Spring 2011

Bad Education

– Ben Wildavsky

How much do undergraduates really learn in college?

How much do undergraduates really learn in college? The question sounds straightforward, but systematic answers have proven remarkably elusive. Now Academically Adrift, which provoked a firestorm of discussion when it was released in January, provides a disheartening verdict: not much. Fully 45 percent of undergraduates experience no improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning, and writing skills during their first two years of college, according to sociologists Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia. By their senior year, more than a third see no statistically significant gains, according to a more recent report by the authors.

To reach their conclusions, Arum and Roksa used an innovative test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), an essay exam that measures writing and analytical skills and has been administered at hundreds of schools around the country for more than a decade. Many institutions keep the results confidential or report them in ways that are hard to decipher (and to compare to those of other colleges). This means that it’s difficult for college applicants and their parents to find out how much learning occurs in the classroom. Preserving schools’ anonymity, Arum and Roksa worked with other researchers to test a representative mix of 2,322 undergraduates at a diverse group of 24 four-year institutions, first as freshmen and then later in their college careers. The authors also studied surveys and transcripts to determine how college culture and expectations influence the undergraduate academic experience.

How can students learn so little? For one thing, they spend scant time on academic activities. Surveys show that full-time students spend about 27 hours a week either studying or in the classroom; in the early 1960s that figure was 40 hours a week. By the authors’ account, students’ devotion to social life, extracurricular activities, and (for many) jobs takes up a lot of their time. Yet 85 percent of those in the study had a B-minus average or better.

Arum and Roksa contend that educational institutions themselves are deeply complicit. George Kuh, a researcher at Indiana University who studies higher education, describes a silent compact that often exists between professor and student: “I’ll leave you alone if you leave me alone.” About one-third of students in the study had taken no course during the previous semester that required more than 40 pages of weekly reading. Half had never taken a class in which they were asked to write more than 20 pages during a semester. At many institutions, faculty members receive slim rewards for concentrating on undergraduate teaching, so it is little wonder that they give undemanding assignments and focus instead on research and other professional activities that will advance their careers.

Still, some colleges do a much better job than others of teaching students. Colleges can improve student learning simply by creating a culture of high expectations. After controlling for demographic background and level of preparation, Arum and Roksa found that undergraduates whose professors required more reading and writing learned more.

Academically Adrift has by no means won instant acceptance in the academy. The authors’ reliance on the CLA has fueled debates about the test’s methodology, and also whether its focus on generic skills rather than subject-level knowledge limits its usefulness. (The organization that administers the CLA once received a grant from the Kauffman Foundation, where the author of this review is a fellow.) But in interviewsArum and Roksa have pointed out that math and science majors, who may not be asked to do as much writing as their counterparts in the humanities and social sciences, saw the largest CLA gains. The authors suggest that those students’ tendency to spend more time on homework may also benefit their reasoning skills.

Whatever criticism this book provokes in the higher-education establishment, its value is enormous. The disconcerting findings of Arum and Roksa should resonate well beyond the academy. What good is broadening college access—an eminently worthy mission—if students aren't acquiring analytical abilities? With better information on academic outcomes (and more transparency from colleges), it will be possible to evaluate which institutions teach students the most, and which offer the best value. Only then can we insist that colleges and universities that don’t measure up deliver the undergraduate education American students deserve.

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Ben Wildavsky is a senior fellow in research and policy at the Kauffman Foundation. He is the author of The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World (2010) and coeditor of Reinventing Higher Education: The Promise of Innovation, which was just published.  Reviewed: "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses" by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, University of Chicago Press, 2011.  Photo courtesy of Flickr/Christian Bucad