Failure to Fail

Why are students no longer flunking university? Is it their brains, or their wallets?

Photography by Guillaume Simoneau

My son, our middle child, graduated from McGill University recently, and one day just before the ceremony, when we were sitting down to breakfast, he started regaling me with tales of university idleness and duplicity. His alma maters reputation as the Harvard of the North was somewhat dubious, he pointed out, given how easy it was for a shrewd student (not him, of course) to wrangle accommodations from profs there to procure extensions for essays, to retake tests, to basically get by. It wasn’t the first time hed talked about the subject, and, boys being boys, soon wed come up with an idea for a reality show called The Bums B. A.

The Bums B. A worked like this: four students (preferably male) share an apartment on campus and compete to see who can do the least work possible and still pass his year. Independent observers would tabulate relative idleness; hidden cameras would make sure no secret cramming was going on. Other subtleties: any efforts in pursuit of academic success would count against you, but not labour in pursuit of idleness e.g., if you borrowed a girls notes, the reading of those notes would count as actual work, but the borrowing wouldn’t. Plus you could recoup the studying penalty by going to a movie, say, or getting drunk the night before an exam. The more we talked, the more enthusiastic we got.

We cant do it till I graduate, though, my son said. No, till they mail me my diploma.

The university would have to be in on it, of course, I said. As a kind of sociology experiment.

He gave me a look. He was right, I conceded; if they knew, they’d probably just flunk out everybody in the apartment.

His look grew stranger. What are you talking about? Nobody flunks out at McGill.

I wasn’t sure Id heard him right. Come again?

I dont know anybody whos ever flunked out of McGill. Dropped out, sure, but not flunked out. They dont let you flunk. They put you on probation, or give you extra time, or let you take your degree in six years instead of four. I know one guy who took seven years. Thats even better for them more money.

But why would a university do that?

The tuition money and the government funding. Plus they’ve got a ton of students coming from the States they make a fortune from. They dont want them thinking theres a risk that they’ll get thrown out if they fail.

But I thought the whole thing with McGill was the high standards, I said. (I may have been getting shrill.) How hard it was to get into.

Right. Hard to get into. Harder to get kicked out of. He looked at me. Seriously, I cant think of anyone who ever flunked out.

Breakfast and the conversation frittered away at that point, but I couldn’t shake the sense of scandal. It wasn’t just that this derailed our reality show (if nobody flunked, how could you pick a winner? ), or the thousands of dollars wed spent ourselves sending him to the Harvard of the North. It was the larger principle involved. If it was impossible to fail, what did passing amount to?

Not that I was an innocent. Id read Ivory Tower Blues, by James Côté and Anton Allahar, two professors at the University of Western Ontario who had chronicled what they dubbed the crisis of credentialism at Canadian and American schools. They’d argued that the new sense of entitlement among undergraduates, unchallenged by college administrations, had resulted in a proliferation of empty degrees, inflated grades, and professors cowed by student evaluations (not to mention calls from parents and threatened lawsuits) into easy marking and buying cheese Danishes for their classes. I knew about David Weale, the University of Prince Edward Island history prof who, facing an overcrowded class, had promised students a 70 percent grade if they agreed not to show up or do any coursework at all. (Weale had twenty takers, and was subsequently asked to resign by the UPEI administration.) I knew that Côté himself had tried the same experiment at Western and found that guaranteeing students a mark of 80 percent was enough to convince virtually his whole class to walk out. And I was aware that these stories were viewed as symptoms of something deeper in the culture a reluctance to judge todays students negatively, to have them fail, which meant that they were being deprived of an important life lesson in dealing with the kind of setbacks they would eventually have to face. But Id always thought that all this breast-beating over the failure to fail was largely metaphorical. I never thought it meant no one flunked out anymore.

The next morning, I sent out a simple query to every person under thirty on my email list, some fifty people: did they know anyone, or know anyone who knew anyone, out of all the students enrolled in Canadian universities (815,000 in total) who had ever flunked out? By that afternoon, I had nine answers, all remarkably consistent. The first came from the son of a friend, who had graduated from the University of Manitoba the year before and was now living in Winnipeg with a fellow graduate. Shannon and I are stumped. Its weird. No one comes to mind right away. Well ask around and let you know if we can find anyone. The second email was from a fourth-year phys. ed. student at Waterloo. At lunch I told a lot of my friends about your email. We all know kids who have taken extra time to graduate, and who have goofed off to the point of doing zero work, and of course some who’ve dropped out. But nobody who was actually told to leave. The third email was from my niece, a third-year psychology major at York University: It is very difficult to get kicked out of university. They put you on academic probation and continue to take your money. I do know one kid who took off a year because of the situation. But he didn’t flunk out.

At which point I started talking to people.

I spoke first with William Barker, president of Kings College in Halifax. Kings officially the University of Kings College is a tiny, largely autonomous institution tucked into a corner of Dalhousie University. If there is a Harvard of the North, its more likely Kings than McGill although a better analogy would be a cross between Harry Potters Hogwarts and Camp Wanapitei in Muskoka. With their registration packages, freshmen receive a black academic gown, which they all wear to monthly formal meals, complete with candlelit tables and pipers.

Oh, sure, students still flunk out, Barker told me in the living room of the presidents residence, which adjoins the Edwardian main administration building. (I was wearing cargo shorts and a T shirt; typical of Kings, he was dressed the same.) It might be rarer, and theres a process they go through, academic probation, etc. But you can still flunk out.

Out of his school, specifically, kids flunked out?

Uh-huh. I think what you’re encountering is the increased rarity of it, particularly in an institution like this, which reflects a change in thinking when it comes to student admissions. Twenty years ago, the idea in Canadian schools was, well take in a huge student body, because we dont know whats out there, and then well just get rid of a third of them you know, the old look to your left, look to your right idea.

I know exactly what he means, because exactly that direction was given in my own first political science class, at Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto, back in the dark ages. Our professor told us to look to either side of us, then to imagine one of those students not being there in a year a certainty. He said it with a detached smugness, making it that much more ominous, I remember, but also kind of thrilling. To the miasma of books and sex that was higher education was added the tantalizing possibility of doom.

That model doesn’t hold anymore, certainly not at schools like ours, or McGill or U of T or UBC , said Barker. Were taking in students with quite high high school averages our average here for first year is 87 percent and to see someone like that approach failing, which is rare in the first place, the question becomes, what went wrong? What you’re calling an unwillingness to fail people is a function of the fact that the system is set up today not to take in people you would normally think of as risks to fail out. So when it happens, the institution has to ask itself, what did we do wrong? Or where did we make the wrong choice?

But in the majority of emails Id been getting from current students and recent grads, I pointed out, the perception was that money was the main reason universities weren’t flunking kids out: the schools needed to retain both tuition fees and government funding to stay economically viable. Were they all mistaken?

It could look as though in Canadian universities, which are largely government funded, the rarity of failure is a gambit to keep students in the system. But it doesn’t hold for us. I went to Dartmouth in the US. I always remember, when I failed chemistry in my first year, the sense of shock that went through the entire system. How could this student, who had gotten in with decent enough marks, have failed in a system that was set up to take him and bring him forward? Dartmouth certainly wasn’t concerned about losing tuition fees . . . but to flunk a student out meant that it had miscalculated. It meant admitting that the admissions process was flawed and so was Dartmouths notion of itself.

It has an epistemological ring to it: the argument from institutional pride. But what about Côté and Allahar’s charge that the failure to fail kids resulted in part from the influence of student evaluations of professors, which were now de rigueur? What about pressure from independent student scorecards, such as Wasn’t it possible, I asked Barker, that professors looking for tenure became lenient with marks because they didn’t want to risk negative assessments from students?

He crossed one sandalled foot over the other. First, concerning Côté and Allahar’s book, one of those comes out every other year. The last one for Canada was No Place to Learn, by Allan Tupper and Tom Pocklington. They looked at how much evaluations mattered, particularly in universities where everyone gets 75 percent or higher. And these schools exist. Id have to say that student teaching evaluations do not yet play an overwhelmingly significant role in such matters as promotion of professors. Its part of the whole package, but, especially in the bigger research institutions, its research thats important. I dont think evaluations are enough to jeopardize a career, but a terrible evaluation early on will sink someone.

So the fact that I cant find anyone who flunked out of school has nothing to do with, say, student evaluations?

I cant see it.

And students do flunk out?


I still dont buy it.

I should clarify. I buy what Barker says when it comes to his school. And as far as his description of the much smaller turnover in todays universities in general goes, compared with the weeding-out systems of the past, the facts support his analysis. At three of Canadas top universities, McGill, U of T, and UBC, the return rate from first to second year in arts and science courses averages 90 percent, meaning only 10 percent of students dont show up for classes in second year. But that still doesn’t mean that 10 percent of freshmen flunk out or even drop out anything but.

To try to equate retention rates with failure rates is to compare two things that dont compare, says U of T registrar Karel Swift. All we know is that 10 percent of students from first year dont show up, because they dont want to; they dont complete enough courses and decide to do a different program; they reduce their course load to something other than what we think of as full time; or they transfer institutions altogether. Theres no way to measure whos come from where or whos where at a given time. Same with our graduation rates, which after six years hover around 75 percent. The other 25 percent could be failing to finish their degrees or finishing them somewhere else, which is more likely.

More important, adds Swift, when administrators say flunk out, its not a simple concept. In the old days, you could be unsuccessful in a year and be asked to leave. Today the policies and procedures for a student in academic difficulty are quite different.

The process today at U of T when someone is academically floundering (a similar progression exists at most Canadian universities) is arcane enough to qualify for its own postgrad course. This is partly because it is predicated on marks, and marks are no longer what they once were. Three decades ago, marking systems at Canadian universities were Canadian and/or British derived the familiar A, B, C, or percentages, 80, 70, 60 but today those marks have been translated into the four-point American grade point average. The best reason I can find for the switch is that it was intended to promote a uniform continental standard, the same reason given for getting rid of Grade 13 in Ontario, or holding campus-sanctioned events where eighteen-year-olds get so drunk they need puke suits. To be fair, in some cases the change in marking scales was salutary: until 2005, when the University of Alberta switched to the four-point system, it used a nine-point system, in which the nine marks stood for, in descending order: superior, excellent, very good, good, fair, pass, fail, fail, and fail. There used to be three ways to fail, says Heather Zwicker, a professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at U of A: You failed, You failed, asshole, or You never had a chance. Two, you’ll note, was the most spiteful grade.

The now-universal four-point system roughly equates to A, B, C, D in the old system. Hypothetically, the road to flunking out at U of T entails navigating the four-point system this way: for a student to have his or her standing assessed in the Faculty of Arts and Science, the student must complete four courses within the space of twelve months. To avoid academic probation, the students grade point average in those four courses must be 1.5 or higher. Since 1.0 is a D, to avoid probation you have to be averaging a D+ or higher. Or a C– or higher (only an American knows which for sure). If you average less than 1.5, you’re on probation; this means that when you come back the next year you have to average slightly higher, a 1.7 (C not-so-minus), to get back into good standing. If, however, you fail to hit 1.7, you can, can, be suspended for a year. Its possible for this entire process to be repeated three times three probations, three suspensions at the end of which a student may, may, be refused future registration, i.e., may flunk out.

The catch is the can. Concedes Swift, Its very rare rare and fleeting. If the university regularly loses track of 3,000 students, the 25 percent who may or may not be graduating elsewhere every year, how am I supposed to find the one hopeless loser who failed?

The reason I dont completely buy Barkers arguments is that Kings College is an exception, and the kind of resistance to the forces of cultural cynicism you can observe there dont extend to the system at large. In the following weeks, as I talk to more people from that system as the bemused, apologetic emails trickle in (I know this guy who sort of got kicked out, but no, maybe he left on his own . . . Yeah, he was pretty stoned all the time, too . . . ) it becomes evident there is a weird sort of disconnect going on. On the subject of whether funding and students professor evaluations might play a role in grade inflation and leniency, the administrators deny that these factors have a significant impact, while the professors categorically suggest that they do.

Heres what Walter Sudmant, director of planning and institutional research at UBC, has to say, for instance, about the insidious effects of student evaluations: Theres a fair bit of evidence, from studies in the US, that the notion that students give better evaluations to teachers who are easier markers isn’t accurate. Independent observers in classrooms tend to match student evaluations, and theres no correlation between the difficulty of a course and student evaluations, which staff worry about. What students really appear to be grading is whether they have learned things from the professor. By and large, our students at UBC are here to learn. Students recognize that if everyone got good grades, those good grades wouldn’t be as meaningful.

Sudmant’s comments are echoed by those of Morton J. Mendelson, professor of psychology and deputy provost of student life and learning at McGill: Ive heard the claim that teaching evaluations are correlated with grades, but actually they correlate more with how much students learn. We conduct our evaluations before the final grades are ever posted, and students complete their evaluations before the final grades are in; but profs dont get to see the results until after they’ve submitted their grades, so the mark cant influence their evaluation, and the evaluations cant influence the mark. And unofficial ratings, like, dont factor into it.

A laudable unanimity. Except that the same day I speak to Sudmant and Mendelson, I have a conversation with a professor (whom Ill call Brenda Moore)in the Faculty of Arts at Western. She tells me about a well-known tenured professor at Western whose coursework consists of exactly one assigned essay, which can be submitted for remarking as many times as desired, until either the year ends or the student gets a satisfactory mark.

Its no coincidence, says Moore, that the professor in question has one of the highest student evaluations at Western every year. Hes incredibly popular. And I dont blame students for taking his course; Im impressed by their practicality. I keep thinking he must have a theoretical basis for his approach learn from your mistakes but it comes across as pretty cynical. Theres a reason why most other profs have assignments where you hand in a paper once. You build toward things, as you do in life. You cant keep redoing things in life. The bottom line for having the chance to fail, of course, is that in this particular professors class you dont.

And were speaking here, remember, about a professor with tenure. Moore believes that for untenured young professors looking for job security, the compulsion to score well in the student evaluations can be twice as great. In Moores faculty at Western, a research university, yearly evaluations are broken down into 40 percent research performance, 40 percent teaching performance, and 20 percent administrative. (The main basis for evaluation in the teaching performance segment is the student evaluation.) But at Kings University College at Western, which, as a liberal arts undergraduate institution is not research intensive, teaching is the most important criterion, and the valence of student evaluations is ramped up even higher.

The pressure not to fail people doesn’t just arise from student evaluations. A few years ago at an Ontario university, a young prof received an essay from a student that was a blatant, clearly verifiable piece of plagiarism: the prof found the same essay, verbatim, on an educational website; even the commas were placed similarly. Policy at the university was unwavering in these instances: a mark of zero for the paper and suspension for the student essentially, flunking out. But this student had auxiliary resources: a troop of high-powered lawyers who descended on the university with a threatened lawsuit unless the charge of plagiarism was withdrawn. The young prof waited for the university to back him up; instead he was called in and instructed to disregard the plagiarized paper. Nothing makes universities back down faster from issues of academic principle than a lawsuit, says Robert Burley, dean of the School of Image Arts at Ryerson University.

None of which makes finding the LPFOCU (Last Person to Flunk Out of a Canadian University) any easier.

So who is to blame? If failure is indeed on the run in the ivied halls, whos chasing it? Is it the newly entitled student, the client student who arrives with an attitude of expected privilege? Im here because I deserve to be, the attitude says. Ive always passed in the past because I deserved it, and I deserve to pass now because Im here. (Kind of, I am, therefore I must be able to think.) U of As Heather Zwicker, who describes herself as a hard-ass when it comes to grading, thinks that when students are complaining, at least it shows they’re engaged. At the same time, she recalls her early teaching days at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, where the failing grade, the F, had literally been abolished. The reasoning which calls to mind William Barkers Dartmouth anecdote was that you had to be so talented to get into Stanford in the first place that nobody could really lack the skills to do well. And in Zwickers experience, the majority of students at Stanford did work hard. But she had one student, she remembers, who complained about her grade; Zwicker went over the paper with her, pointing out its shortcomings. When she was finished, the student looked at her with indignation and said, you’re basically saying that to get a better grade I have to learn more.

She thought she should have been rewarded for trying hard, says Zwicker, with lingering wonder, or for writing well, even without ideas. I had to pick my mouth off the table with my hand.

Another oft-cited factor in the inflation of grades and the retreat of failure is money. In 1970, the cost of a years tuition in the Faculty of Arts and Science at the University of Toronto was $550. Today tuition in the same faculty is $5,500 a year. It could be argued that a 1,000 percent increase from 1970 to the present only mirrors the jump in the cost of a home or a car over the same period, but the analogy is flawed. Houses and cars exist in the adult economic world, tuition in the world of the student. In 1970, it was relatively easy to make $550 by working two months at a summer camp; today the chances of making anywhere near $5,000 as a counsellor are non-existent.

The same progression holds for scholarships. A top undergraduate student in the late 80s might have paid $1,000 in tuition and received a $3,000 scholarship. Today the tuition is roughly five times greater, but scholarships have not kept pace. The skewed economics of higher education mean that students are a) more likely to feel that they’re entitled to a degree because it costs so much to get one, and b) more likely to come from upper-middle-class homes, where the inclination to protest low marks and agitate for higher life ratings is also greater.

In the case of those less well off, the steep cost of university has created another phenomenon: the live-at-home student. This trend brings its own peculiarities, says Zwicker: How do you respond to a kid who says, Im sorry my essay wasn’t done on time, Professor Zwicker, but my mother was using the computer?

More problematic, how do you fail him?

In 1953, Woody Allen was kicked out of New York University after a single semester. The reason usually given in biographies of the comedian/director was a lack of punctuality and commitment. In other words, Woody flunked out. He was not, as he would later claim, expelled because he cheated on his metaphysics exam by looking within the soul of the boy sitting next to him.

In deference to Woody, maybe we should stop looking for the elusive failer, and consider how elusive failure itself has become for the current under-thirty generation. Flunk out is a phrase thats semantically dark but stylistically light. Its a comforting phrase, actually, a goofy cushion for the blow beneath the words; flunking out is usually sort of funny, and never fatal. Failure, a very adult word, has always been hard to get over; but you could always recover from flunking out, which was invariably permissible only for people of a certain callow age. Flunking out was no more permanent than turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. And when you were tired of those options, you could always get a job working for your father, or any number of connected relatives or friends. Note the tense, could. Flunking out was a phrase of its time, the pre–Gen X era, when the world was a preternaturally secure place for a university student in this country. We could flunk out, but we were inoculated against true failure by a lucky fluke of economic chance. Jobs were easy to come by. Careers were not the be-all and end-all. And in Canada, we didn’t have the draft to worry about.

But success and failure have more powerful associations today, and the meaning of failure for university kids has changed even more. The sense of entitlement you see, William Barker told me that afternoon in his living room at Kings, comes along with a very real fear of failure. Not grade point failure, but something less precise and broader: Im not going to measure up, get the career I want, be the best in my group. In the old days, you didn’t have to be the consummate hyper-success to avoid failure; you could get by and still go on and do things. Now theres the sense that if you’re going into law, you cant just be a lawyer in any firm; you have to get into a numero uno firm and be the best there. The rewards system today is so much more potentially lucrative than twenty years ago that its impossible to ignore. If you hit it big, you hit it bigger than ever; if you fail, you lose more than ever. What hangs in the balance is very strong.

And so if Brenda Moore, the Western prof, has students who skip class for three weeks and then email her to demand her notes from the lectures they missed, she also has kids who write her in the summer before first year, wanting to know about readings so they can do prep for the course. She writes back and tells them to relax, but the message is clear: both types of student were unprecedented at Canadian universities until recently. Undergraduate students today are caught between a rock and a hard place, says Moore, with unclear expectations for education and the job market. It produces dumber students, not in the sense that they’re not smart, but that they’re not free to think. They cant free themselves to think.

Whats operating here is a kind of selective confidence. We’ve created entitled students but not secure ones. They demand to succeed, but deep down they suspect they dont have the chops. They’re superficially assured, and secretly terrified.

In the end, does it matter how many students fail at our universities and colleges, or if anyone does? Is learning to fail genuinely valuable, and failing to fail a disadvantage? Last year, Macleans magazine ran a cover story by Sarah Scott titled Do Grades Really Matter? which examined the relationship between high school grades and success in later life. Scott cited several studies that concluded that there was no direct relationship, that a C+ Grade 12 student was just as likely to win a Nobel Prize or make a billion as an A+ student. If academic excellence isn’t a precursor to life achievement, why should academic hopelessness be one? There is the weird possibility that if we dont flunk people out we wont end up with the Woody Allens, the Leo Tolstoys, and the Émile Zolas, college flunkees all. But flunking out isn’t everything, as Steve Martin, Bill Gates, and Abraham Lincoln proved. Dropping out works, too.

This, at least, is what I was telling myself, by way of rationalization, when the apologetic emails stopped coming altogether. Somewhere out there was the sasquatch of Canadian letters, the student equivalent of the Unknown Soldier, but clearly I wasn’t going to find him.

But then, out of nowhere, a beacon. My son, of all people, remembered someone he had forgotten who sounded like the perfect candidate: a friend of his who had done something so stupid that it merited eternal disqualification from several institutions of higher learning, a gaffe that had to have got him kicked out of at least one. This friend lets call him Dave had dithered in his last year of high school over choosing a university, delaying so long that by the time he decided on a school, Torontos York University, the only program with an opening was at Glendon, Yorks bilingual campus. Dave secured a spot in the French-language side of the program, but there was a small problem: he didn’t speak French.

He didn’t flunk out either.

AFTER PROM by Guillaume Simoneau

After Prom is an ongoing portrait series showing high school graduates as they enjoy a last hurrah with their schoolmates. These photographs were taken in the tight-knot community of Lévis, Quebec, at a remote gathering organized for graduates by parents. The students have since moved on to post-secondary studies, or to jobs that later the dynamic of the life they’d previously known. After Prom seeks to capture the transition into new terrain as the old is left behind.

Jay Teitel