Jim beat me to blogging this, but I have a slightly different take from the one he had. The Chronicle of Higher Education characterizes the new book Academically Adrift as a “damning indictment of the American higher-education system.” The headline finding? “[M]ore than a third of American college seniors are no better at crucial types of writing and reasoning tasks than they were in their first semester of college.” The finding is based on a survey of a sample of college students who were tested on entering college and again in their second and fourth years.
That finding, shocking as it ought to be, does not actually surprise me very much. In my classes, despite my best efforts, I have always observed that a nontrivial fraction of students seems to be interested only in doing the minimum necessary to pass the class and get the degree. However, what I thought was more interesting about the study was what they found to correlate with learning.
The largest observed learning is found in students who say that their professors had “high academic standards.” Also, students at more selective colleges and who did more writing and reading in their classes did better. Finally, students in traditional arts and sciences majors improved more than students in nontraditional majors. The authors note that academic rigor is declining at American universities. One of the authors told NPR his explanation, with which I strongly agree: “There’s a huge incentive set up in the system [for] asking students very little, grading them easily, entertaining them, and your course evaluations will be high,” Arum says.
Overall, the results vindicate the liberal arts model of college education. My own experience as an undergraduate at a highly selective liberal arts college and a graduate student and lecturer at an Ivy League university leads me to believe that the quality of education that undergraduates receive is higher at one of the top liberal arts colleges than at the Ivies – although the extracurricular and service opportunities at the Ivies are unparalleled. (Let alone most state universities, of course.)
To restore academic rigor at American universities, step one has to be the abolition of all the gimmicky, substandard majors: “communication,” “business,” “hotel management,” etc. I would even argue against teaching subjects like accounting and engineering as majors at the undergraduate level. If you want to be an accountant or engineer, you should do an internship or an apprenticeship or take classes at a technical school, possibly after having done a B.A. in a related discipline like economics or physics.
Step two is to restore teaching as the primary role of the professor at undergraduate universities. This would be a total revolution, one that faculty at most places will strongly resist. But if we want to have government subsidize basic research, then we need to separate that research from undergraduate education, freeing the best researchers from undergraduate teaching responsibilities altogether. Right now we have the top researchers doing indifferent lecturing and outsourcing the interaction with their students to teaching assistants – even in the Ivy League schools. There are plenty of academics who are extremely smart and follow the latest research, who would happily see teaching as their primary responsibility if our tenure standards were different.
These changes are not going to happen until voters demand them. The faculty won’t demand them – their prestige, for many of them, requires contempt for undergraduate teaching. The students won’t demand them – most of them don’t know what’s good for them, as the evaluations problem indicates. The only solution, it seems to me, is for businesses, who have to hire substandard workers who can’t reason or write, to undertake a massive policy campaign for radical reform of American university education.
American universities remain the cream of the global crop, unlike our K-12 system. But as Academically Adrift discovers, the continuation of that supremacy is increasingly uncertain.
UPDATE: My U at Buffalo colleague Phil Arena asks a good question about AA‘s findings: are colleges increasingly failing to teach, or have they simply lowered admissions standards substantially? No one disagrees that college admissions standards have fallen quite a bit since the 1970s. Now, are these new students in college less capable of learning? One might think the opposite: that students who learn less in high school and would not have gotten into college in earlier days might be more susceptible to the intervention effects of college – sort of like how poor countries grow faster than rich ones, all else equal. But all else isn’t equal, and it seems to me that students who learn less in high school are also likely to learn less in college, because the amount of learning one achieves at both levels has more to do with effort than native intelligence. Of course, falling admissions standards probably have a lot to do with the introduction of “easy-A” nontraditional majors as well.