Today’s college students just can’t write

UC Davis seniors take part in an advanced writing class to prepare them for the law school admissions process in 2011.
UC Davis seniors take part in an advanced writing class to prepare them for the law school admissions process in 2011. Sacramento Bee file

It’s probably not a surprise to hear that a lot of college students can’t manage college-level writing. That was supposedly one reason for the Common Core curriculum standards – to bring more emphasis on writing into K-12 classrooms.


Common Core and the related California curriculum haven’t been around long enough to judge whether they’re making a difference. In the meantime, I hear professors of freshman remedial English at Cal State complain about how the kids can’t write. Professors in undergraduate literature courses at UC campuses complain about it. More recently, it’s been about students in upper-division English courses, even English majors.

I’ve seen too much of it myself in courses I’ve occasionally taught at a small, private university. I’ve wondered more than once: How on earth did this student get to this stage in college?

Not that everyone needs to be a future novelist, but most professional-level jobs require capable writing skills.

In an August story in The Washington Post, a government contractor is overheard talking to a companion about how hard it is to find job candidates who can write, saying “I was a math major, but the biggest differentiator in business now is good writing.”

The story goes on to say: “According to national surveys, employers want to hire college graduates who can write coherently, think creatively and analyze quantitative data. But the Conference Board has found in its surveys of corporate hiring leaders that writing skill is one of the biggest gaps in workplace readiness.”

Freshman composition courses, intended to make up for the lack of preparation in high school, clearly aren’t getting the job done.

The realization of how much trouble we’re in hit me a couple of weeks ago, when a friend told me about the graduate course in specialized nonfiction writing he teaches at a private university. Expecting to bring both his writing chops and his topic expertise to his students, he was crushed to find that with few exceptions, they simply couldn’t write at even the most basic level.

“I mean, we’re talking fourth- and fifth-grade writing,” he sputtered. “They can’t construct a grammatically correct sentence.”

Students mean well. They have no idea their abilities are abysmal. Further, he said, he’s been told not to flunk anyone who does the minimum required work, no matter how awful the writing. They’ve paid real money for this program. Yes, but they’re in a graduate writing school!

This is what makes me nervous when California State University announces that it’s doing away with remedial courses, and instead putting underprepared students in regular courses with extra tutoring. It’s true that remedial classes haven’t been helpful; maybe this will work better.

But the university is making the change in large part because it wants to drastically increase its graduation rate. Like the private graduate program that won’t flunk students because they paid, this looks a little like the tail wagging the dog. Sure, give extra help to students who need it, but the goal has to be better-educated students, not shinier numbers.

Grade inflation struck high schools years ago, it’s been pervasive in many colleges for a while, and now it appears to be infecting graduate schools – in writing, no less. At some point, students are going to have to know how to do stuff. Let’s put the higher back in higher education.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.