Is Learning Still the Priority at Universities?

Yes, there is a dark side to higher education.

We glimpse it when we see things like poor graduation rates, high student loan debts, low placement rates for graduates, alcohol-related issues, and more. Now comes a new and controversial research study that says many students don’t learn much at universities.

“Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa tracked more than 2,000 students who entered 24 four-year colleges in the fall of 2005. The study does not name the 24 colleges, but reports say they include large public flagship institutions, highly selective liberal-arts colleges, and historically black and Hispanic-serving colleges and universities from all sections of the country.

The study found that “45 percent of students in our sample did not demonstrate any statistically significant improvement in Collegiate Learning Assessment performance during the first two years of college.” After four years “36 percent of students did not show any significant improvement.”

The main research instrument, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, evaluates a student’s ability to “think critically, reason analytically, solve problems and communicate clearly and cogently.”

These findings echo what many Mississippi businesses already know. It shows up in the hiring process with incorrectly filled out applications, poorly written resumes, and weak communications skills during interviews.

It shows up again in workforce assessments such as the Career Readiness Certificate (CRC) assessment that measures individuals’ ability to read for information, apply mathematics to work-related problems, and locate information using information from diagrams, floor plans, tables, forms, graphs and charts.

A “silver level” CRC shows individuals “ready” for 60% of jobs available in Mississippi. Too many university graduates do not score at the silver level.

We considered undergraduate student performance during my tenure on the College Board. Research indicated the need to give rising juniors a standardized exam to assess readiness for coursework at the junior level. It would have been given to university undergraduates as well as community college transfer students. It would have helped identify the classes and instructors used by students to avoid academic rigor and real learning. Neither university nor community college presidents liked the idea so it went nowhere.

Ironically, most universities require standardized tests like the Graduate Record Exam to assess readiness for post-graduate school.

Hmmm. Most graduates go directly into the workforce. So, apparently, it’s okay for many of them to be not-so-well educated, but don’t let any of those into grad school? Something seems out of kilter with this approach.

The emphasis among universities has been to attract and retain students by providing social, recreational, intercollegiate sports, and other extracurricular activities. The study by Arum and Roksa suggests the emphasis should swing back toward rigorous academics.

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