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Is Our College Students Learning Yet?

Every parent today knows that college will be one of the biggest expenses in their children’s lives—if not the biggest. And the expenses don’t begin and end with tuition, room, board, and books. Today, a profitable industry has sprung up around SAT prep courses, college counselors and the like. Yet the truly surprising thing about this monumental, life-altering expense is how seldom one question is asked: Is it all worth it? How much do students actually learn in college?

Over the past eight years, The University of Texas has tried to answer this question by looking at the results. Their findings are sobering: Apparently, kids aren’t learning all that much. The Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), a SAT-like test which compares students entering colleges from those graduating showed an improvement of only 42 points after four years of education. Other recent studies have backed up these findings. According to one released last year, a full 36 percent of students make essentially no progress in their four years of schooling.

Colleges—and parents—need not despair. There is a silver lining to these findings. As the Washington Post points out, colleges are beginning to be swept up into the accountability and standards maelstrom blowing through primary education. A group of over 500 public schools has already agreed to administer the CLA or a similar test this year and publish their findings, and others are sure to follow in their footsteps. As study after study reveals the gross inadequacies in American higher education, schools are agreeing to use some form of accountability test to measure their performance and determine what needs to be improved.

Colleges will hate this, but employers as well as parents want to know what if anything students learn. A college degree has no intrinsic value: it is a statement by an accredited faculty that a given student has reached a certain degree of proficiency.  Anything that restores some honesty to the degree awarding process and that allows graduates to compete for jobs based on what they have learned rather than how much prestige their alma mater has (currently the Ivy League wastrel often has better job prospects than the serious, hardworking graduate from a state university) is a good and noble thing.

Accountability is coming to a university near you. Possibly sooner than you think.

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  • ms

    My question–Is this non-learning the fault of colleges or students? Do too many students go to college on their parents’ dime planning to spend 4 years goofing off? My son is a freshman at one of the California universities. I admit, he is a bit of a nerd, but every time he comes home he is very excited to tell us about what he is learning. It would be very odd if colleges were teaching nothing in the classes they offer (though I admit that political correctness has taken a toll on serious substance in many courses.) Still, I think a lot of the problem is the party mentality of college students. I’m not sure how colleges can remedy this situation.

  • JKB

    Well, nothing is going to happen until they demolish the English department and build something useful in its place. At the first link above (‘improvement’), the universities response to the poor CLA improvement was an emphasis on writing, only the example given is the students were going to offer their drafts of a protest song. Really, even in the face of failure the university won’t abandon their indoctrination? Or, this from Mary Grabar on the readers developed for freshman composition.

    “Freshman composition class at many colleges is propaganda time, with textbooks conferring early sainthood on President Obama and lavishing attention on writers of the far left–Howard Zinn, Christopher Hedges, Peter Singer and Barbara Ehrenreich, for instance–but rarely on moderates, let alone anyone right of center. Democrats do very well in these books, but Abraham Lincoln–when included–is generally the most recent Republican featured.”

    If the universities aren’t going to offer courses with real emphasis on rhetoric and composition, why are they forcing students to waste their credit hour dollars to keep up worthless departments? It’s a fine scam to have someone pay to be indoctrinated but the gig is up.

  • Luke Lea

    Ivy League admittance has become primarily a proxy for high intelligence, for which employers are no longer allowed to test. And since almost every student accepted graduates, honors are evidence of a certain amount of dedication and/or extra high intelligence.

    The unfortunate thing, in my opinion, is that there are many more qualified students than there are slots in the Ivy League. And since these colleges are in fact elite gateway institutions, the criteria for admittance become in effect the criteria for entrance into the pool from which our governing elites are selected.

    Right now those criteria are heavily biased in favor of a few minorities from a few geographical regions of the United States, leaving many larger groups and more populous regions (including rural areas) seriously under-represented.

    It is for this reason that I would like to see “affirmative action for all” as a way to recruit a governing class that is truly representative of the ethnic and geographical diversity of our country.

    SAT scores and high school records might still be used and “the best and the brightest” might still be selected, except then it would be “the best and the brightest” of every ethnic group and geographic area in rough proportion to their actual numbers.

    It’s not healthy for a democracy — any democracy — to have unrepresentative elites. It results in political, economic, social, and cultural policies which are not in the interests of the population as a whole.

  • EvilBuzzard

    Do they get $$$? That is the only question the modern administrator cares about. The tuitions have gone up 437% between 1985 and 2005.

    Do you believe that the average college graduate was 437% better educated in 2005 than in 1985? If not, than you know how much the typical American college cares about the value of its educational product.

  • Wifman

    As we are thinking about starting to tuition our Universities in Germany, I have recently considered how this could be done in a way that is fair to students.

    And I found a very obvious solution: Give perfect information. Why not have a website, where people can see which course at which university leads to which average income in five year’s time? And how much should you pay for this education at maximum?

    Then you know what you get for your money – and if it is worth it!

    Also, universities will make an extra effort to get their students fit for work.

  • Anthony

    Two thoughts: is it worth it begs the question that schools (higher education) are critical to nation’s future (can Democratic ideals and the existence of the nation as a Republic exist without higher education?); secondly, student learning skills imply content is skill and skill content. That is, academic skills have two components: procedures and contents; mastering both functions generally occurs pre-collegiate and may reflect modest CLA results after 4 years of schooling identified in Quick Take.

  • RAZ

    Is the CLA a test that only tests aptitude like the SATs? If so, why would one expect a student’s apitude (that is, the student’s ability to learn), as opposed to achievement (that is, an improvement in what the student knows), scores to vary by much after graduating college?

  • WigWag

    “Accountability is coming to a university near you. Possibly sooner than you think.” (Via Meadia)

    Professor Mead’s problem is that he always looks in all the wrong places for solutions. When public employee unions do exactly what everyone else in society does, cut the best deal for themselves that they can get, Mead blames greedy unions and dishonest politicians for the fiscal calamity that sometimes results while at the same time he makes the public out to be innocent victims. In case he hasn’t noticed, those “dishonest” politicians were selected in free and fair elections where the voice of the majority won out. The public isn’t a victim; it’s the worst perpetrator of all.

    We see the same dissembling when Via Meadia describes the failures of public schools. Mead lays a good part of the blame at the door step of teachers unions while never pointing out that unionized teachers do a perfectly fine job of educating kids in upper middle class and wealthy suburbs while no one does a good job of educating kids in poor urban environments regardless of whether the teachers in these urban districts are unionized. Mead’s analysis fails because he fails to assign accountability to the one group that actually has a major impact on whether kids are effectively educated; the parents. Then, unbelievably, Mead suggests that the way to improve public education might be to let these same parents who have failed to teach their own kids the importance of discipline, punctuality, inquisitiveness and even manners, exercise more power over the public schools. Talk about a recipe for disaster.

    With this post Mead extends his bizarre thinking to the world of higher education. Of course colleges and universities have become bloated, overpriced bureaucracies but is this why college students aren’t getting a good education? The answer is self-evidently, no. Any student who wants to get a good education at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Bard, the State University of New York, Queensborough Community College or any other private or public institution of higher education has the opportunity to get one. If students at these institutions fail to graduate with a quality educational experience the fault is theirs and theirs alone. Just as Mead fails to hold voters responsible for electing politicians who make bad decisions, and just like he fails to hold parents responsible for providing an educationally enriched home environment for public school aged children, in this post the Professor focuses on the wrong thing yet again. The problem, is not with the colleges and universities, it’s with the students. All of the reform in the world won’t matter if students don’t come to college prepared to embrace the college experience. Eliminating tenure won’t help; creating virtual classrooms won’t help; facilitating more “real-life” learning through internships won’t help and even reducing tuition won’t help. If education is not at the top of the agenda for college students nothing else matters.

    Why is Professor Mead so incapable of holding the true culprits accountable? I suspect that it’s because he’s fallen in love with the narrative that he has created which blames credentialed experts for everything that’s wrong in society while at the same time assigning the role of blameless victim to the populist masses. All of our problems would surely be solved, Professor Mead assures us, if only we would cleave to the wisdom of devout citizens who disdain counterintuitive policies, eschew nuance and reject complicated solutions. Mead clings to his vision of a populist revival the way a little old lady grips her relics in the hope of staving off the scrofula.

    The problems is that because Professor Mead almost always gets it wrong when assigning accountability, the solutions that he proposes are sure to fail.

  • Anthony

    To WigWag’s point: “The public isn’t a victim; it’s the worst perpetrator of all.”

    “Where the Public Goes Wrong” is in whom it accepts in each jurisdiction as plausible candidates – not men of proven knowledge, ability and purpose but men who appeal to various unexamined prejudices: ethnic, religious, national origin, occupational, aesthetic, personal, etc. The public in general are far more responsive to blandishment than to reason. So, Wig Wag’s analysis vis-a-vis outcomes strike at heart of democratic governance (does WigWag imply that we are the victims of our own choices; living in a system that offers wide although not unlimited free choice but unable to choose wisely).

  • Chase

    If employers are upset with the oversupply of lackluster degree holders, why don’t they just have applicants submit GRE scores instead of their degree. Or perhaps they should just ditch the degree requirement and instead give all job seekers an I.Q. test instead. This is already what some large hedge funds do, and I suspect they are satisfied with the quality of their personnel. This would separate the wheat from the chaff without going through four years of expensive higher education that is, according to Professor Mead and others, often inadequate.

  • Jim.


    Bravo! You’re learning about Individual Responsibility! We’ll make a useful thinker out of you yet.

    Now it’s time for you to take the see the next step.

    If the only relevant criterion for success is the motivation for the college student, or the parents of the child in gradeschool, and the credentialed expert isn’t responsible, then the credentialed expert is IRRELEVANT. So, if they are too expensive for the tax base to support, they need to be cut.

    In fact, if they’re irrelevant they should be cut whether they’re expensive or not.

  • Tom Gates

    Wigwag is quite the defender of the 1% and their buffer, the administrative state. Sorry to disappoint Wigwag, public unions have the power only because they are the primary funding device in the northern and western states for the Democratic Party. Higher education is right there with them, hence propanda over climate studies, afirmative action, mid-east studies, etc. Follow the dollar. The military industrial complex that you and your other 60s types railed about is now the “big sucking hole” social complex. There is now a force of us ready to take you on. Face it WigWag you and your ilk are the establishment now. Dr. Mead is at least visionary enough to understand this and point out the dangers.

  • bill phelps

    The SAT is essentially an intelligence test.
    What is the CLA? What does it measure? Was it designed by qualified psycometricians? Is an engineer able to do engineering upon gradation? A historian do history? etc.

  • Richard Treitel

    Once we get to the point where a majority of 20-somethings have a college degree, many employers will probably realize they may as well interview high school graduates, because they’ll be about as smart but will have less debt to pay off and be able to live on lower salaries. Heck, we already here about kids busting their roast beef to get good grades in high school so they can relax and enjoy college. For a modern horror story to this effect, read Doing School by Denise Clark Pope.

    Also +1 to RAZ@9. A student in, say, Chemistry can learn a great deal in four years without their “higher order competencies” (that’s from the CLA web site) needing to change much.

  • Kris

    Jim@11: As the young’uns say: “This.”

  • jaed

    If employers are upset with the oversupply of lackluster degree holders, why don’t they just have applicants submit GRE scores instead of their degree. Or perhaps they should just ditch the degree requirement and instead give all job seekers an I.Q. test instead.

    Not legal under Duke Power Co., I’m afraid. (Strictly speaking, doing so does not violate the law, but it opens the employer to a discrimination suit that the employer will almost certainly lose. If any hedge funds are actually giving IQ tests and using that as a criterion for employment, they’re going to get sued sooner or later on the grounds of disparate impact.)

    Possession of a bachelor’s degree, however, may be used regardless of disparate impact. Which is why employers all use that as a sorting mechanism. Which in turn is a lot of the reason for the inflation of the BA/BS since Duke Power Co. – if it’s the sorting mechanism for every job above the lowest, then everyone must have one, aptitude or no aptitude. It’s why the drumbeat for the last four decades has been “A degree is the key to a middle-class life.”

  • Luke Lea

    “If anything were to happen to the United States, India is the most likely country to replace us as Israel’s natural great power ally.”

    Sorry, but this doesn’t pass the laugh test.

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