Breaking Campus News. Launching Media Careers.
TRENDING: Academics embrace new ‘deficit framing’ concept to justify unprepared, underperforming, or immature students
Shutterstock bored students

ANALYSIS: In other words, there isn’t a problem with students entering college grossly unprepared. The problem is college is too challenging. Those that say otherwise are colonizing subjugators.

It is an open secret among college professors and university administrators that college students aren’t what they used to be.

They struggle with lengthy reading assignments and basic vocabulary. They don’t know rudimentary algebra. They can’t add or subtract fractions. They complain that deadlines, hard exams, and required attendance are impediments to their success.

Yet, although some professors view these deficits as problems to be fixed, many in academia have embraced bits of pedagogical fluff intertwined with fashionable DEI that suggest there is something demotivating if not bigoted about acknowledging deficits as deficits and holding students to basic academic or professional standards, while implying bad grades and a lack of maturity on the part of students are simple quirks educators just need to better accept.

One such fluffy concept is that of “deficit framing,” sometimes referred to as “deficit thinking” or a “deficit model lens.” As defined by education researcher Chelsea Heinbach in a 2021 interview, deficit thinking is “the belief that there is a prescribed ‘correct’ way of being — also known as the norm — and anyone who operates outside of that norm is operating at a deficit.”

These individuals, she said, are perceived by those engaged in deficit thinking as needing to be fixed or having to “‘try harder’ and ultimately conform to the practices of the dominant culture.”

Heinbach went on to advocate for “changing the norm to accommodate others,” suggesting that minority, disabled, first-generation, international, and nontraditional students with responsibilities related to work or family are all harmed by the maintenance of such norms.

In 2023, Aaminah Long, a PhD student in higher education and student affairs at Indiana University, Bloomington, echoed similar sentiments on a blog hosted on her university’s website.

Deficit models, she wrote, “are particularly problematic as they subscribe to the notion that students and their environments are responsible for their failures instead of acknowledging the role of dominant power structures in constructing those environments.”

“Instructing from a deficit model lens,” wrote Long, “is especially harmful to marginalized students, overlooking their cultural strengths, diminishing the value of their lived experiences, and invalidating their communities’ sense of agency by assuming that educational institutions are the only ‘valid’ sources of knowledge and rejecting long-standing cultural practices and ways of knowing.”

One of Long’s recommendations for instructors to move away from such deficit models was to embrace another fluffy idea and “[f]oster a growth mindset.”

In its simplest form, the notion of a growth mindset may be innocuous if not beneficial, as it suggests students should view academic challenges as opportunities for growth and see their intelligence and class performance as things that can be improved with effort.

Yet, in practice, some educators who seek to cultivate a growth mindset in students can take the endeavor to rather absurd places.

Stephanie Erickson from the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, for example, has decried “[p]olicies such as not accepting late homework, deducting points for late assignments, and not allowing for revisions on large stakes assignments” as these policies “go against a growth mindset” and “implicitly value specific norms surrounding work ethic, time management, and learning approaches.”

In practice, such interpretations of a growth mindset merge with another bit of pedagogical fluff known as ungrading, which holds that grades can be demotivating to students and has spurred some professors to do away with due dates, stop penalizing late work, and start allowing students to self-grade.

Collectively, when these kinds of fluffy ideas are translated into policy at a university, department, or even just a classroom level, they at best provide a pseudo-intellectual justification for taking unprepared, underperforming, or immature students and moving them along without ensuring they develop the basic academic and professional competencies they lack.

At worst, however, the embrace of such pedagogical fluff, given its overlap with DEI, can disincentivize those in academia who notice deficits in their students from acknowledging the problem publicly and penalize those that do thus ensuring obvious deficits in student ability and character remain.

For example, in a recent incident at my own academic institution, Northern Illinois University, when philosophy Professor Alicia Finch stated at a faculty senate meeting, “I’m just not convinced they [intro students] know how to do college. And I sometimes think, well, maybe we need a coordinated effort to teach them,” she was inevitably and publicly dressed down by our Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Carol Sumner, for her “deficit framing” of students.

“We just had a conversation yesterday at looking at how we’re student-centered and what are we doing for student success,” stated Sumner prior to reading a quote on her phone from a source she didn’t bother to name.

“It says,” she began, “‘Using an asset-based approach to student success requires more than the institution simply identifying that the students are having challenges, but explores the ways to which structural and systemic issues impair and derail student success. It does not position the issues or challenges being due to deficits within the individual students.’”

Sumner suggested “practices, policies and pedagogies” that focus on fixing student deficits, actually “reinforce colonialism, subjugation and the inferiority of minoritized students.”

She then went on to “reposition” Finch’s question as “How are we as institutions identifying the challenges and structures that we put in place where students are not successful.”

In other words, there isn’t a problem with students entering college grossly unprepared. The problem is college is too challenging. Those that say otherwise are colonizing subjugators.

Anyone who seriously might want to address student deficits should think twice. And the students that enter college unable to handle lengthy texts, basic vocabulary, or rudimentary algebra may very well graduate that way.

MORE: $300,000 in COVID stimulus funds allocated to study ‘equitable grading strategies’

IMAGE: Shutterstock

Like The College Fix on Facebook / Follow us on Twitter

Please join the conversation about our stories on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, MeWe, Rumble, Gab, Minds and Gettr.

About the Author
College Fix contributor Daniel Nuccio holds master's degrees in both psychology and biology. He is currently pursuing his doctorate in biology at Northern Illinois University where he is studying the impact of social isolation on host-microbe interactions and learning new coding techniques to integrate into his research.