'Trust Us' Won't Cut It Anymore

January 18, 2011

"Trust us."

That's the only answer colleges ever provide when asked how much their students learn.

Sure, they acknowledge, it's hard for students to find out what material individual courses will cover. So most students choose their courses based on a paragraph in the catalog and whatever secondhand information they can gather.

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No, there's isn't an independent evaluation process. No standardized tests, no external audits, no publicly available learning evidence of any kind.

Yes, there's been grade inflation. A-minus is the new C. Granted, faculty have every incentive to neglect their teaching duties while chasing tenure—if they're lucky enough to be in the chase at all. Meanwhile the steady adjunctification of the professoriate proceeds.

Still, "trust us," they say: Everyone who walks across our graduation stage has completed a rigorous course of study. We don't need to systematically evaluate student learning. Indeed, that would violate the academic freedom of our highly trained faculty, each of whom embodies the proud scholarly traditions of this venerable institution.

Now we know that those are lies.

Richard Arum, a professor of sociology and education at New York University, and Josipa Roksa, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, recently completed a study of how much 2,300 statistically representative undergraduates—who enrolled as freshmen in a diverse group of 24 colleges and universities in 2005—had learned by the time they (in theory) were ready to graduate, in 2009. As a measuring tool, the researchers used the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a respected test of analytic reasoning, critical thinking, and written communication skills. Their findings were published this month in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press) and in an accompanying white paper. It is, remarkably, the first study of its kind.

Their finding? Forty-five percent of students made no gains on the CLA during their first two years in college. Thirty-six percent made no gains over the entire four years. They learned nothing. On average, students improved by less than half a standard deviation in four years. "American higher education," the researchers found, "is characterized by limited or no learning for a large proportion of students."

The results for black students were particularly sobering. It turns out that the racial achievement gaps that shock the conscience in K-12 education get worse when students go to college. Those who see affirmative action as the defining issue for minority-student opportunity should look again. The biggest injustice falls on the majority of black students, who attend nonselective colleges—and thus don't engage with affirmative action—and all too often fail to learn.

Critics like Charles Murray will probably say those students should not have gone to college in the first place. But that would amount to condemning them for the failures of their institutions, because the study found that how much students learn has a lot do with how much colleges ask them to work. After controlling for demographics, parental education, SAT scores, and myriad other factors, students who were assigned more books to read and more papers to write learned more. Students who spent more hours studying alone learned more. Students taught by approachable faculty who enforced high expectations learned more. "What students do in higher education matters," the authors note. "But what faculty members do matters too."

The study also found significant differences by field of study. Students majoring in the humanities, social sciences, hard sciences, and math—again, controlling for their background—did relatively well. Students majoring in business, education, and social work did not. Our future teachers aren't learning much in college, apparently, which goes a long way toward explaining why students arrive in college unprepared in the first place.

Financial aid also matters. The study found that students whose financial aid came primarily in the form of grants learned more than those who were paying mostly with loans. Debt burdens can be psychological and temporal as well as financial, with students substituting work for education in order to manage their future obligations. Learning was also negatively correlated with­—surprise—time spent in fraternities and sororities.

Some will question whether learning can be fairly measured with a standardized test. But the Collegiate Learning Assessment has been validated by numerous independent studies. The fact that the results are sensitive to academic and curricular rigor tells us that the instrument measures more than just innate aptitude. Students who are asked to work harder learn more than similar students who are not.

Others might argue that students gain specific knowledge in the disciplines not picked up by the CLA. But as college leaders constantly emphasize, the most important part of higher education is learning how to think, not accumulating facts and figures. In any event, I'm sure those who disagree with Academically Adrift's findings will provide counterevidence that meets the high standards of scholarship and empiricism embodied by their own institutions of higher learning.

The study makes clear that there are two kinds of college students in America. A minority of them start with a good high-school education and attend colleges that challenge them with hard work. They learn some things worth knowing. The rest—most college students—start underprepared, and go to colleges that ask little of them and provide little in return. Their learning gains are minimal or nonexistent. Among them, those with a reasonable facility for getting out of bed in the morning and navigating a bureaucracy receive a credential that falsely certifies learning. Others don't get even that.

Consider too that the study measured the growth of only those students who were still in college two and four years later. The all-too-common dropouts weren't included. It's a fair bet their results were even worse.

Who is hurt the most by all this? Students saddled with thousands of dollars in debt and no valuable skills, certainly. Even worse, workers who never went to college in the first place, languishing in their careers for lack of a college credential. To them, the higher-education system must seem like a gigantic confidence game, with students and colleges conspiring to produce hollow degrees that nonetheless define the boundaries of opportunity.

This study should be a wake-up call for the Obama administration. The president's goal of substantially increasing college completion by 2020 is admirable. But the students on the margins of college completion are much more likely to fall into the danger zone of poor preparation, low admissions selectivity, and lack of academic rigor. New federal policies need to ensure that they don't just earn a degree, but actually learn something along the way.

Fortunately, the way forward is clear. The students who learned the most in the study came from all manner of academic backgrounds. Nobody is doomed to failure.

Colleges can start by renewing their commitment to the liberal arts. Let's be honest—a lot of students are majoring in business simply because they plan to get jobs in businesses and need a degree of some kind to do it. Making college less vocational will actually help more students learn the skills they need to succeed in their careers.

The study suggests that we have overcomplicated the practice of higher education. It comes down to what it always has—deep engagement with complex ideas and texts, difficult and often solitary study, the discipline to write, revise, and write again. What students need most aren't additional social opportunities and elaborate services. They need professors who assign a lot of reading and writing. Professors, in turn, need a structure of compensation and prestige that rewards a commitment to teaching. Some object that today's hedonist undergraduates won't do the work. But the research suggests otherwise. Colleges are responsible for taking the first step toward reaching a newer, higher equilibrium of mutual expectations.

Federal and state lawmakers should stop providing hundreds of billions of dollars in annual subsidies based purely on enrollment, and should start holding colleges accountable for learning. Lawmakers also need to shore up crumbling budgets, restrain college prices, and mitigate higher education's growing dependence on debt.

Deep down, everyone knows that learning has long been neglected. But they don't want to know. Policy makers who have poured gigantic sums of money into financial-aid programs designed to get people into college don't want to know that many of the graduates, leaving with degrees in hand, didn't learn anything. College presidents don't want to know, because fixing the problem means arguing with faculty. Faculty don't want to know, because it would expose the weakness of their teaching and take time from research. Students don't want to know, because they'd have to work harder, and it would undermine the value of their credentials.

It has been a conspiracy of convenience. This study should bring the "trust us" era of American higher education to a close.

Kevin Carey is policy director of Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington.