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What College Kids Are Learning: Not Much

A new study reports that during their first two years in college, half of American students learn virtually nothing. 

Richard Arum, lead author of Academically Adrift:  Limited Learning on College Campuses, finds the research results “shocking.”  Parents who have shelled out thousands and thousands of dollars probably have other words for this news.

Not to worry.  The report also indicates that students earned on average a 3.2 GPA.  Even though the students report only 16% of their time is spent attending classes and studying, they still “average” a little better than B for their efforts. 

Blogger Eric Gorski notes, “The study, an unusually large-scale effort to track student learning over time, College grads comes as the federal government, reformers and others argue that the U.S. must produce more college graduates to remain competitive globally. But if students aren't learning much, that calls into question whether boosting graduation rates will provide that edge.”

In an interview Arum said, “You can’t just get it through osmosis at these institutions.”  But with a 3.2 average GPA one has to wonder.

On the one hand, some blame the colleges for focusing on research rather than teaching and on not requiring much from students.  “I wouldn’t want to create the impression that schools are blind to this,” says Charles Blaich, director of the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium.  I think that’s good to know, despite the fact that the study indicates that even after four years of college students have improved their knowledge and thinking skills only slightly.

On the other hand, you have to wonder if students apply the same effort to the first two years of college that they did to their senior year in high school.  I’m reminded of Jean Twenge’s work Generation Me in which she notes that American students vastly overrate their natural ability to learn even as they flunk out of college.

Some worry that the troubling results of this research will help encourage government legislation similar to NCLB for colleges.  Given the questionable effects of that legislation on our nation’s school children, one can only hope that it isn’t extended to grade 16.

What I would love to see is a similar study done at community colleges.  I would be surprised if the results would be the same, but in the unlikely event that they are, the cost of learning virtually nothing would be far less.



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