Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Report: First Two Years of College Show Small Academic Gains

A fascinating book highlighted in today's USA Today - Academically Adrift - Limited Learning on College Campuses - which puts another strike in the U.S. education system.  Even more troubling it is in the one part of the domestic education system that is still supposedly world class (universities).  The sampling is only 3000 students, but if it is any indication of what is happening at a broader level this is another argument to shelve the whole idea of going to university, taking on mountains of debt, only to emerge not much better educated and with a mini mortgage to take care of, while many of the job opportunities one once had now either pay less.... or are in Bangalore or Beijing.   [Dec 21, 2010: Video - CNBC, the Price of Admission - America's College Debt Crisis]  Maybe this should not come as a surprise, because the 'dumbing down' of education to make sure almost anyone with a heartbeat passes in K-12 (can't hurt any kid's self esteem after all), has to bleed into the college system at some point.  Maybe not the Yales, Stanford, et al set but certainly it seems to have taken root lower down the food chain.

So if half the students gain almost no knowledge after 2 years, and 1/3rd none after 4 years - what exactly are they paying these immense fees (who inflate at rate that makes healthcare look a bargain) for again?  I continue to believe we are fast approaching the point the ROI (Return on Investment) of college is going to be an open question. [Dec 14, 2008: WSJ - K-12 Schools Slashing Costs, College Bills Wallup Families] [Dec 5, 2008: NYT - College May Become Unaffordable for Most in US]   But for many colleges it is about having warm bodies (who pay money, borrowed or otherwise) in seats.  Everything else is just details.  Yet another part of society where your incentives our broken.
  • The culture of college needs to evolve, particularly with regard to "perverse institutional incentives" that reward colleges for enrolling and retaining students rather than for educating them. "It's a problem when higher education is driven by a student client model and institutions are chasing after bodies," he said.

Random pathetic statistic: according to the study the average college kid spends 50% less time doing somewhat important things like... well studying, than her peer from a few decades ago.

Anyhow, no worries - I am told the Federal Reserve can fix any problem with more quantitative easing. 

Via USA Today:
  • Nearly half of the nation's undergraduates show almost no gains in learning in their first two years of college, in large part because colleges don't make academics a priority, a new report shows.  (uhhh?)
  • Instructors tend to be more focused on their own faculty research than teaching younger students, who in turn are more tuned in to their social lives, according to the report, based on a book titled Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses
  • Findings are based on transcripts and surveys of more than 3,000 full-time traditional-age students on 29 campuses nationwide, along with their results on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test that gauges students' critical thinking, analytic reasoning and writing skills.
  • The universities are not identified — the authors only say they represent “a wide range” of the nation’s approximately 2,000 four-year institutions. 
  • After two years in college, 45% of students showed no significant gains in learning; after four years, 36% showed little change
  • Students also spent 50% less time studying compared with students a few decades ago, the research shows.
  • "These are really kind of shocking, disturbing numbers," says New York University professor Richard Arum, lead author of the book, published by the University of Chicago Press.  He noted that students in the study, on average, earned a 3.2 grade-point average. "Students are able to navigate through the system quite well with little effort," Arum said.  (calls into question what a 3.2 GPA in the 'average college' is really demonstrating)
  • 35% of students report spending five or fewer hours per week studying alone. Yet, despite an "ever-growing emphasis" on study groups and collaborative projects, students who study in groups tend to have lower gains in learning.
  • 50% said they never took a class in a typical semester where they wrote more than 20 pages; 32% never took a course in a typical semester where they read more than 40 pages per week.

Much more on this in a story on the 'Inside Higher Ed' website
  • Those students who do show improvements tend to show only modest improvements. Students improved on average only 0.18 standard deviations over the first two years of college and 0.47 over four years. What this means is that a student who entered college in the 50th percentile of students in his or her cohort would move up to the 68th percentile four years later -- but that's the 68th percentile of a new group of freshmen who haven't experienced any college learning.
  • "How much are students actually learning in contemporary higher education? The answer for many undergraduates, we have concluded, is not much," write the authors, Richard Arum, professor of sociology and education at New York University, and Josipa Roksa, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. For many undergraduates, they write, "drifting through college without a clear sense of purpose is readily apparent."
  • The main culprit for lack of academic progress of students, according to the authors, is a lack of rigor
  • ....the book acknowledges that many college educators and students don't yet see a crisis, given that students can enroll, earn good grades for four years, and graduate -- very much enjoying themselves in the process. But in an era when "the world has become unforgiving" to those who don't work hard or know how to think, Arum said that this may be a time to consider real change.

Bottom line - we seem to be deluding ourselves by creating systems that create a facade.  However, in an increasingly globally competitive environment, this self delusional mirage is becoming increasingly useless.  But at least we are graduating college educated baristas with high GPAs....and self confidence!

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