Why 25,000 Students Flunked This College Entrance Exam

In a country like Liberia, which suffered from a brutal generation-long civil war, it is no surprise to hear that the education system leaves much to be desired today.

The school attendance rate is unbelievably low and corruption throughout the system means that payment for grades is widely practiced. Many students who do complete the education that is required of all U.S. citizens often do not have the same basic literacy and educational competence that their counterparts in developed nations enjoy. In many areas of the country, teachers might spend two weeks out of every month traveling to and from the county seat in order to pick up their pay checks, leaving classrooms empty and students idle. In addition, school fees are a separate price for parents to pay, which leaves families that are already struggling to put food on the table in a difficult situation when it comes to sending their children to school.

When I was in Liberia this summer it was shocking to witness the effects of this education system that is struggling to stay afloat: rampant unemployment and huge numbers of young people on the streets rather than in classrooms. It was also clear to me, however, that Liberians recognize the importance of education and would gladly take advantage of scholarships to attend the few Liberian universities that are in working order, or even better make it to the United States for higher education if possible. Even at the university level, however, graduates may not meet the basic requirements that I take for granted from the U.S. such as the ability to read and write persuasively or to do upper level math such as calculus. So when the Liberian government raised the standards for the entrance exam to the state-run University of Liberia, it did not surprise me to hear that of the 25,000 applicants, not a single one got into the school

“What has changed since [the civil war] are the conditions among which these young people learn,” writes Jackie Sayegh, a program manager at Cornell University’s Institute for African Development, in FrontPage Africa. “Growing up we had books, electricity, and most of the time, went to school well fed. These days just getting to class in Liberia is an exercise in endurance and patience.”

Sayegh further argues that the mass failure of University of Liberia entrance exam speaks to “the fiasco and ineffectiveness of those entrusted to provide one of the most basic service, the right to an education,” rather than the intelligence level of Liberia’s young people.

A few days after the results of the exam came out, the Ministry of Education lowered the passing grades in order to accept an incoming class of 1,600 students. Indeed is important to provide higher education for as many students as possible, because just as in the United States a university degree opens up many more job opportunities. But when Liberia needs to lower the passing grade in order to create a freshman class, it is imperative that the country take a deep look at the cause of the mass failure and address the root of the problem, not just its manifestation.