US College Students Falling Far Behind

Monday, 14 Feb 2011 04:53 PM

By Herbert London

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By now almost every American has heard the lamentation about American primary and secondary education: Our children are failing to meet even minimal standards of performance. However, it was widely believed that higher education is different.

If one relies on the claims made by almost all colleges, students are expected to synthesize knowledge, interpret data and make arguments coherently. But in a newly published book, "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses," the authors contend that student performance on basic skills generally do not improve during their college years.

The authors, sociologists, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, found that more than a third of the college seniors in their study (more than 2000 were in the study population) were no better at reasoning and writing than they had been in their first semester.

If one were to consider the findings in this study, the conclusions are hardly surprising. On average, students do not invest much time in studying. Many students avoided demanding courses. Students in science and math, social science, and humanities tended to make stronger gains in their writing and reasoning skills than those majoring in education, business, communication, and social work.

Despite claims of methodological bias, the professors engaged in this study without a preconceived idea of student attainment. But the evidence drove them to incontrovertible conclusions, conclusions I might add, that were borne out by my 38 years in the Academy.

At least 45 percent of students in the sample did not demonstrate any statistically significant improvement in College Learning Assessment performance during the first two years of their four year program. In addition, 36 percent of students did not show any significant improvement over four years. Hence the title of the book, "Academically Adrift."

Clearly many, if not most of those in the study will graduate, but having a degree does not mean these students have developed higher-order cognitive skills, presumably the goal of a college education.

For many, the college experience is a rite of passage having more to do with social development than learning. Very few institutions place more than modest academic demands on their students. The so-called core curriculum has increased exponentially, including popular culture courses, to accommodate the lack of student seriousness.

While we should not ignore the fact that limited learning in colleges has a long and venerable history, students today are competing with others across the globe. As President Obama noted in his State of the Union address, our competitive edge is dependent on innovation and technical acumen which emerge from institutions of higher learning.

In fact, the changing global context facing contemporary college graduates suggests that “limited learning” qualifies as a major problem and impediment to future economic success. Yet curiously, none of the actors in this higher education system are interested primarily in undergraduates’ academic growth. Administrators are concerned with retention, admissions and, of course, the bottom line. Professors are eager to pursue their own scholarship and professional interests.

Decades ago Thorstein Veblen argued that most college students are “trained in incapacity.” If one were to rely on the Arum, Roksa study, it doesn’t appear as if students today are trained in any way, shape or form. The university experience has become a trivialized way to enter adulthood or perhaps attenuate adolescence. But on one point there isn’t doubt: undergraduates are actually learning very little and if one were to consider this learning a precondition for competitiveness, the United States if falling behind other nations, even as the number of graduates increases.


Herbert London is president of the Hudson Institute and author of the book Decline and Revival in Higher Education (Transaction Publishers).

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