student outcomes and advance the development of the next generation of colleges and universities on a global scale.

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