Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum

Dr. Arum is a professor of sociology and education at NYU.  Dr. Roksa is a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia.  Their book looks at the question, are undergraduates learning in college?   They specifically look at critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing - skills that are not subject matter specific but which map well to the stated goals of higher education.

Although they analyzed data about 2300 undergrads, only twenty four colleges were considered.  So once critique might be that the sample size of colleges was too small.   Also, they relied on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), a standardized test built to investigate these topics.   The CLA seems great to me, but I'm not an expert in the field, and presumably some academics challenge it.   But if we can put those issues aside, the findings are quite worrisome.

45% of students demonstrate no significant improvement in the CLA -measured skills in their first two years at college.   And the authors claim that this isn't even surprising to university administrators who know that their students spend far more time socializing than studying.

36% of students showed no improvement even over four years.  (They didn't include drop outs; that would have made the numbers worse.)   And for the 64% who did show improvement, it wasn't much to write home about:  moving from the 50th to the 68th percentile.

I'm sure that there are political factions who aren't even interested in academics per se who want to ignore and discredit these findings:  President Obama has spoken about increasing the number of college graduates dramatically.   If Arum and Roksa are right, then why bother putting more students into the system (and generating more debt for them and their families, and more cost to the taxpayers) without first addressing the shortcomings of this system?

What are those shortcomings?  Lack of academic rigor is the most important.  This manifests both as low levels of required work as well as very few hours spent studying.  Arum and Roksa say the average student spends 12-14 hours studying each week, yet managed to average a GPA of 3.2 - adding grade inflation to the list of problems.

So:  if not many students are learning, and they aren't learning much, then instead of more students choosing college (as opposed to, say, vocational training), then perhaps instead we need much more transparency about how individual colleges are performing against consistent metrics.  Such as the CLA, and graduation rate compared to freshmen enrollment.  

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