Undergraduates Are Not Learning

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 has been 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 does not improve during the 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 2,000 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, the social sciences, and humanities tended to make stronger gains in their writing and reasoning skills than those majoring in education, business, communications, 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 academia.

At least 45 percent of students in the sample did not demonstrate any statistically significant improvement in the Collegiate Learning Assessment performance during the first two years of their four-year programs.  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 the innovation and technical acumen that 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 and 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 is falling behind other nations, even as the number of graduates increases.