Varying Academic Rigor in Different Post-secondary Schools.

Thanks to the experience of numerous first-generation college students (and first-generation students to-be like Ronnie Estoque), a question for many prospective students is formed when considering a post-secondary education institution (when applicable). This question is: why are some institutions more rigorous than others when they offer the same bachelor degrees? In his article posted to The Seattle Times, Estoque mentions there are “college-readiness programs” that help prepare students prepare for the academic rigor of college (Estoque). However, what exactly is college rigor, and why does it vary between institutions when they offer the same degree.

College Raptor’s Allison Wignall defines “academic rigor” as “the academic or intellectual challenge of a class” (Wignall). This is important to understand because all colleges have their own standard of academic rigor. This “standard” is likely tied to two major factors: the previous rigor of all incoming students and established reputation. Post-secondary institutions can base their own rigor off of the backgrounds of their incoming accepted students. Meanwhile, they have a previous academic rigor model to deviate from (as needed) that likely also serves as their reputational foundation. The last component would be that many higher education schools conduct research and require funding. This funding is more likely to be awarded to a more academically rigorous school than one that isn’t.

These days, with so many institutions for higher learning being present in the US, we have to acknowledge that many international students want to further their educations here besides US students. Admittedly, this creates a tougher environment for US students with higher educational standards as competing international students will “raise the bar” for requirements as they “are applying in record numbers, and are often the best and brightest from around the world” (PrepWell Academy). This is important for US students as they now must compete with their GPAs, academic rigor, and extracurricular activities against not only other US students, but now against a growing international student applicant pool. While not extremely versed in the nuances of college admissions, a higher learning institution will likely look into the academic rigor of a prospective student’s previous course load (usually from an applicant’s high school career) in their determination of whether a student will be successful at their institution or not. This is because post-secondary institutions simply do not want to accept students who will undoubtedly fail to meet the set academic standards.

While understandable, many students still felt disadvantaged as an objective assessment and comparison of their competition resulted in seeing tremendous hurdles. Wignall reminds her audience of prospective students that, “colleges prefer to see a dedication to the few, rather than only dabbling in the many” in regards to rigor versus GPA (Wignall). Post-secondary institutions don’t just want students with high GPAs, they want to see well-rounded students who appear capable of handling a wide range of commitments in order to determine whether they can handle the rigor of their course work or not. What results is the formation of a class of students that the institution deems capable of not only capable of managing, but also succeeding at the rigor of their studies. Despite this attempt by many post-secondaries to not just admit students who can only produce strong grades, many did not want to seem extremely difficult with unobtainable standards. They realized they must at least maintain the difficulty of their course work that has garnered the reputation that the institution had already made itself. However, several institutions underwent a re-examination of their academic rigor to find out whether or not their standards were too difficult.

This re-examination resulted in these institutions regarding their “standards” as being too high, which lead to a gradual decrease in their academic rigor. Due to this decrease, an article by NPR staff cited a study that said, “35 percent of students reported studying five hours per week or less, and 50 percent said they didn’t have a single course that required 20 pages of writing in their previous semester” (NPR Staff). This data suggests that students graduating from institutions of reduced rigor are less equipped to handle “real world” situations in a work environment due to a decrease in what the article claimed as part of the reason for a decline in critical thinking skills. To further this point of reduced rigor, Annie Holmquist’s article “Is College Really Getting Easier?” about another author’s article posted on The Atlantic explains that students are studying less despite grades and graduation rates are increasing (Holmquist). While one can make the argument that students are generally getting smarter, it brings our attention back towards the issue at hand of why higher learning institutions have varying levels of academic rigor when they offer the same degrees.

It is impossible to conduct an assessment into why different institutions have varying difficulties than others without factoring in additional varying factors. We get it, school is tougher for students who are trying to balance a course load that is rather rigorous than students taking easier courses. According to Wignall, the ideal answer to a situation of academic rigor versus a high GPA is to have “both” with a more realistic answer being “a balance between the two” (Wagnall). This likely translates into post-secondary education when the next group to consider your merits will be employers. However, that still doesn’t exactly explain why different schools have varying levels of academic rigor.

Different schools have varying levels of academic rigor. For an incoming student to-be like Ronnie Estoque, many had to get past a tough part that Estoque doesn’t mention: choosing a school. Despite many institutions offering the same degrees (i.e., Bachelor of Arts/ Science in Accounting, English, Finance, etc.), we objectively can see that some schools are without a doubt tougher than others. While there may be many more factors that influence why a school might be more rigorous than its competitors, we explored two selected factors: past rigor, and reputation. In my opinion, these serve as the more impactful factors, but further research could be conducted to examine if the other factors are actually more impactful.


Brennen, Amy. “Why Is It so Hard to Get into Top Universities? Here Are Three Reasons Why.” Medium, Medium, 23 Jan. 2020,

Estoque, Ronnie. “Student Voices: I’m One of the First in My Family to Attend College. Here’s How I Got There.” The Seattle Times, The Seattle Times Company, 2 Aug. 2017,

Holmquist, Annie. “Is College Really Getting Easier?” Intellectual Takeout, Intellectual Takeout, 25 July 2019,

NPR Staff. “A Lack Of Rigor Leaves Students ‘Adrift’ In College.” NPR, NPR, 9 Feb. 2011,

“PrepWell Blog.” PrepWell Academy Why Is It so Hard to Get into College Today Comments,

“Reputation Without Rigor.” Inside Higher Ed, Inside Higher Ed, 19 Aug. 2009,

Wignall, Allison. “What’s Academic Rigor? Why Is It So Important? .” College Raptor, College Raptor, 18 Aug. 2020,


One thought on “Varying Academic Rigor in Different Post-secondary Schools.

  1. My apologies in advanced to whoever happens to read this post (or even if it’s just Dr. Weaver). Sorry everyone, this post could have been a lot better if I had worked out a clear argument from the beginning…