A new book released today, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, is already creating quite a stir with its finding that an astounding 45 percent of students learn little in the first two years of college, as measured by progress on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA). But the research, by New York University’s Richard Arum and the University of Virginia’s Josipa Roksa, also sheds important light on the perennial debate about whether it matters if one attends a more selective or less selective college.
Past research on the potential advantages of attending selective and wealthy colleges and universities has focused on inputs (spending per pupil) or long-term outputs (the degree to which attendance increases adult earnings.) My reading of the best evidence is that attending a more selective institution provides substantial advantages, which should intensify our concern about the fact that low-income students are largely shut out.
But until today, most research had not addressed another vital issue: do students at selective institutions learn more as well? In a small report accompanying Academically Adrift, entitled Improving Undergraduate Learning, Arum, Roksa and coauthor Esther Cho of the Social Science Research Council, conclude that while student learning varies a great deal at all institutions, on average more learning goes on at selective colleges and universities.
Controlling for a range of individual student characteristics, including academic preparation, the authors find that students at selective colleges make stronger gains on the CLA—which measures critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills—than those at less selective institutions. Selective institutions are defined as those in which students at the 25th percentile have a combined math and verbal SAT score above 1150, and less selective are those in which students at the 25th percentile have a combined score below 950.
Why do students at selective colleges learn more even after controlling for individual student characteristics? The study highlights several possible reasons:
- Peers. The authors write that “Being surrounded by peers who are well prepared for college-level work is likely to shape the climate of the institution as well as specific student experiences. Having high-performing students in the classroom can help improve achievement of all students, including those who have accumulated fewer skills before college.” In particular, the study found that peers in highly selective institutions reported “significantly higher” aspirations than those in less selective colleges.
- Course work rigor and expectations. Students in selective institutions are held to higher expectations of performing substantial work. For example, 71 percent of students at highly selective colleges were required to do at least 20 pages of writing in at least one course the prior semester, compared with 39 percent of students at the less selective colleges. Likewise, 92 percent of students at highly selective institutions reported at least one course requiring more than 40 pages of reading per week, compared with 56 percent at the less selective colleges.
- Faculty Interaction. Students at selective institutions were more likely to interact with faculty members. At highly selective colleges, only 2 percent of students reported having no contact with faculty outside of the classroom in the previous semester compared with 13 percentage of students at less selective colleges.
Other portions of the study found that students made larger gains on the CLA if they majored in traditional liberal arts fields as opposed to business, education, social work or communications.
The study, which followed several thousand students from 2005-2009, adds to the growing body of evidence that selective colleges provide distinct educational advantages. The research deepens our understanding of why stratification within higher education matters, and should add to the intensity of our concern over the fact that at selective institutions—where students learn the most—rich kids outnumber poor kids by 25:1