36% of college graduates leave learning nothing

Reporting contributed by Ashley Snyder

Beer is fun, but for an increasing number of four-year college graduates, it is one of many things hampering their ability to compete in a knowledge-based economy, one that increasingly places Alaskans in direct competition with Chinese graduates and their thinner beer bellies.

A study by sociologists Richard Arum and Jospia Roksa suggests that as colleges treat students more as consumers that need to be satisfied, rather than demand that they learn critical thinking skills, the point of college is shifting from academics to other areas.

The researchers discussed their findings through an American Council on Education webinar. UAA and UAF both participated, 15 UAA professors attended at the consortium library.

The study followed 2,300 students through their first two years of college. These students came from 24 ‘diverse’ four-year institutions. Several surveys were held in fall 2005, and evaluated students again in spring 2007, spring 2009, and their transition into the labor market.

The researchers distributed their own survey, which considered family background, high school traits, ACT/SAT scores, high school GPA, college transcripts, etc.

They found that, on average, the amount of time spent in academic pursuits is less in college than in high school.

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“When (students) come to colleges and universities, they’ll often report in interviews when you ask them, ‘We thought college was going to be harder than high school. It’s not. It’s easier,” Arum said.

TNL asked 11 students around the SSB whether they thought high school was easier than college. All of them thought college was harder, but because of increased social and fiscal pressures, not because of academics. Their reasons supported Arum and Roksa’s research.

“When you are in high school, so many parts of your life are taken care of for you and your focus can really be on high school. Versus when you are in college, that’s not the case. You have to focus on all these others things in your life as well as juggling school. I think that the biggest lesson I’ve learned from college is time management,” Senior Jessie Ford, a metalsmithing major, said.

According to the surveys, 36 percent of college graduates do not increase their critical thinking skills in the four years of college and 45 percent of college students do not increase their critical thinking skills in the first two years of college.

In addition to his own surveys, Arum and Roksa used the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) on all students. The above numbers were derived after scaling the scoring system to a range of 1–to-100. When students did not improve, that means that they did not move up by one percentage point in their first two or four years. Arum said that other assessments confirmed these results.

“And why would they move up given the amount of time they’re reporting reading, writing, and studying,” Arum asked.

Explanations for this varied from professor’s workload, structural inefficiencies, and student’s priorities when entering high school.

“For most (faculty), teaching content takes precedence over teaching the critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills addressed in this research. This is a structural issue, not a deficit in our faculty. Faculty are evaluated by their departments on content coverage, as opposed to whether the students in their courses are learning how to learn,” Libby Roderick, the associate director of the Center for Advancing Faculty Excellence, said.

Speakers at the forum and faculty that stayed afterward agreed that students are entering college expecting that the university should conform to their needs.

“Faculty increasingly have become just delivery of a service, rather than professionals who are challenging students in a relationship. So that whole structure of three quarters of the faculty being contingent (upon student evaluations), and being asked to be demanding of a student body that is saying I didn’t pay 30,000 dollars to get a C, is putting us in a really bad situation when it comes to demanding more learning. And in both those cases it is the consumerism of the entire system that is shaping (these) findings,” Gary Rhoades, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, said.


Variation in learning: work load, major, and race

Researchers were disturbed to find that 50 percent of students said that they have taken 0 courses where they’d been ask to write more than 20 pages over the semester. 32 percent said that they have taken 0 courses where they’d been ask to read more than 40 pages a week.

“While some students were clearly getting exposed to these types of courses, there were large numbers of students going through college and university that had found ways to navigate without taking those courses. They had found programs, professors, or courses that didn’t require them,” Richard Arum said.

Long-term learning varied with several factors. Students majoring in education, social work, and business showed the lowest gains over time. Traditional arts and science field—social sciences, humanities, natural sciences, and math—showed substantial gains over time.

“Variation is within institutions. That’s really important to know because it suggests how we improve the outcomes of higher education. It’s not necessarily to look to the school next to us, but to look inside. To examine what students on our own campus are showing improvements by investing time, are taking rigorous course work, and are actually improving,” Roska said.

Over four years, the CLA performance gap between students coming from educated families and uneducated families stays about same. But between white and black students, the performance gap on the CLA actually increases.

“During their first two years of college, white students gained 41 points while African-America students gained only 7 points,” their book reads.

Another problem discussed is the fact that students are studying less than they historically have done. From 1920 to 1960, college students spent on average 25 hours of studying for class. Today, the average is 13 hours a week. About 8 hours of that is spent studying in groups, which is considered inefficient for long term learning. Three of the students we spoke with said they never study.

The duo suggested that the best solutions are locally developed, and warned against a federal accountability system.

“What is most problematic and dangerous is that there could be a NCLB for higher education where we just assume that if we set standards and expectations, that student achievement will follow,” Roska said.

This article was picked up by American Renaissance


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