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For One-Third of Students, College Is Not Worth the Time and Money

As a professor, I was known to be difficult to please.  I assigned challenging assignments, I expected students to do quite a bit of reading, and my tests were not a piece of cake.  Perhaps because I started out as a high school teacher, I expected my students to learn something.

As a graduate assistant at Harvard, I was criticized by my supervising professor for giving out too many grades of C–and even a couple  of Ds.  He changed them all to grades of B- or above.

For me, the point of going to college is to learn something, and I took my job as a teacher very seriously.  Sure,  many kids avoided my courses, but those who stuck with it wrote me nice notes at the end of the year thanking me for challenging them and encouraging them to work hard.  For these students, the payoff was pretty big.

But it turns out that many, many students are able to get out of college without learning much of anything.  In a book released yesterday called Academically Adrift:  Limited Learning on College Campuses, the authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa track 2300 students and measure their  learning via the Collegiate Learning Assessment.  This CLA measures gains in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and other “higher order thinking skills” that we might expect students to improve while in college.

The study, which is summarized in yesterday’s InsideHigherEd, lists these disturbing findings:

  • 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college.
  • 36 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over four years of college.
  • Those students who do show improvements tend to show only modest improvements. Students improved on average only 0.18 standard deviations over the first two years of college and 0.47 over four years. What this means is that a student who entered college in the 50th percentile of students in his or her cohort would move up to the 68th percentile four years later — but that’s the 68th percentile of a new group of freshmen who haven’t experienced any college learning.

So what are today’s undergraduates learning?  The answer is “not much.”

And considering the price of a college education these days, this finding is truly disturbing.

What is a college student to do, if she wants to actually get something out of the time and money invested?  Turns out, it’s all about rigor.  Challenge yourself!

Here’s what else the study found:

  • Students who study by themselves for more hours each week gain more knowledge — while those who spend more time studying in peer groups see diminishing gains.
  • Students whose classes reflect high expectations (more than 40 pages of reading a week and more than 20 pages of writing a semester) gained more than other students.
  • Students who spend more time in fraternities and sororities show smaller gains than other students.
  • Students who engage in off-campus or extracurricular activities (including clubs and volunteer opportunities) have no notable gains or losses in learning.
  • Students majoring in liberal arts fields see “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.” Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the smallest gains. (The authors note that this could be more a reflection of more-demanding reading and writing assignments, on average, in the liberal arts courses than of the substance of the material.)

First, choose a liberal arts curriculum.  Even if you are going to a large, public university, make yourself take a smattering of courses across disciplines.

Second, challenge yourself.  Take harder courses. Don’t worry about the grades–worry about learning something.  Seek courses that have challenging reading loads and that ask you to write–a lot.

Third, do that reading and writing.  Don’t blow off the books–most of what you will likely learn is found within the pages of the assigned books. If you need help with your writing, go to the writing center (it’s free) and get some assistance.  Good writing reflects good thinking.

Fourth, if you are eligible for the honors program at your college or university, go for it.  Again,  it’s about rigor.

Fifth, cut down on the partying, but don’t cut down on your extracurricular involvements (sports, music, a campus job, clubs, etc.).  Note that while fraternities and sororities are not necessarily evil, they can negatively affect your learning  (it’s hard to focus on reading and writing while sleeping off a hangover).

College represents a significant investment in yourself.  Ostensibly, you are choosing to attend college so that you can learn something and develop your mind.  No matter the college you attend, you have choices to make while you are there. As this study suggests,  it would be relatively easy not to learn something after four years.  Decisions about college do  not end once you get accepted and pay your deposit.  Your success in college depends on the choices you make every single day.

Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant

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  1. […] Yesterday’s post regarding the new book, Academically Adrift:  Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa raises some alarming questions about what students are learning in college.  While you can take steps to ensure that you are getting the most out of your college education, how to you find a college where students are academically engaged in the first place? […]

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