It’s a message that’s been drilled into us so deeply that we hardly ever question it: To get ahead in life, you need to go to college. But what do students actually get out of college? For many, not much, at least as far as the reasoning and communications skills that we expect college graduates to have. That’s the conclusion sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa reached in a new book, “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.”
It’s a message that’s been drilled into us so deeply that we hardly ever question it: To get ahead in life, you need to go to college.
So students work hard to keep up their grades, take classes to prepare for the ACT or SAT and line up volunteer and extracurricular credentials to boost their chances of getting into a good school. Parents put off retirement saving and scrimp to put aside what they can in the kids’ college fund. The potential payoff is so big, we are told, that we swallow hard and commit to a four-year experience that can cost $200,000.
But what do students actually get out of college? For many, not much, at least as far as the reasoning and communications skills that we expect college graduates to have.
That’s the conclusion sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa reached in a new book, “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” that’s received extensive media coverage. Tracking the performance of 2,500 students on the standardized Collegiate Learning Assessment, they found 45 percent made no real progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing in their first two years in college. After four years, 36 percent of students still hadn’t made progress.
One reason, they say, may be that relatively little is asked of many college students. Arum and Roksa found that half the students didn’t take a class requiring 20 pages of writing in the previous semester and a third didn’t have a course with 40 pages of reading assigned a week.
The findings, though obviously limited, raise questions about the widespread argument that the United States needs to produce more college graduates to compete in the global economy.
“It’s not the case that giving out more credentials is going to make the U.S. more economically competitive,” Arum told The Associated Press. “It requires academic rigor. ... You can’t just get it through osmosis at these institutions.”
It’s a conclusion that probably confirms what employers who hire recent college graduates already know — a bachelor’s degree today doesn’t tell you much, even if it comes from a big-name school. Many freshly minted graduates, of course, are absolute gems. But when I was hiring I too often interviewed new grads with good grades and high recommendations and found there was no “there” there — no depth, no insight, no ability to do more than regurgitate the information they’d been fed. College, it seemed, had left them no better prepared than a smart high school senior to handle a job demanding serious intellectual work.
Now the Collegiate Learning Assessment doesn’t measure the facts and concepts students pick up about specific disciplines — that is, what they’ve learned about computer science, economics or biology. And that’s what you go to college for, right? Yes and no. In a world in which many workers will change careers several times and rapid technological change can make much of what students learn obsolete in just a few years, I’d argue that the critical thinking skills the CLA measures may be more important.
I was fortunate to have parents who indulged my desire to have a liberal arts education rather than study for a specific career. (I never had a journalism course in college.) I have seldom in my life called on what I learned about the history of Russia, themes in Shakespeare or the theory of plate tectonics. If the facts I learned in class were all I got out of college, it would have been a massive waste of my parents’ money.
What paid off was the fact that I learned how to research a topic, synthesize information from many sources, analyze what I’d learned and communicate it in writing and in oral presentations. Those are skills that have served me to this day, and I got them because I had professors who set high standards and assumed I would spend more time in the library than I did at parties. Judging from Arum and Roksa’s work, those expectations are apparently in short supply today.
In recent years we’ve devoted huge amounts of time and energy to measuring the performance of our K-12 schools. By contrast, there’s been little effort to hold colleges and universities accountable. Arum and Roksa don’t favor government mandates for college performance, and neither do I. But as a parent who hopes to send four children to college, what I want to know is: How can I tell if I’m going to get my money’s worth?
Jim Timmermann is an editor at The Holland (Mich.) Sentinel.