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Is This Your Kid? The Bottom Half of the Bell Curve


Over the past few months I have guest lectured in agriculture and business classes at various universities and colleges. Of course, times are changing since my days in the classroom when I taught over 10,000 students at Virginia Tech and Cornell University. Today’s classrooms have an abundance of technology at one's disposal, for both professors and students with a wide range of interests and agendas.

On the human side from a professor’s perspective, there appears to be a widening chasm between the very astute students and the performance-challenged students, with very few students in the middle. In other words, the old bell curve is disappearing. Many parents and grandparents are shelling out thousands of dollars in tuition. Are you getting an acceptable “bang for your buck” with the after-tax dollar investment on your student’s education? The following are some of my observations.

Many students are not attending classes, and could conceivably attend a university today with very little face-to-face interaction with human beings. Today’s classes are full of empty seats except for the first day of classes and exam days. An anecdotal observation is that when education is fully paid for by the parents or grandparents, the incidence of empty seats is much higher than when the student pays for their own education, or a portion of it.

Very few students realize that over 70% of communication is non-verbal. The other day I was sitting through a guest lecture by a former student who is a highly motivating and interesting entrepreneur. To my amazement, the kid with a John Deere cap behind me was demonstrating his professionalism by putting his head down on the desk. It did not take me long to kick this strapping young fellow in the shin and tell him to get his head up. I gave him a stare that Bob Knight and Pat Summit, former Hall of Fame basketball coaches, would envy! I heard later from some other students in the class that he had been out drinking the night before. As a point of reference, my former students played hard and worked hard, but were “present” in class when the bell rang.

Discussion with award winning professors still in the classroom finds another trend. They have experienced the “class of the night of the living dead,” characterized by blank stares and little interaction. These students often ask the professor to tell them what will be on the exam so they can pass the class. Too many young people are going for an expensive education to obtain a degree rather than an education. Standardized learning and other measures appear to be lowering the baseline of education in America. Just-in-time technology and multitasking are creating issues concerning quality of work and time management, which creates stress for students, professors, parents and grandparents.

While universities and colleges have always had a segment of partygoers, extremes are occurring. The standard four-year undergraduate program to complete a degree is now turning into six to even seven years in some cases because of the reasons previously discussed. Granted, switching majors is a valid excuse. I have done it myself, and it may add extra time to a degree. Also, some students enjoy staying in the maze of a university environment for educational reasons.

The bottom line is that business and industry professionals need to be aware of this increasing trend because these new graduates will be your new workforce. Do not be fooled by a slick interview with all the right answers. Conduct due diligence on your new people and make internships available that can assist in identifying work characteristics over a longer period of time than an interview.

Next time, I will discuss the top half of the bell curve.


Editor’s note: Dave Kohl, Corn & Soybean Digest trends editor, is an ag economist specializing in business management and ag finance. He recently retired from Virginia Tech, but continues to conduct applied research and travel extensively in the U.S. and Canada, teaching ag and banking seminars and speaking to producer and agribusiness groups. He can be reached at [email protected]

TAGS: Management
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