Just in time to capture the attention of graduating seniors, and their parents, who are wondering about the value they received for the hundreds of thousands of dollars paid in tuition, an Op-Ed in last Sunday’s New York Times asks this question: Why is the overall quality of undergraduate learning so poor? The authors, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, studied the academic progress of “of several thousand students in more than two dozen diverse four-year colleges and universities” over four years, finding “that large numbers of the students were making their way through college with minimal exposure to rigorous coursework, only a modest investment of effort and little or no meaningful improvement in skills like writing and reasoning.” They report that
[i]n a typical semester, for instance, 32 percent of the students did not take a single course with more than 40 pages of reading per week, and 50 percent did not take any course requiring more than 20 pages of writing over the semester. The average student spent only about 12 to 13 hours per week studying — about half the time a full-time college student in 1960 spent studying . . . Not surprisingly, a large number of the students showed no significant progress on tests of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing that were administered when they began college and then again at the ends of their sophomore and senior years. If the test [ ] used, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, were scaled on a traditional 0-to-100 point range, 45 percent of the students would not have demonstrated gains of even one point over the first two years of college, and 36 percent would not have shown such gains over four years of college.
Sorry results indeed. The authors point to various possible causes–students taught by “fewer full-time tenured faculty members”–in other words, they are taught by people like me–, increased investments in creature comforts such as “deluxe dormitory rooms, elaborate student centers and expensive gyms”–e.g. StuV, StuV II, and FitRec–and a “larger cultural change in the relationship between students and colleges.” In other words, students are consumers and a college education is a fee-for-services transaction. The authors’ proposed solutions include assessing teaching performance by means other than student course evaluations, which “create perverse incentives for professors to demand little and give out good grades,” reducing focus on rankings, and “parents and students on college tours . . . ignor[ing] institutional facades and focus[ing] on educational substance.”