In one of the book's few bright spots, students who majored in one of the liberal arts, such as philosophy, economics, chemistry, biology, and languages, did experience "significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study."Those are disciplines in which there are meaningful performance tests, as well as the opportunity to test the ideas one plays with against observational or experimental data.
Why are so many students seemingly sleepwalking through school? Because they can. The authors argued that among the culprits is an educational system that doesn't expect much from its undergraduates. Many students can graduate from college without spending much time reading or writing. According to the researchers, 37 percent of students reported spending fewer than five hours a week on homework!The Chronicle of Higher Education provides a book excerpt, which for the present is in front of the subscription wall. A Chronicle news analysis appears to endorse the proposition that higher education should be higher.
In the statistical analysis that sums up their book, they identify two significant college-level variables. First, all else equal, students' CLA scores are more likely to improve if they report that faculty members at their college have high expectations. Second, students' scores are more likely to improve if they say they have taken at least one writing-intensive course and at least one reading-intensive course in the previous semester.
It might sound trite, [coauthor Richard] Arum says, but those observations boil down to the lesson that colleges must find ways to build cultures of academic rigor. He says that task is something that each campus will need to do for itself. It would be a huge mistake, he believes, for the government to impose a new learning-accountability regime from outside.
Donna Heiland, vice president of the Teagle Foundation, which also supported the study, agrees. "Even though this is a book with a lot of sobering news," she said, "I think it also contains some things to be encouraged by. First of all, it's encouraging to see new evidence that college does have an effect"—that is, that writing-intensive and reading-intensive courses actually do improve the CLA scores of students across the ability spectrum.
"It would be depressing to think that students just sorted themselves into colleges based on their SAT scores and life histories, and then essentially marched in place," Ms. Heiland said.What is depressing is that graduates are not equipped to reconstruct their civilization from scratch, should that be required, let alone to take an interest in its construction or deconstruction.
Among the most troubling findings from the postgraduate survey, Mr. Arum says, is that 30 percent of the recent graduates said that they read a newspaper "monthly or never," even online.
"How do you sustain a democratic society," Mr. Arum said, "when large numbers of the most educationally elite sector of your population are not seeing it as a normal part of their everyday experience to keep up with the world around them? We need higher education to take the institutional responsibility for educating people broadly to see this as a basic part of civic life."The Chronicle's Kevin Carey summarizes: 'Trust Us' Won't Cut It Anymore.
Critics like Charles Murray will probably say those students should not have gone to college in the first place. But that would amount to condemning them for the failures of their institutions, because the study found that how much students learn has a lot do with how much colleges ask them to work. After controlling for demographics, parental education, SAT scores, and myriad other factors, students who were assigned more books to read and more papers to write learned more. Students who spent more hours studying alone learned more. Students taught by approachable faculty who enforced high expectations learned more. "What students do in higher education matters," the authors note. "But what faculty members do matters too."Charles Murray's position appears to be that real higher education is hard work, and College Lite is a fraud on everybody, a position that the higher education lobby might be pushed to accept, preferably out of pride, but out of necessity if recognize the breach of trust they must.
Students majoring in the humanities, social sciences, hard sciences, and math—again, controlling for their background—did relatively well. Students majoring in business, education, and social work did not. Our future teachers aren't learning much in college, apparently, which goes a long way toward explaining why students arrive in college unprepared in the first place.
Or pursuing the supposedly lucrative but genuinely soul-deadening degrees in the expectation of being able to pay off those loans? Apparently working one's way through university is no longer an option.
Financial aid also matters. The study found that students whose financial aid came primarily in the form of grants learned more than those who were paying mostly with loans. Debt burdens can be psychological and temporal as well as financial, with students substituting work for education in order to manage their future obligations. Learning was also negatively correlated with—surprise—time spent in fraternities and sororities.
The study makes clear that there are two kinds of college students in America. A minority of them start with a good high-school education and attend colleges that challenge them with hard work. They learn some things worth knowing. The rest—most college students—start underprepared, and go to colleges that ask little of them and provide little in return. Their learning gains are minimal or nonexistent. Among them, those with a reasonable facility for getting out of bed in the morning and navigating a bureaucracy receive a credential that falsely certifies learning. Others don't get even that.
Consider too that the study measured the growth of only those students who were still in college two and four years later. The all-too-common dropouts weren't included. It's a fair bet their results were even worse.
Who is hurt the most by all this? Students saddled with thousands of dollars in debt and no valuable skills, certainly. Even worse, workers who never went to college in the first place, languishing in their careers for lack of a college credential. To them, the higher-education system must seem like a gigantic confidence game, with students and colleges conspiring to produce hollow degrees that nonetheless define the boundaries of opportunity.Who else is hurt? The students with a decent high school education, solid work habits, and ambition but without the money or connections or extracurriculars or spectacular talents to get into the most selective universities, who might find themselves bored or overwhelmed at the sub-prime party schools? As long as there are more people capable of doing the top-tier work than there are spaces in top tier entering classes, there are opportunities for other universities (are you listening? Northern Illinois? Wayne State? Whitewater?) to restore that trust and do their students a service. The professors who pursued an academic vocation, only to be steered into a simulacrum of scholarship to keep up appearances and to be pressed to go easy on the clientele, in order for the retention and completion rates to look good? The employers who end up having to provide the training in fundamentals the universities, heck, the high schools failed to do?
Fortunately, the way forward is clear. The students who learned the most in the study came from all manner of academic backgrounds. Nobody is doomed to failure.
Colleges can start by renewing their commitment to the liberal arts. Let's be honest—a lot of students are majoring in business simply because they plan to get jobs in businesses and need a degree of some kind to do it. Making college less vocational will actually help more students learn the skills they need to succeed in their careers.
The study suggests that we have overcomplicated the practice of higher education. It comes down to what it always has—deep engagement with complex ideas and texts, difficult and often solitary study, the discipline to write, revise, and write again. What students need most aren't additional social opportunities and elaborate services. They need professors who assign a lot of reading and writing. Professors, in turn, need a structure of compensation and prestige that rewards a commitment to teaching. Some object that today's hedonist undergraduates won't do the work. But the research suggests otherwise. Colleges are responsible for taking the first step toward reaching a newer, higher equilibrium of mutual expectations.Let the thing be pressed.
Deep down, everyone knows that learning has long been neglected. But they don't want to know. Policy makers who have poured gigantic sums of money into financial-aid programs designed to get people into college don't want to know that many of the graduates, leaving with degrees in hand, didn't learn anything. College presidents don't want to know, because fixing the problem means arguing with faculty. Faculty don't want to know, because it would expose the weakness of their teaching and take time from research. Students don't want to know, because they'd have to work harder, and it would undermine the value of their credentials.There are market tests, and those market tests are undermining the value of credentials faster than any curricular reform will.