Are Undergrads Learning Much in College?

A new book argues that many college students are showing little, if any, academic progress.

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Are students learning anything in college?

I admit that this sounds like a strange question. Billions of dollars are poured into educating undergraduates every year, while the stress and anxiety that teenagers experience as they prepare for college is immeasurable.

The time, money, and effort that's required to educate college students helps explain why the findings are so shocking in a new blockbuster book—Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses—that argues that many students aren't learning anything. When it was released last week, it became an bestseller almost instantly as the higher-ed world clucked about its grim findings.

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The book's authors, Richard Arum, a sociology professor at New York University, and Josipa Roksa, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Virginia, examined the academic progress—or, more often, lack of progress—that 2,300 students experienced during their college years. The researchers followed students at 24 unnamed schools that included research universities and liberal arts colleges, as well as historically black colleges and those that attract a large number of Hispanics. Here are some of the researchers' disturbing conclusions:

1. By the completion of their sophomore year, 45 percent of college students had learned little. Specifically, after four semesters these students showed no significant improvement in writing, critical thinking, and complex reasoning.

2. More than one out of three college seniors were no better at writing and reasoning than when they showed up as freshmen.

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3. Many of the students who did experience growth showed only modest progress.

4. Certain majors fared worse than others in making academic progress. Among the laggards were students who majored in education, sociology, communications, and business. FYI, business is by far the most popular major in the United States. According to federal statistics, 21 percent of undergraduates degrees belong to business majors.

In one of the book's few bright spots, students who majored in one of the liberal arts, such as philosophy, economics, chemistry, biology, and languages, did experience "significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study."

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Why are so many students seemingly sleepwalking through school? Because they can. The authors argued that among the culprits is an educational system that doesn't expect much from its undergraduates. Many students can graduate from college without spending much time reading or writing. According to the researchers, 37 percent of students reported spending fewer than five hours a week on homework!

Faculty and institutional priorities are another problem. Professors are rewarded for their research and not for their teaching skills. Tenure, pay, and awards are typically linked to research grants and published papers, not on whether professors can make organic chemistry understandable to a lecture hall full of 20-year-olds. Too often professors mistakenly think that everything must be hunky dory if they get good teacher evaluations at the end of each semester.

What can be done to turn things around? Here's one simple suggestion from the authors: require more of students. In the study, students learned more if they had to read more than 40 pages a week and write in excess of 20 pages during a semester. These students also studied two additional hours a week than students who had easier professors.

In recent years, a great deal of focus and angst has been on making college more accessible for Americans. That's a noble goal, but I think just as important is making sure that students in college actually learn enough to make their degrees meaningful.