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The Most Important Higher Education Study in Years - "Trust Us" won't cut it anymore

CJ Westerberg, January 20, 2011 5:46 PM


Update:  1/27/10  Ekman Responds via Washington Post

(Editor's Note:   Kevin Carey, policy director from Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington, D.C., has recently written two posts about a breaking story connected with a new study and book, Academically Adrift, about whether students are learning at the college and university level commensurate with expectations.   The first, which The Daily Riff is re-posting in its entirety below, is from the Ed Sector blog, The Quick and the Ed.  We are also including an excerpt from Carey's commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education, viewed in indented italics, along with more links at end of this post.)

"Trust Us" Won't Cut It Anymore
-Kevin Carey

The Most Important Higher Education Study in Years

by Kevin Carey

That would be Academically Adrift, by NYU sociologist Richard Arum and his colleague
Josipa Roksa, released today. The study measured 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 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."

For a more detailed explanation of the findings and my take on what they say about accountability, affirmative action, the Obama higher education agenda, and why this
doesn't mean that fewer students should go to college, read my Chronicle of Higher
column(Ed. Note: Excerpt in italics below).

'Trust Us' Won't Cut It Anymore

"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.

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 . . .

(Ed Sector post continued . . .) 
There's a lot more to talk about beyond that and it'll take several blog posts to cover the ground, but here are some additional thoughts to start:

First, while you can download a summary of the findings here, you really ought to read the whole book. I don't say this lightly - in fact, I think you'll find few if any academic book recommendations on this blog. But if you're interested in higher education research, or if
you're a policy generalist who likes to keep up with education along with many other topics, Academically Adrift is a marvelously concise and well-reasoned synthesis of the authors' groundbreaking research, the larger policy context, and the extant literature. Read it and
you'll be a smarter person.

Second, this is the next frontier of education policy. For decades the public conversation
has focused exclusively on higher education access, getting more students into college
with enough money in their pocket to pay for it. The last five to 10 years have seen that
agenda extended to include higher education attainment - getting students through
college to a degree. What very few people have written, studied, or talked about is higher education learning - because learning was always assumed. Well, assume no more.
As the few other studies on the topic indicate - this and this most prominently - a significant number of students appear to be learning little or nothing in college. This should profoundly change the assumptions on which higher education policy is based.

Third, it's appalling that it took this long for someone to design and execute a straightforward study of college student learning. We have decades of such research in K-12 education,
which receives a hugely disproportionate share of research dollars. There should be 10
more studies using different instruments and methods to enrich and challenge Arum and RoksaĆ­'s findings. Funding such research should be a major priority for the Department of Education.

Fourth, "limited or no learning for a large proportion of students"? What the hell? Students
are spending and borrowing massive sums of money for those degrees. Huge parts of our economy depend on them. Taxpayers are shelling out hundreds of billions of dollars per
year to support them. This seems like the epic fail to end them all.

More to come.


New Book Lays Failure to Learn on Colleges' Doorsteps - Chronicle of Higher Education 
Are Undergraduates Actually Learning Anything?  Chronicle of Higher Education

Does College Make You Smarter?  The New York Times - Opinion

Related posts The Daily Riff:
Seven Reasons to Say No To College To Your Kids
Best-selling Author Seth Godin Slams the System - "Getting Into College Is A Joke"
The Expectations Trap - The Parent- Student Dis-connect

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