An excerpt from
Limited Learning on College Campuses
Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa
A Mandate for Reform
“With regard to the quality of research, we tend to evaluate faculty the way the Michelin guide evaluates restaurants,” Lee Shulman, former president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, recently noted. “We ask, ‘How high is the quality of this cuisine relative to the genre of food? How excellent is it?’ With regard to teaching, the evaluation is done more in the style of the Board of Health. The question is, ‘Is it safe to eat here?’” Our research suggests that for many students currently enrolled in higher education, the answer is: not particularly. Growing numbers of students are sent to college at increasingly higher costs, but for a large proportion of them the gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication are either exceedingly small or empirically nonexistent. At least 45 percent of students in our sample did not demonstrate any statistically significant improvement in CLA performance during the first two years of college. While these students may have developed subject-specific skills that were not tested for by the CLA, in terms of general analytical competencies assessed, large numbers of U.S. college students can be accurately described as academically adrift. They might graduate, but they are failing to develop the higher-order cognitive skills that it is widely assumed college students should master. These findings are sobering and should be a cause for concern.
While higher education is expected to accomplish many tasks—and contemporary colleges and universities have indeed contributed to society in ways as diverse as producing pharmaceutical patents as well as primetime athletic bowls—existing organizational cultures and practices too often do not prioritize undergraduate learning. Faculty and administrators, working to meet multiple and at times competing demands, too rarely focus on either improving instruction or demonstrating gains in student learning. More troubling still, the limited learning we have observed in terms of the absence of growth in CLA performance is largely consistent with the accounts of many students, who report that they spend increasing numbers of hours on nonacademic activities, including working, rather than on studying. They enroll in courses that do not require substantial reading or writing assignments; they interact with their professors outside of classrooms rarely, if ever; and they define and understand their college experiences as being focused more on social than on academic development. Moreover, we find that learning in higher education is characterized by persistent and / or growing inequality. There are significant differences in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills when comparing groups of students from different family backgrounds and racial / ethnic groups. More important, not only do students enter college with unequal demonstrated abilities, but their inequalities tend to persist—or, in the case of African-American students relative to white students, increase—while they are enrolled in higher education.
Despite the low average levels of learning and persistent inequality, we have also observed notable variation in student experiences and outcomes both across and within institutions. While the average level of performance indicates that students in general are often embedded in higher-education institutions where only very modest academic demands are placed on them, exceptional students, who have demonstrated impressive growth over time on CLA performance, exist in all the settings we examined. In addition, students attending certain high-performing institutions had more beneficial college experiences in terms of experiencing rigorous reading / writing requirements and spending greater numbers of hours studying. Students attending these institutions demonstrated significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills over time than students enrolled elsewhere.
The Implications of Limited Learning
Notwithstanding the variation and positive experiences in certain contexts, the prevalence of limited learning on today’s college campuses is troubling indeed. While historian Helen Horowitz’s work reminds us that the phenomenon of limited learning in higher education has a long and venerable tradition in this country—in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, for example, “college discipline conflicted with the genteel upbringing of the elite sons of Southern gentry and Northern merchants”—this outcome today occurs in a fundamentally different context. Contemporary college graduates generally do not leave school with the assumption that they will ultimately inherit the plantations or businesses of their fathers. Occupational destinations in modern economies are increasingly dependent on an individual’s academic achievements. The attainment of long-term occupational success in the economy requires not only academic credentials, but likely also academic skills. As report after national blue-ribbon report has reminded us, today’s jobs require “knowledge, learning, information, and skilled-intelligence.” These are cognitive abilities that, unlike Herrnstein and Murray’s immutable IQ construct, can be learned and developed at school.
Something else has also changed. After World War II, the United States dramatically expanded its higher-education system and led the world for decades in the percentage of young people it graduated from college, often by a wide margin. Over the past two decades, while the U.S. higher education system has grown only marginally, the rest of the world has not been standing still. As Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Higher Education and Public Policy, has observed: “In the 1990s, however, as the importance of a college-educated workforce in a global economy became clear, other nations began making the kinds of dramatic gains that had characterized American higher education earlier. In contrast, by the early 1990s, the progress the United States had made in increasing college participation had come to a virtual halt. For most of the 1990s, the United States ranked last among 14 nations in raising college participation rates, with almost no increase during the decade.”
For the first time in recent history, many countries today graduate higher percentages of their youth from college than does the United States. While the United States still ranks second of Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in terms of adult workers’ bachelor-level degree attainment, it has dropped to sixth when higher-education attainment of only the most recent cohort of young adults is considered. “We may still have more than our share of the world’s best universities. But a lot of other countries have followed our lead, and they are now educating more of their citizens to more advanced levels than we are,” the recent federal report A Test of Leadership observed. “Worse, they are passing us by at a time when education is more important to our collective prosperity than ever.”
The U.S. higher-education system has in recent years arguably been living off its reputation as being the best in the world. The findings in our study, however, should remind us that the system’s international reputation—largely derived from graduate programs at a handful of elite public and private universities—serves as no guarantee that undergraduate students are being appropriately challenged or exposed to educational experiences that will lead to academic growth throughout the wide range of diverse U.S. colleges and universities. While the U.S. higher-education system still enjoys the competitive advantage of a sterling international reputation, in recent decades it has been increasingly surpassed in terms of quantity (i.e., the percentage of young adults it graduates), and its quality is coming under increasing scrutiny. The U.S. government’s recent decision to participate in current international efforts led by the OECD to measure higher-education academic performance on a comparative basis cross-nationally, following the less-than-stellar comparative results observed in international comparisons of adult literacy, provides little reassurance that the system’s reputation will not become increasingly challenged and debated. In an increasingly globalized and competitive world system, the quality and quantity of outcomes of a country’s education system are arguably related to a nation’s future trajectory and international economic position.
The changing economic and global context facing contemporary college graduates convinces us that the limited learning that exists on U.S. campuses—even if it has been a part of the higher-education landscape since the system’s inception—qualifies today as a significant social problem and should be a subject of concern of policymakers, practitioners, parents, and citizens alike. While the phenomenon can accurately be described as a social problem, the situation that exists on today’s college campuses in no way qualifies as a crisis, and we have consciously avoided the use of rhetoric here that would point to “a crisis in higher education.”
Limited learning in the U.S. higher education system cannot be defined as a crisis because institutional and system-level organizational survival is not being threatened in any significant way. Parents—although somewhat disgruntled about increasing costs—want colleges to provide a safe environment where their children can mature, gain independence, and attain credentials that will help them be successful as adults. Students in general seek to enjoy the benefits of a full collegiate experience that is focused as much on social life as on academic pursuits, while earning high marks in their courses with relatively little investment of effort. Professors are eager to find time to concentrate on their scholarship and professional interests. Administrators have been asked to focus largely on external institutional rankings and the financial bottom line. Government funding agencies are primarily interested in the development of new scientific knowledge. In short, the system works. No actors in the system are primarily interested in undergraduate student academic growth, although many are interested in student retention and persistence. Limited learning on college campuses is not a crisis because the institutional actors implicated in the system are receiving the organizational outcomes that they seek, and therefore neither the institutions themselves nor the system as a whole is in any way challenged or threatened.
While in the long term this country’s global competitiveness is likely weakened by a white-collar workforce that is not uniformly trained at a rigorous level, colleges where limited academic learning occurs in the short term can still fulfill their primary social functions: students are allocated to occupational positions based on their credentials, not their skills; students are provided settings where they can experiment with new forms of social behavior and develop independent identities; and, as we have shown elsewhere, students’ subsequent marital choices can in part be structured by their college pedigrees. situation that exists in U.S. elementary and secondary schools, where a “crisis in moral authority” has prevented many public schools from socializing youth effectively and has “undermined public school legitimacy, eroded popular support necessary for maintenance and expansion of these institutions, stimulated political challenges and the growth of competitive organizations, and thus [has] come to threaten public school organizational survival in many state and local settings.”11 Socialization of elementary and secondary school students is a core institutional function, but academic learning at colleges unfortunately has not been recognized as such.…
Reaching for the Moon
While limited learning in higher education is indeed cause for concern, it will probably not be easily or quickly remedied without some form of exogenous shock to the system. Social scientists have no particular expertise in predicting the particular form and timing of such an occurrence. We are familiar enough with U.S. history, however, to know that these shocks do periodically transpire. The Sputnik launch in 1957, for example, led within a year to legislation that significantly increased federal support for education and provided increased attention to science and mathematics instruction in particular. A few years later, President John F. Kennedy would pick a university setting to proclaim that the United States would send an astronaut to the moon within a decade. Many said such a goal could never be attained.
Standing in the way of significant reform efforts are, of course, a set of entrenched organizational interests and deeply ingrained institutional practices. While the lack of undergraduate academic learning has generated increased hand-wringing in various quarters, efforts to address the problem have been feeble and ineffective to date. A primary reason is that undergraduate learning is peripheral to the concerns of the vast majority of those involved with the higher-education system. Limited learning is in no way perceived as a formidable crisis that threatens the survival of organizational actors, institutions, or the system as a whole. We believe that students, parents, faculty, and administrators are not overly concerned with the lack of academic learning currently occurring in colleges and universities, as long as other organizational outcomes more important to them are being achieved.
The dissatisfaction of corporate leaders in the private sector with the quality of U.S. undergraduate education has, however, become palpable as they claim that “the current state of affairs is unacceptable” and that “many of the skills and abilities they seek can—and should—be taught on campus.” More than 90 percent of employers rate written communication, critical thinking, and problem solving as “very important” for the job success of new labor market entrants. At the same time, they note that only a small proportion of four-year college graduates excel in these skills: 16 percent excel in written communication and 28 percent in critical thinking / problem solving. In another recent survey, commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, employers rated only 26 percent of college graduates as being very well prepared in writing, and 22 percent as being very well prepared to think critically.
While employers might lament the capacities that current college graduates bring to the workplace, industry has already largely adapted by turning to graduate schools and foreign sources of labor to fill positions that require sophisticated technical expertise, and it has often relegated U.S. college graduates to routine nonmanual occupations within firms. And while those who are committed to promoting a democratic citizenry might bemoan the consequences of limited learning on the public’s ability to reflect critically on contemporary political issues, critical thinking and complex reasoning capacities are of little use if future citizens are largely disengaged and tuned out from societal events altogether. The extent of disengagement in young adults today is highlighted by recent findings that suggest that of individuals aged eighteen to twenty-four—many of whom are enrolled in higher-education institutions—only 24 percent report that they even read a print or on-line version of a newspaper, while 34 percent admit that on a typical day they receive no news from any source.
The increases in cognitive disengagement from societal events and in the institutional marginalization of undergraduate learning should remind us that solutions to the problem of limited learning will require not only technical fixes but also a recommitment to recognizing that providing future college students moral imperative. Federal incentives to alter individual and institutional incentives will not likely prove sufficient to change educational practices without more fundamental change to college and university organizational cultures. Historians remind us that higher-education institutions initially were created largely to achieve moral ends. A renewed commitment to improving undergraduate education is unlikely to occur without changes to the organizational cultures of colleges and universities that reestablish the institutional primacy of these functions—instilling in the next generation of young adults a lifelong love of learning, an ability to think critically and communicate effectively, and a willingness to embrace and assume adult responsibilities. Although our higher-education institutions currently are academically adrift, they can commit to a change of course that will reconnect them with their earlier design and functions. We should choose paths of purpose such as these, as Kennedy reminded us when he exhorted us to reach for the moon, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”