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Commentary: America's great threat is a sense of entitlement

SAN DIEGO -- One of the great long-term threats to the security and prosperity of the United States is a growing sense of entitlement.

I don't mean those costly federal programs -- from farm subsidies to Social Security -- to which many Americans feel they have an absolute right. I'm talking about the sense of entitlement that many of us have unknowingly instilled in our children, the consequences of that kind of thinking, and the threat it poses to the ability of our population to be productive and globally competitive in the years to come.

Consider a recent article in The New York Times about what many college students expect from the grading process. According to the professors, students and researchers who were interviewed, a major expectation on campuses these days is that those who try hard and attend all their classes -- regardless of how well they perform -- deserve high marks.

Under this thinking, students seem to believe that the pursuit of excellence is overrated. Effort counts for everything, and that's what should be rewarded. In other words, they are entitled to good grades.

An English professor at the University of Maryland who was quoted in the article said he tells his classes that anyone who does just the bare minimum to meet course requirements will earn a C. Yet many students think an A would be a more appropriate default grade.

Researchers at the University of California at Irvine have produced a study called "Self-Entitled College Students: Contributions of Personality, Parenting, and Motivational Factors." It found a third of students surveyed said they expect B's just for attending lectures and 40 percent said they deserved a B for completing the required reading. Nearly two-thirds said that if they explained to a professor that they were trying hard, their effort should factor into their grade.

The article quotes a senior at the University of Maryland who wonders: "What else is there really than the effort that you put in? If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point? ... If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher's mind, then something is wrong."

Oh, something is wrong all right. The lead author of the study speculates that this sense of entitlement comes from parental pressure, peer competition, or increased anxiety about achieving good grades. Other academics suggest that maybe the entitlement culture begins at the K-12 level, where students learned how to take tests and developed an expectation that they'd receive high marks just for passing them. "

Personally, I don't think it's any of the above. I think most if this comes from how these young people were raised. There are a lot of parents out there who spoil and coddle their kids, constantly telling them they're special and the center of the universe.

College professors and administrators are seeing one frame of a long movie. For many students, this sense of entitlement was there before freshman orientation, and it'll be there long after graduation. Just listen to employers talk about hiring and managing 20-somethings who never learned about paying dues and want to sprint up the corporate ladder.

One would hope that the current recession would change some of that thinking and teach young people to bring their attitudes down a notch. That would lead to a stronger work ethic and less sense of entitlement. And, before they enter the work force, college is as good a place as any to learn an important lesson in life - that being successful means worrying less about what you expect, and simply doing what is expected of you.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is