On Campus

How to fix the BA

Some modest proposals for restoring the grand old qualification.

Pity the poor Bachelor of Arts degree. Once a noble survival of the medieval tradition of scholarship, a tribute to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, the BA is now denigrated as little more than a meaningless couple of letters. The degree is so common, it is now said, that no one with a BA stands out. And even if they did, employers soon learn that a BA graduate doesn’t necessarily have the critical thinking or writing skills that is supposed to justify the degree in the first place. As a result, we are told,  the only function of the BA is as a stepping stone to some other qualification. BA: Begin Again.

To some extent, this vision of the degree is not entirely a bad thing. If you want to be a high school English teacher, it makes sense for you to have a degree in English before getting your teaching training. Similarly, I think a lawyer should have a broad education that includes, say, some philosophy and history, before studying law. Indeed, what’s wrong with a marketing rep knowing something about abstract expressionism?

Still, if the BA itself is meant to confer qualities of mind that can be applied in any field (as I have often argued in this space), then something is surely wrong if employers don’t see the degree as conferring any advantage at all. Moreover, I am prepared to admit that the BA is a degree that one can manage to get through without learning a whole lot. I am a notoriously tough grader, but even in my classes, one doesn’t have to show any real brilliance to manage a D on a paper,  and many students do just enough to get get only that minimal passing grades. After all, why work hard for an A when you end up with the same degree at the end of it all?

The best way to solve these problems would be to provide universities with a lot more money and a mandate to accept fewer BA students. Tuition fees could be drastically cut which would reduce the drive towards mercenary training and allow programs to focus on big thinking skills. Class sizes could be reduced and, not relying on tuition to stay afloat, universities could simply kick out those who did not excel.

But assuming a huge influx of cash is not on the horizon, here are some other suggestions.

1. Universities should be required to institute meaningful minimum average requirements for all degrees. Some do already, but not all. At my august institution for example, there is no minimum requirement for a 3-year arts degree, apart from the 50% needed to pass courses. Requiring, say, a 65% average in courses applied towards the degree would go a long way to ending the practice of scraping by with barely acceptable work. At the same time, university departments would have to take care to ensure that their faculty members continue to hold students to the same standards, and don’t simply award a 65% for work that used to rate a 55%.  Such a move might hurt the bottom line at some places, but once it became clear that a higher standard was required, even mediocre students could manage that middling C.

2. Employers should more routinely ask applicants for copies of their transcripts. Such a practice would help them distinguish between a student who had really excelled and one who had merely endured. Knowing that their records may be viewed in this way, students would have a strong incentive to work harder.

3. All Canadian universities should award Latin honours(cum laude, magna cum laude etc) for degree holders, or some similar distinction for high achievement. Such honours should be based on one’s rank in the program (cum laude for the top 25% and so on), not on grade average since the latter might drive grade inflation. Having a BA summa cum laude would give the degree holder an extra advantage and would encourage all students to work harder to get into the top ranks. Thus even those falling a bit short would still end up with a better education than they might otherwise have received.

Any one of these solutions, widely adopted, might help restore the luster of a degree that deserves better than its current reputation.

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