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Who Is Responsible for College Learning?

When I enrolled as a freshman at my state’s huge land grant college, I did so along with 7000 other freshman.  “Look around you,” said one of the speakers at orientation.  “One- third of you will be gone by the end of the year.”  Well, I thought, it sure isn’t gonna be me.

I loved everything about the university – the classes and the social life.  Most of all, I loved being away from home and on my own, responsible only for myself.  I would do whatever it took to stay there.  College grads

I met a lot of friends that first year, and we all felt the same way:  there was no way were we going back home to our little Ohio towns for the rest of our lives.  It was up to each of us to sink or swim; the closest thing we got to a life raft was the TA assigned to the 400-student lectures.  Of course, classes were smaller the last two years, but we were also stronger and more self-reliant.

What prompted this trip down memory lane was an article in the Sunday New York Times about the current move to assess how well colleges are educating students and to release that information to the public.  Says David Paris, executive director of the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability, “We used to hear … ‘the value of a college education can’t be measured.’…Now we hear …’Let’s talk about how we can measure.’”  Some would like to see standardized tests given in specific disciplines; others look for demographic indicators like student retention, graduation rates, and class size.  Still others would like to measure improvement in students’ ability to think.  Really.  I’m wondering how that would be measured, and even if it could be, how much responsibility would the university have as opposed to simple student maturation and experience?  And, as Neal E. Armstrong, a vice provost of the University of Texas at Austin notes, “Our freshmen come in with very high aptitude and thinking skills.” 

Of course, the movement to test college students springs from the fecund minds of policy makers to show how well taxpayer money is being spent.  A precursor to that concept was a 2006 commission appointed by Margaret Spellings, the Bush-appointed education secretary.  The commission actually thought that universities should be measured on the “value added basis”; taking into account where the student began academically.  Of course, we all know how easy that is in the K-12 environs.

The movement to make colleges more “accountable” is also in part a response to Academically Adrift:  Limited Learning on College Campuses, published last year.  The book cites data indicating that 45% of college students surveyed did not demonstrate any progress in learning after two years of college, and 36% showed no improvement after four years. It’s difficult for me to comprehend how a student could learn nothing in two years even if he never went to class.  Something else to think about, however, is Jean Twenge’s Generation Me.  The San Diego State professor found in 2004 that 70% of college freshmen studied reported their academic ability to be “above average.”  Twenge suggests that they had been led to believe that the minimal work they had been required to do in high school was satisfactory and that consequently, many were unprepared for the demands of college.

We all know that attitudes towards learning and education are continually evolving, but folks, at some point we need to look at the effort that students put forth.  In K-12 schools, students are evolving; they still need support and plenty of it.  But college?  I have to believe that some of those students who learned nothing in their first two years of college would have been part of the one-third who would have gone home in earlier times.  Standardized testing of college students is the usual lawmaker’s simplistic approach to a complex situation.








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