• September 5, 2015

New Book Lays Failure to Learn on Colleges' Doorsteps

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A book released today makes a damning indictment of the American higher-education system: For many students, it says, four years of undergraduate classes make little difference in their ability to synthesize knowledge and put complex ideas on paper.

The stark message from the authors of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press) is that more 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 (see excerpt).

The book is already drawing its share of critics, who say the analysis falls short in its assessments of certain teaching and learning methods.

'ACADEMICALLY ADRIFT': Read an Excerpt From the New Book

NEWS ANALYSIS: A Damning Indictment, With Plenty of Critics
CHRONICLE STUDY: At Texas Colleges, Writing Assignments Are Scarce
COMMENTARY: 'Trust Us' Won't Cut It Anymore

"We didn't know what to expect when we began this study," said Richard Arum, a professor of sociology at New York University who is one of the book's two authors. "We didn't walk into this with any axes to grind. But now that we've seen the data, we're very concerned about American higher education and the extent to which undergraduate learning seems to have been neglected."

In the new book, Mr. Arum and his co-author—Josipa Roksa, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia—report on a study that has tracked a nationally representative sample of more than 2,000 students who entered 24 four-year colleges in the fall of 2005. The scholars do not name those 24 institutions, but they say they are geographically and institutionally representative of the full range of American higher education. The sample includes large public flagship institutions, highly selective liberal-arts colleges, and historically black and Hispanic-serving colleges and universities.

Three times in their college careers—in the fall of 2005, the spring of 2007, and the spring of 2009—the students were asked to take the Collegiate Learning Assessment, or CLA, a widely-used essay test that measures reasoning and writing skills. Thirty-six percent of the students saw no statistically significant gains in their CLA scores between their freshman and senior years. (The book itself covers the students only through their sophomore year. The full four-year data are described in a separate report released today by the Social Science Research Council.)

And that is just the beginning of the book's bad news.

The scholars also found that students devote only slightly more than 12 hours per week to studying, on average. That might be in part because their courses simply aren't that demanding: Most students take few courses that demand intensive writing (defined here as 20 or more pages across the semester) or intensive reading (40 or more pages per week). Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa's finding was based on students' self-reports, but a new analysis of Texas syllabi by The Chronicle offers additional evidence of the same point: Business and education majors at public four-year colleges in Texas are typically required to take only a small number of writing-intensive courses.

"What concerns us is not just the levels of student performance," Mr. Arum said, "but that students are reporting that they make such meager investments in studying, and that they have such meager demands placed on them in their courses in terms of reading and writing."

Another finding of the book is that racial and ethnic gaps in CLA scores persist—and even widen, in the case of African-American students—over the course of four years of college. That appears to be partly because African-American students are more likely to attend less-selective colleges with less-intense academic environments, the authors write.

David C. Paris, executive director of the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability, a two-year-old organization of college presidents and provosts, says the book is important.

"It's a reminder that many of our institutions really aren't set up to make undergraduate education a priority," he said. "The organizational systems and structures that we have really aren't set up for 21st-century challenges."

Value of Group Study Questioned

One element of the book that is already drawing criticism is the finding that score gains on the CLA were smaller, all else equal, if the students said they did most of their studying with friends, as opposed to alone. That insight cuts against the grain of the recent trends toward collaborative and experiential learning.

Studying in groups "seems to be difficult for students to pull off in a way that promotes learning, as opposed to being a social occasion," Ms. Roksa said.

"A lot of institutions and actors in higher education have invested a lot in this idea of collaborative education," Mr. Arum said. "These are very well-intentioned folks, and I know that they've been taken aback by what we found."

One such person is George D. Kuh, a professor emeritus of higher education and founding director of the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University at Bloomington.

"For many students, studying alone can be as good as any other strategy," Mr. Kuh said. But for others—especially those with weaker high-school preparations—there is a long train of evidence to support collaborative learning.

Mr. Kuh generally praises the book, but he says that the scholars erred by not using more-detailed questions about students' college experiences. On the question of studying in groups, for example, he believes Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa would have learned more if they had asked students about what went on inside their classrooms as well as outside. As the study stands, it is impossible to know whether the students who reported that they often study in groups were doing so because they had been given group assignments by their professors, or simply because they preferred to study with friends.

Alexander C. McCormick, director of the National Survey of Student Engagement, shares Mr. Kuh's concern. "They really just used two questions," Mr. McCormick said. "How many hours do you study alone, and how many hours do you study with peers. When people say 'I'm studying with peers,' presumably that includes sitting in a room with a bunch of students where the TV is on and there are all kinds of distractions. But presumably there is a subset of students who are actually sitting around a table and really working on the material with other students and striving to understand. By mixing those two very different kinds of activities, I think we run a risk of overinterpreting this finding as an argument against collaborative learning."

Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa concede that their study does not reveal anything directly about the value of collaborative assignments. In theory, they say, such projects could be very effective. But they add that they doubt that many faculty members have been trained to design effective collaborative projects.

"If professors aren't even being trained in traditional pedagogy," Mr. Arum said, "it's a lot to ask them to pull off these more-complex collaborative models."

Mr. McCormick also has a broader concern about the way the book might be received by the public. Even if many students are not acquiring writing and reasoning skills, he says, that does not mean that their college educations have been worthless.

"One way that this could all be misinterpreted," Mr. McCormick said, "is, 'College students aren't learning anything.' But the book really doesn't say anything about the development of subject-matter knowledge in the majors. If you did a similar study and administered subject-area GRE tests to students in their freshman and senior years, I expect that we would see a lot better results."

Mr. Arum is not so sure. "I'll just give you an empirical figure in response," he said. "Thirty-five percent of students report that they spend five or fewer hours per week studying alone. Do we really think that there is going to be a lot subject-specific learning when students are giving so little effort? I actually think that you'd find much the same pattern with subject-specific knowledge."

Cultures of Rigor

Dewayne Matthews, vice president for policy and strategy at the Lumina Foundation for Education, which supported Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa's study, says that the book's findings about racial and ethnic disparities should be taken seriously by university leaders. "These continuing disparities cannot all be explained away by looking at differences in high-school preparation," he said. "We have a responsibility here. Colleges need to look much more carefully at how students learn, and how they can support that learning."

Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa don't see any simple remedies for the problems they have identified. They discovered more variation in CLA-score gains within institutions than across institutions, and they say there are no simple lessons to draw about effective and ineffective colleges.

In the statistical analysis that sums up their book, they identify two significant college-level variables. First, all else equal, students' CLA scores are more likely to improve if they report that faculty members at their college have high expectations. Second, students' scores are more likely to improve if they say they have taken at least one writing-intensive course and at least one reading-intensive course in the previous semester.

It might sound trite, Mr. Arum says, but those observations boil down to the lesson that colleges must find ways to build cultures of academic rigor. He says that task is something that each campus will need to do for itself. It would be a huge mistake, he believes, for the government to impose a new learning-accountability regime from outside.

Donna Heiland, vice president of the Teagle Foundation, which also supported the study, agrees. "Even though this is a book with a lot of sobering news," she said, "I think it also contains some things to be encouraged by. First of all, it's encouraging to see new evidence that college does have an effect"—that is, that writing-intensive and reading-intensive courses actually do improve the CLA scores of students across the ability spectrum.

"It would be depressing to think that students just sorted themselves into colleges based on their SAT scores and life histories, and then essentially marched in place," Ms. Heiland said.

Sustained Difficulties

Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa are continuing to track the students in their study, and they are already at work on a sequel to Academically Adrift.

The students who graduated on time, in 2009, have been rewarded with a miserable recessionary labor market. As of late last year, 35 percent of those recent graduates were living with their parents or other family members, and 9 percent were unemployed. Among those who were working full-time, only 17 percent were earning more than $40,000 a year. (The authors have not yet done analyses to determine how these postgraduate outcomes are correlated with the students' CLA scores or any other element of their college experiences.)

Among the most troubling findings from the postgraduate survey, Mr. Arum says, is that 30 percent of the recent graduates said that they read a newspaper "monthly or never," even online.

"How do you sustain a democratic society," Mr. Arum said, "when large numbers of the most educationally elite sector of your population are not seeing it as a normal part of their everyday experience to keep up with the world around them? We need higher education to take the institutional responsibility for educating people broadly to see this as a basic part of civic life."

That notion of institutional culture, Ms. Heiland says, is the basic lesson that the public should take from the book. "I don't want people to walk away blaming people," she said. "You can say, Oh, the problem is with the students because they don't study enough. The problem is with the faculty because their priorities are elsewhere. There's truth in all that. But for me, what's really powerful about the book is that it talks about the culture of higher education and talks about how the work of one player is related to the work of everyone else. We need to talk about higher education as a system."


1. jranelli - January 18, 2011 at 05:55 am

rigor is a hard sell for the marketing office of the corpoprate college, even harder now that the crop of faculty who are, themselves, products of the decline, (writers of unreadable theses and unchallenging courses, curriers of student evals needed for p&t, etc.), are ageing into department chairs and the senior deanery.

j ranelli

2. interface - January 18, 2011 at 06:52 am

I concur with J. Ranelli's point. America's public schools have been failing to teach writing or critical thinking for decades; and largely thanks to commercialization and consumerism, higher ed is failing as well. Who would have thought the day would come when it was a liability to be a rigorous teacher, given the thumbs-down by non-reading, non-studying, evaluation-completing customers?

And despite the "long train of impressive evidence" so beloved by nonscholars in academentia, "collaborative learning," for the most part, was a boondoggle that contributed to the present culture of avoiding anything that wasn't entertaining.

Think I'll go learn how to bake bread.

3. geneseo - January 18, 2011 at 06:56 am

If 36% saw "no significant gains" between freshman and senior years, then 66% did. Where's the problem?

4. geneseo - January 18, 2011 at 06:56 am

Oops. . .64%.

5. debdessaso - January 18, 2011 at 07:04 am

Can't say I'm all that surprised. Just ask John and Jane Q. Employer who is spending millions of dollars on writing courses for workers because they can't write a decent report. As for those in academia who are harping on the creeping influence of the corporation on the university, perhaps someone needs to remind academia that, after World War II, it was primarily the corporate world that convinced Congress to pass the various college aid programs (e.g. the G.I. Bill and federal student loan programs) which fed the explosive growth in students attending American colleges and universities. Rather than bite the hand that helped to create its client base, academia would do well to work with both the for-profit and nonprofit world to design programs that prepare students to navigate whatever type of world awaits them when they graduate.

6. spsjc - January 18, 2011 at 07:34 am

All of the above certainly resonates.
Just one more (snide) comment--gee, students aren't reading and writing enough to improve their skills, especially in fields like Business and Education? Sounds like a job for the much-maligned Humanities to me, where (at least in the best classes) students do intensive reading and writing and where higher-level thinking and mental organizational skills are valued. The Humanities may or may not be dead, but if they are, it may be part of the reason why the entire educational system is on life support.

7. arminius - January 18, 2011 at 07:43 am

I had a number of colleagues that brought "rigor" to their science classes at a highly-selective liberal arts institution. They graduated from excellent programs and thought that they should "raise the bar of expectations" for their students. In all of the cases, NONE of them were tenured because of petty and nasty comments in their evaluations. They were counseled time after time to soften the content of their classes. They were told that they were upsetting the legacies who could not countenance such ill-mannered behavior toward their little darlings. After all, THEY were paying the salaries of these ingrates. Now I ask you -- is that the fault of the faculty or the parents who want to see their offspring attending something like a summer camp instead of an institution of higher education.

Out of that cohort of close colleagues -- most found employment in the private sector and one is tenure at a good school that still requires students to think and study.

Those of us hired in the Pleistocene could only shrug when these diktats were sent down the administrative chain of command. We continued to push hard and held our classes in the early AM. We employed this strategy as a self-sorting strategy -- riff raff don't want to attend 8 AM classes. Now all of us are in dutch because the board, upper administration and the newer alums all want to see how we contribute to the "bottom-line." A fourth year class with only a few concentrators does not make much fiscal sense to our corporate sponsors. So we hang on -- ignore the idiocy from above and understand that our days are numbered -- they are waiting us out. I'll hold out for a few more years. I will soon be gone.

I am noting the above because -- the lack of rigor problem has been created by helicopter parents who believe in a culture of entitlement. They look at the faculty as serfs.

Arum and Roksa, like most conservative critics of higher education, want to blame the faculty. They need to look at the demands of the piper.

8. eacowan - January 18, 2011 at 07:54 am

At some insitutions -- lesser ones, of course -- it has always been deemed a liability to be a rigorous professor. "We're not Harvard," is the mantra of administrators, as it has been since long before the current intellectual miasma that is "Corporate U". I have seen some of my best (most rigorous) colleagues muscled out of the faculty because their little minions professed "dissatisfaction" with certain professors' teaching. In the latest terms, this means the "customers" (read: students) are not happy. And that is all there is to it. --E.A.C.

9. interface - January 18, 2011 at 07:58 am

Where's the problem? I'd say in a 64% success rate. Should a doctor with a 64% success rate stay in business? Or a hairdresser, for that matter?

10. mffeuerst - January 18, 2011 at 08:41 am

arminius's comments are on target. Teaching evaluations, the loss of humanities, and the absolute need for critical reading and writing are just 'evaluated out' of the classroom by students who come with few incentives and a need to get through their education as quickly as possible.

11. rsamuels - January 18, 2011 at 08:41 am

My experience is that professors often have no incentive to motivate student learning and non-tenured faculty are often controlled by student evaluations, so they try to please the students or teach in a defensive manner. Since there is little real quality control in higher ed, administrators can pour money into pet projects and star faculty and staff and no one complains. I have asked my students if they had the choice between learning nothing and the school rankings going up or learning a lot, but the rankings go down, and half would prefer to learn nothing because they all want to go to med school or law school. It is clear that the more students pay, the less they get in return. We need to find some way to force schools to care about learning and teaching.

12. dank48 - January 18, 2011 at 08:53 am

Gore Vidal was right.

13. billinmidwest - January 18, 2011 at 09:02 am

My observation of undergraduate education in recent years does seem to parallel a comment above about the withering of Humanities programs in American culture. I have noticed that high school textbooks in foreign languages, for example, over the past forty years have split one year of traditional work into two years, thus missing almost half of the material. This deficiency is difficult to make up for at the college level. If students (high school and college levels) detest reading and prefer i-pods/cell phones in order to fill empty hours, then perhaps they're in the wrong place in higher education. Moreover, the business model of colleges is certainly a contributing factor. Punitive measures against faculty who demand excellent results in the classroom does so to the manifest detriment of a college ultimately. Another valid point made in these posts is that over time the weaker students are rising into administrative and faculty positions, thus further debilitating the academic foundations. While I do not have an easy answer, my intuition tells me that many people go to college who should not, and that by contrasting students of 60+ years ago with contemporary groups, there are striking differences: Excellent students of the early 20th often studied two-four years of Latin and mathematics, as well as other areas of the liberal arts. There are no easy gimmicks to learning these subjects, and by nature of their intrinsic rigor, it separates the men from the boys.

14. alleyoxenfree - January 18, 2011 at 09:16 am

This is also why music majors tend to be good students across the board in other subjects - they know what discipline it, and that practice gets results. Plus, their brains are wired for language and structure in a way that few others are.

The consumer/entitlement culture is also a product of the decline in tenure lines. When "retention" and "student success" is king, adjunct faculty are pressured to have high pass rates in classes, which inevitably leads to dumbing down curriculum and passing students who should otherwise repeat the class.

A third factor is that most colleges have eliminated critical thinking courses from their curriculum, along with the decline of more upper-division philosophy courses. One critical thinking course, with attention to logical fallacies, argument structure, and inductive/deductive logic, straightens thinking and prepares them for writing in a way that few other courses can. But there is constant pressure from STEM faculty to eliminate such courses under the guise of "our curriculum is just so tight there's no time for that" (or for upperdivision writing, or reasonably small writing courses, or for a music class).

15. mkant69 - January 18, 2011 at 09:18 am

A 64% learning success rate is actually pretty good compared with the 57% six-year graduation rate. Or perhaps one statistic is the cause of the other?

16. mmccllln - January 18, 2011 at 09:22 am

I would find it interesting to know the majors of those who improved and those who did not. Only business and education majors are singled out in this story. I'm betting that humanities majors improved over time. In higher education's rush to appease the marketplace, the timeless skill of writing has been tossed on the garbage pile of 'old-fashioned ideas.' Show me someone who can speak and write clearly and I'll show you someone who will be successful in almost any field.

17. quidditas - January 18, 2011 at 09:26 am

"Another valid point made in these posts is that over time the weaker students are rising into administrative and faculty positions, thus further debilitating the academic foundations."

Weak students rise into faculty positions too, huh? Why is that, do you think?

I'm being serious.

18. instconsult - January 18, 2011 at 09:29 am

I am surprised that no one has questioned the reliance on the CLA as a primary instrument for measuring students' learning. Which CLA essays did the students complete? They are not all comparable and there are plenty of credible ed researchers who question the instrument.

19. i_am_nomad - January 18, 2011 at 09:35 am

Okay, just noticing this right off the bat:

"...is that more 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."

Perhaps more than a third of all college students do not really belong in college? Why can't we just come to terms with that stark reality?

20. cdwickstrom - January 18, 2011 at 09:36 am

If anyone wants hard evidence of the problems, noted above, consider this. As as adjunct at a Carnegie doctoral level institution, I was advised by a dean that students were complainng that my reading demands were too high. Instead of the normal 2-inch notebook sized set of chapter and article reprints that my peers had been requiring, I had the audacity to expect the students to read five WHOLE books in a full semester of 15 weeks. Oh, yes, this was a GRADUATE level course. I got the message and cut the load to three books, and still got complaints about reading load expectations on my evals.

21. softshellcrab - January 18, 2011 at 10:09 am

It is all about "just say no". "No, that isn't good enough. Do it over." Or "No, not good enough. You fail." But since the majority of schools live in fear of losing studens, they will not "just say no".

Sister Maria in my 6th grade class understood how to say "no" quite well.

Until schools set high standards and - much, much, much more important enforce them with rigorous grading - nothing else will get fixed.

And yes, many students are going to college who don't belong there. And the colleges are only too quick to dumb down the standards to them.

22. joechill - January 18, 2011 at 10:16 am

I agree with the general gist of the comments that if there is a curriculum problem, it rests on the facts that the humanities are missing and that student evaluations have been the only way teachers have been measured.

23. dkdemers - January 18, 2011 at 10:27 am

Very interesting findings and they jell with my experience as a professor. Another factor that I believe is contributing to the problem is the student evaluation of faculty process. Faculty who have high standards and demands are often punished in student evaluations, as research shows that students take personal credit when they do well in a course but they often blame others when they perform poorly. Because student evaluations are often the major measure of a teacher's performance, some professors are reluctant to put the bar higher.

24. 11261897 - January 18, 2011 at 10:28 am

Don't overlook the matter of composition teaching's being taken over by "specialists" who focus on process rather than product, thereby divorcing writing from its chief goal: communication of data

25. tay192 - January 18, 2011 at 10:32 am

This seems all too simple. What are the details? "Crucial types of writing and reasoning tasks"? "Crucial" in what context? As some of the comments suggest, this may be a symptom much larger troubles. This means that solutions such as hiring a new "associate dean of crucial types of writing and reasoning tasks" is not necessary. Nor is it necessary to "crack down" on professors, requiring more office hrs per week and less time on "research." Vague observations seem to serve only the usual go-around about teaching v. research, good teachers v. lazy students, cable t.v. time v. library time. I'd like to see some actual "cause and effect" before the flurry of fixes begin flying.

26. billinmidwest - January 18, 2011 at 10:34 am

Why could it be that weaker students eventually rise to prominent positions in college? I'm guessing, but the process of academic evolution may have made ancient relics or dinosaurs out of highly qualified individuals. The push towards the business model may attract business-minded people who themselves may not value academic rigor. If teaching, scholarly endeavor and service to the university are three major criteria for promotion, wherein service to the university translates into a campaign for money, then could it be that by a form of natural selection, the first two criteria exclude the more optimal choices for promotion? If it is true, as these posts indicate, that the general student population is less than it should be, then will the pool of highly qualified people for higher positions begin to shrink over time? If success of a professor is measured by popularity on evaluations and not by rigor (wherein rigor is punished), then who is at the top setting such standards? American culture is more about "doing" than "being," but how good is that?

27. asnyder0827 - January 18, 2011 at 10:35 am

As a graduate of a liberal arts college, I agree that higher ed should have a greater emphasis on the humanities and writing. I was a history major, reading 40 pages + for each class and writing long papers.

But, I learned writing and reading skills in high school. I learned about the importance of independence and rigor in college. Students are graduating from high school with negligible writing and speaking skills. Colleges can't make up all that lost ground.

28. davidphaney - January 18, 2011 at 10:39 am

Faculty members are oftern criticized by administrators for having high failure rates, especially in introductory classes. However, it is an error to interpret that criticism as a demand for less rigor. Students will rise to the challenge of rigorous course work if it is taught well, and they will fail courses that bore them with low expectations. I was provost at an institution where the math department successfully increased both rigor and pass rates in introductory courses by changing the pedagogy.

29. csgirl - January 18, 2011 at 10:40 am

"One critical thinking course, with attention to logical fallacies, argument structure, and inductive/deductive logic, straightens thinking and prepares them for writing in a way that few other courses can. But there is constant pressure from STEM faculty to eliminate such courses "
So you don't think there is critical thinking in STEM courses? Hmm, so I guess mathematical reasoning isn't really thinking? How about problem-solving?
Sorry, this kind of fallacy - that only the humanities can teach criticial thinking - just makes me bananas.

30. demery1 - January 18, 2011 at 10:46 am

I am shocked, shocked that for many Chronicle readers, new information confirms already held beliefs. For most folks who study learning, we might worry about a confirmation bias....

31. isugeezer - January 18, 2011 at 10:53 am

More often than you'd like to believe, my freshmen say to me, "How could I get a D? I thought you liked me!" or, "I'll bring you a candy bar each day for some extra credit" or "Why can't I use my cell 'phone in class? My other teachers did." These statements tell me something about the students' relationships with their high school teachers. My freshmen are often stunned to learn that this is not how it's going to be. They think I'm "mean." Frequently, they tell me that directly. I've learned to respond this way: "I may be the first real teacher you've had."

32. victorl - January 18, 2011 at 11:24 am

"...to make undergraduate education a priority" is NOT a 21-century priority of Higher Education. It's not even something new. It's what colleges and universities do. Imagining that this is some brand-new "21-century priority," probably plays in to imagining that some 21-century technological geegaw or jimcrak is going to fix the problem. Give them clickers, new tablet computers, or embed microchips in their skulls ... anything but actually improve undergraduate education and make it a priority. 20 pages of writing A SEMESTER!? Sheesh.

33. 11327278 - January 18, 2011 at 11:25 am

I challenge the assertion that "reading the newspaper" allows one to "keep up with the world around them". Most newspapers are now no better than advertising fishwrappers, and there are multiple other ways to 'keep up',some of which may very well have been adopted by the student population group in question. The assumptions behind such out-of-date measurement techniques need examining.

34. alexmcintosh44 - January 18, 2011 at 11:27 am

I tell me students when describing the course requirements that unless many of their courses have individual (not group) writing assignments, they are being cheated. There are some instances in which a group assignment is useful, but they are outnumbered by those that require individual effort.

35. lisacs - January 18, 2011 at 11:31 am

"The scholars do not name those 24 institutions, but they say they are geographically and institutionally representative of the full range of American higher education. The sample includes large public flagship institutions, highly selective liberal-arts colleges, and historically black and Hispanic-serving colleges and universities."

Ummm... community colleges?

36. sabbatical - January 18, 2011 at 11:35 am

Based on actual experience -- mine (professor) and my son's (college student) -- most of the comments so far resonate.

My experience: Students who haven't learned how to write a complete sentence, much less formulate a paragraph. Faculty colleagues who are penalized when they try something new in teaching, whether it's more rigorous or just experimental, because course evaluations include negative remarks.

My son's experience: a 5-credit "writing course" that only met four hours a week, and where two of those hours involved students sitting in groups, "critiquing" each other's work. My son's conclusion? "Totally worthless." Of course it was.

37. lothlorien - January 18, 2011 at 11:36 am

Just an observation on writing. As an adjunct teaching five or six classes a semester to try to make a livine, you have a choice of 3-4 page papers or 4-5 page papers. Two papers or three papers. And an average of 50 students per class. Add to that students who desire quick feedback over extensive feedback, and you quickly see the problem. That same instructor with one TA and tenure has far less of a workload. Nowadays, the former is more the rule than the latter.

38. rgregory - January 18, 2011 at 12:02 pm

@ interface and geneseo - How about a product with 64% market share? We aren't dealing with the concrete product of a doctor or a hairdresser. That is part of what is wrong with the current climate of academic accountability - one solution fits all. We must all be using collaborative learning; The CLA is the one and only measure of student achievement; Retention is the ultimate metric. We aren't dealing with a math problem with an expected correlation coefficient of 1.000. This is social research, a field where finding a factor responsible for 40% of the variance is considered a strong correlation. 64% would be great, if that were, in fact, the result of the remainder of the question. My guess is that it is not. Having NO significant gains is still pretty poor at 36% (although our current approach of admitting everyone to college would seem to suggest that 36% might not be that unreasonable), the real question is what does the distribution look like? If 36% fail to gain anything and 64% get all the learning we would like them to have, then we have a rather small problem. But if the median gain is only 50% of the learning we think is appropriate, then the problem is much larger. If no one achieves the learning we wish them to have, we have an even larger one. In other words, the 36% is not likely to be the issue - it is, rather, where the remaining 64% fall.

Of course, the CLA is not the be all and end all test of student achievement. The critics are in part correct to question whether major-specific learning is different than over-all critical thinking skill. The CLA does not measure knowledge accumulation nor does it directly measure the students' ability to manipulate that knowledge. It is a cognitive function test built around the students ability to think, integrate, and argue for or against certain concepts that the authors think are sufficiently general that something meaningful can come of it all. Yet it is taken by these sociologists as the only measure of worth in collegiate education. There is no reason to suspect that a chemistry student, for instance, would score well on a test written around the idea of crime reduction (the example used on the CLA website to demonstrate the architecture of the test), nor would I expect that such a result would bode poorly for that student's future in the field. I think the idea that these two can indict all of higher education because one test suggests that they aren't learning the associated skills of creative writing and critical thinking is a serious stretch.

39. edison - January 18, 2011 at 12:14 pm

Unfortunately, education is one of those careers where "the harder you work, the less you make." Since there are so many classes taught by adjunct instructions, where is the incentive to assign lengthly papers which require hours to assess and grade? Let's face it, the business model of most colleges and universities does not support this type of assignment.

40. bedros - January 18, 2011 at 12:21 pm

Confusion reigns, much of it placed at the doorstep of the politicians. Primary and secondary educational performance is measured by standardized testing, presupposing an eternally fixed body of knowledge. Challenging this body of knowledge, critical thinking is to be dismissed. "Thinking inside the box," however, uncritical thinking is to be dismissed, subplanted by critical thinking. Critical thinking being difficult to measure, when performance need be measured, it cannot be the subject of measurement. As so, uncritical thinking need supplant critical thinking to satisfy the requirement of measurement.

Additionally, students in institutions of higher education are to be matriculated in four years. This when legislatures have radically cut appropriations for higher education, transfering funding to the student through tuition. Tuition being raised, students need work part time to fund their education. Working part time, they matriculate in five years. A four year matriculation requirement being imposed by legislatures, insofar as the standard is not met, higher education institutions are perceived as under performing. Doing so, funding is cut in punishment, reducing classes, lengthening the matriculation period, etc.

Challenged by contradictories, higher education cannot succeed. What bodes is a collapse in the institution.

41. 3rdtyrant - January 18, 2011 at 12:39 pm

On a positive note--not that I disgree in any part with the many accurate observations of how corporatizing universities makes them far, far worse than ever--in my advanced composition course, I am teaching the Trivium and Quadrivium, much to the majority of the class's delight. I had a student say to me, "my brain is on fire with this stuff--I can see it everywhere." Many students are made dumb by the operators of the panopticon because they trust the institution to do as it says it will: provide a liberal arts education. When that is finally laid before them, they devour it like starving men. Small wonder, when what they have been fed is an outcome-based, bottom-lined disprizing of the best ideas. They have gravitated to the lowest common denominator: market based value.

That's pathetic in the classical and modern senses of the word.

42. moongate - January 18, 2011 at 12:41 pm

"non-tenured faculty are often controlled by student evaluations"

I am now a classified staff worker, but before, when I was an adjunct teaching writing, I did everything in my power to make sure my evals were sterling. I taught well, but I also made sure my students were happy, whatever that took, and that included passing the half of the class I would flunked.

43. cava3664 - January 18, 2011 at 12:53 pm

I am not surprised! "Declining by Degrees" is reinforced by this study. Buckminster

44. pacifica888 - January 18, 2011 at 01:05 pm

The comments about staffing issues are well made, as so many introductory writing courses are now staffed by part-time instructors who must race to make a living. That's a nation-wide problem that has emerged from the factory mode of teaching the course, sending money mostly to English literature faculty who teach upper echelon courses. The problem is NOT process pedagogy, which, counter to 11261897's claim, can and does focus on final products, too. At my institution FYC is taught by all tenure-line faculty on a regular basis, and we focus on both process and product.

Sabbatical: it sounds like your son just got in a lousy class. Five credits could possibly be appropriate for four hours a week, IF the peer reviews were set up and managed properly. I use this technique in virtually every writing class I teach and it works wonders, but only with very, very careful application. It teaches writers the production of writing from a reviewer's perspective--which they will encounter in large doses in the workplace (I've done tons of workshops there, too)--and it can also help writers expand their understandings of audience beyond that of the instructor alone. I'm surprised by the "of course" in your comment. Sounds way too smug for someone who is apparently not in the profession of teaching writing.

45. czander - January 18, 2011 at 01:08 pm

Maybe we force too many kids to go to college. consider the high dropout rate

46. jtran8424 - January 18, 2011 at 01:09 pm

I got my chance to go to college when I was a single mother got laid off for not sleeping with a collegue who was not even my boss, unemployment got the company to give me a two year departing gift for not sueing them and the lady told me to go to college with that money, and at 37 I went to college. I got a C in Vollyball, but I graduated with a 7 year old summa cum laude and was classroom mom all 3 years with 190 credits for my BA. Then I went on to graduate school in a 54 credit program to teach special ed all, kinds called Varying Exceptionalities and graduated with a GPA of 3.97, and the Dean really wanted me to go on and get my Ph.D. but my loans were big enough, and I wanted to work for a while before I retired =). I had bipolar disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, paranoid schizophrenia, add, severe depression, anxiety disorder, and all kinds of professors none of whom knew I had any disabilities because I knew they would be harder on me to get me to quit, and I wasn't going to.

Now I went to college with a lot of sleepers, drinkers, talkers, texters, cell phoners, and what immediately came to my mind was the incredible rudeness of coming to a classroom with someone with a Ph.D. and showing this kind of disrespect to someone who is trying to teach you something important enough that you need to take this class or chose to for a college degree. I know I was a lot older, but civility is civility. And if you didn't pass the test, it was your own dam fault. This notion that you need to entertain the students is rediculous. College is not supposed to be entertaining, it is supposed to be educating and if you're not looking to get educated then do something else, but don't bother other people who are in the class who want to hear the professor to take notes because they want to learn what the professor is teaching. Stop blaming the professors!!! Its the students, stupid!!!

I remember one class in Humanities with a Dr. Tiffany who went through college to his Ph.D. in a wheelchair, and there were some talkers near me, and I told them myself if they wanted to talk, take it outside, I wanted to learn. And there were a couple of drinkers passing the bottle back and forth, and I sat next to them during an early class, and I told them quite out loud that the smell of vodka was more than I could take and could they please stop drinking in class or don't come to class to drink. Some girls at the back of class talking and cellphoning, I turned around and told them that their talking was too distracting for me. If they had the gaul to take advantage of a stationary professor who could not go up and down the aisles in his wheelchair, I was going to monitor the class for him, and after about 4 classes, the students got the message that I, just a student, but like I told them, I paid as much as they did for that class, and I was going to learn it, and if they didn't want to, sign the roll and leave but don't mess with my education. And after those first classes, they either came in, signed the roll and left, or the stayed and shut up, and didn't drink and didn't sleep, because I would embarass them if they did, if Professor Tiffany couldn't get around to tell them to leave, then I would, and I got quite a reputation after that class. I couldn't believe that they would take advantage of a professor in a wheelchair, like that.

Its administration that let's the students run the college because the administration fears the parents, heck, let the parents complain, let them take their prissy children out of college and find one that day cares the kids, but that is how our secondary educational system becomes poorer and poorer. Let the kids fear the college like they should be doing, especially at public schools, set the example. Gosh, before my late husband died, my son was going to Boston College, and you didn't dare give lip to anyone, even the receptionist or the maintenance persons. That's fear, that's respect, and Boston College expects it and tolerates nothing less. So when he had to transfer to the University of Florida and got work study, he was appalled at the behavior of the students. With my MA in Special Ed, my specialty and Thesis in mentally ill/emotionally disturbed, I could watch my students at PE, and the Coach would hit on them for the same behavior of other students, everyone would, so I never left their side, I had lunch with them, watch PE, Art, and Music with them, and really, their crises were not that frequent, and I suppose it might have been the calming effect I had on them because, according to my assistant, who, for the first half of my first year, would tell me horror stories about how they behaved, so I just took over all the time, and that gave her plenty of time to gossip about me to the principal and the ladies in the office, which she did, and some incredible stories she told, because over the 8 years I taught there, the faculty became friends of mine and would tell me her newest gossip, so I knew, but worse, the principal would believe this incredible gossip, and I was ready for it. And not only did I have to deal with mentally ill K-3 students and help their parents to deal with their children and regain confidence in themselves as parents, give my students opportunities to shine, win history contests, be community helpers by visiting the elderly in the nursing home up the street singing in both English and Spanish (Yes, they were learning in Spanish so whenever anyone referred to them as the Special Class,they were darn tootin', they were the only class in school who could speak Spanish), and they were so loving, put on programs and plays for the school, do a clothing drive for the homeless, man you couldn't believe how these kids would work for others, but still the principal got all this gossip about things happening in my class, what can you do, and she was a church going holy Christian, you see you can be blighted by so many people who have powers you cannot even see. Like the INDEPENDENT and GREEDY post president of the local college, who had been taking advantage of the budget for years, had 29 vice presidents who were friends of his, paid himself for sick and vacation days he said he never took in 10 years when he was finally let go by the board, my goodness his package to be let go was worth so much, but it also meant that the packages of all 29 vp's would be re-negotiated and cut that a public college of that size did not a quarter of those vp's, and when his closest vp who laid off all of us professors in one department that they closed, and said he would help us all find jobs in other departments, and I suppose I was the stupid one for believing him, and when he said just make an appointment, and I did, and I must have been the only one, and when I got there and he said to sit down and get comfortable, he didn't even bother to close the door when he began to jump at me and tell me, "well what do you expect me to do, create a job?" and I was floored, he was the one to say "come to me" and I did and I was getting yelled at, so much for help!!! And you know, once you have been a professor at a college, well, nobody seems to want to hire you to do anything, bag groceries, serve food through a window, open letters, cashiers, stock shelves or racks, not a chance, they just look at you with funny eyes and wonder what kind of crime you committed.

Well, that's off topic, but I thought amusing, but in any case, yeah, I got my share of, "so what are you going to do about it?" until I learned from the Dean, appropriate participation is part of your grade, and he never really described what "appropriate" meant, and so they walked on eggshells...that's what experience teaches you. So, I say, let experience season these professors who are trying to "please" their students with entertaining classes. I saw "The Dead Poet's Society", too. And my son had at UF a professor who would dress up for class for Law, if you can believe it. I had a second major in business, and I can tell you neither in my English or Business majors did anyone dress in costume, but at the same time, I can tell you that two of my professors in English had taught poetry long enough to translate the poetry in their recitation of it, and there is nothing as wonderful as poetry well recited. While that is education, that is also romantic and there is within the explication of literature, even essays, a romance with the spoken word, which math professors will disagree, where they find their romance with the written numbers...

Well, be it numbers or words, if we let the students take over the colleges and universities, and make the professors come to class in costume, with Rocky and Bullwinkle teaching us the Laws of Physics, we, as a society, are doomed. When my son wanted a toy every time we went to the supermarket and I was still only an undergrad, I went right from my 55 mile commute from the university to the supermarket and then home to put away the food and then to the school's aftercare to pick him up and about 3 weeks later, he asked me, Mom, why don't we go shopping anymore, why aren't we running out of food, he was 5 then, and I said, you aren't going shopping anymore, but I am. And he thought about this a little bit, and then he asked, why am I not shopping anymore?, and I said, because everytime I took you shopping, you always asked for a toy, and if I didn't get you one, you made a big deal about it, and, you know what, I was embarassed about that, to have a young gentleman with me who would make a big deal about not getting a toy everytime we went to the store, so I shopped before I picked you up. And so he thought about that, and he asked, could I go to the store with you if I didn't make a big deal about getting a toy? And I said, you think about it really hard, because that's a big boy decision for a young man to make, and then you tell me tomorrow morning, ok? And the next morning, he said, I'm ready to make a big boy decision, and I won't make a big deal about a toy. So, we went shopping after school, and we didn't go near the toy aisle, and when we got to the register, he said, see, Mom, I can be a big boy.

Well, that's what we have to ask our college applicants, if they can be big boys and big girls, because college isn't for kids. And when they sign that application, they need to know what they are signing, that they will be respectful to faculty, staff, and everybody who works at the college, that they will come into class ready to learn, that they will turn their cell phones OFF, that they will not text during class, that they will do their reading and homework assignments, that they will take notes, that they will study for quizes and tests, that they will not drink before or during class, that they will not talk during class without the permission of the professor and when they talk, it will be pertinent to the class, and that they will remember what they learned about about being nice, kind, and thoughtful that they learned in kindergarten. And if they sign the application, then they accept the above mentioned rules of adult college student behavior, and practice them on and off campus as a representative of the school as long as they are a student at above named college or university and be proud students who will keep up the reputation of the school, and never get arrested for any behavior against the law, or engage in any behavior that could put the name of the school at any risk for their reputation.

Now, that's talking RESPONSIBILITY, and if they don't think that they can live with those rules, heck, maybe you don't need their kind, anyway, no matter how high their high school GPA that their parents bought for them, or the fantastick letters of recommendation that their parents also bought for them. And mean it. When the first few students are asked to leave, your school's reputation will jump 3 letter grades. You have a school to run, and its your duty to maintain the honor of that school, not run a Micky Mouse university. Be as Big as you want to be, and it begins with RESPECT. Amen.

47. drspektor - January 18, 2011 at 01:32 pm

interface (#9) wrote: "Where's the problem? I'd say in a 64% success rate. Should a doctor with a 64% success rate stay in business? Or a hairdresser, for that matter?"

Well, just to be snarky, I must say that a physician (I reserve the title doctor for those who hold the PhD) actually has a success rate of 0%. All the patients eventually expire.

Oh, and welcome to the wonderful world of conservative criticism colleges and professors! Welcome to what the public school teachers, whom so many of you criticize and malign, must contend with daily - high handed criticism, placing ALL of the blame for student mediocrity and failure on the teachers. In fact, I have seen comments here today blaming these issues on public schools and ed majors. It's not the teachers, guys, it's the students. Colleges are admitting far too many unqualified or under-qualified people. Be more selective, you'll see the results.

If students choose not to learn, that is mostly their own fault.

48. ckrulak - January 18, 2011 at 01:34 pm

I spent 35 years in the military...ending up as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I have spent the past 10+ years as Chairman and CEO of a Financial Institution, a member of several Fortune 500 corporate boards, and a member of the Board of Regents of two universities. If I have learned anything, it is a deep appreciation for those who are involved in liberal education. Educators who demand critical thinking...who require their students to read and write...who expose those students to the world they must live in...who are not afraid to challenge their students. It is those educators who are a precious resource to our Nation. Those educators are preparing their students for the unexpected vice preparing them for the expected.

My comments are not intended to talk to the specifics of this article. My comments are to applaud those men and women who stand on the front lines of this fight for the minds of our youth...who challenge those young people...who demand the best from them...and don't back away because the administration is worried about hurt feelings and the possible impact of appraisals. I stand in awe of your dedication to your profession and cheer for your successes. Believe me, I have had the honor of working with some of those successes and they would make you VERY proud. At the same time, I have had to deal with some who are the product of professors who failed to take up the challenge...and those young men and women are shadows of what they could and should have been.

49. willardmdix - January 18, 2011 at 01:44 pm

As a graduate student in anthropology at Princeton University in the early 80s I graded students' exams, which were always essays. Often the writing was so atrocious I felt compelled to give Cs and Ds. My advisor was horrified and made me change many grades. He told me that since we were a small department we couldn't give too many low grades; otherwise students wouldn't take the courses. So ts is not a new problem no matter which direction you approach it from.

50. kathden - January 18, 2011 at 01:50 pm

Everyone is focusing on the single metric of pages written and ignoring some others: the average weekly study time around 12 hours, the lack of improvement in the CLA and its correlations, the 40 pages of reading a week (to call that intensive I find laughable). Moreover, it doesn't take much writing at all to reach a total of 20 pages in a term. At some point quantity does translate into quality. Furthermore, you are (for example) doing a disservice to business students teaching them a single genre of writing. My daughter, who has both a law degree and an academic master's, says that the most important thing she derived from her B.A. and M.A. education was the ability to discriminate between the kind of analysis and presentation needed for different purposes and different audiences. So she can write a bullet-pointed memo for a C.E.O. or the press, but she can also do the 35-page analysis that supports the points--and without which all you have is PR!

51. dboyles - January 18, 2011 at 03:42 pm

"The scholars also found that students devote only slightly more than 12 hours per week to studying, on average. That might be in part because their courses simply aren't that demanding..."
What at some institutions is an insatiable student thirst for knowledge in chemistry courses is at others a hopelessly uphill battle against the "just tell me what I have to know for the next exam" mentality. Once this latter has its foot in the door it's a race to the bottom among faculty trying to outdo themselves for good student opinion surveys. What to do when an administration averts their eyes from this sorry state of affairs?

52. 513131g - January 18, 2011 at 03:51 pm

Yes. To the comments that point out why there is a lack of rigor in the college classroom today, one need only look to the "Business model" being imposed upon higher education. 1)The heavy emphasis on student evaluations for promotion and tenure: absolutely the stupidest trend I have witnessed. 2)The emphasis on retention to keep "FTE" numbers high often means the softening of classroom standards. 3)The trend toward eliminating full-time, tenure-track positions in favor of adjunct instructors who must depend on high evaluation numbers to get re-hired from semester to semester. Why is anyone surprised at the conclusions drawn in this book? Add to this the decades of dumbing down of the average American, the demonization of intellect and culture in favor of celebrating the lowest common denominator, and you have a recipe for an empire not only in decline, but heading toward collapse. We can all comment until we are blue, and I will wager it won't make one bit of difference. Every sector of society is locked in its own echo chamber of fear, panic and blame, and so far few are inclined to engage in intelligent discourse that will lead to real solutions. Everyone wants to quickly find a scapegoat, apply a superficial and probably disastrous "quick fix," and go back to sleep. Meanwhile, I have to get back to my seven syllabi which emphasize reading, writing, and being curious, passionate, and engaged in the culture around you. I teach the Humanities, and Theatre: playwriting, acting, voice and movement, and I try to tell every student I encounter that it takes a whole human being, able to communicate orally, in writing, and with the whole physical instrument to make a good citizen and a good leader, and sometimes even a great artist. And, around the country colleges are cutting their humanities programs, foreign languages, the arts. I wouldn't expect too much from "education reform," if the products of our sad system are the very ones formulating the reformation. Lunatics running the asylum anyone?

53. walkerst - January 18, 2011 at 04:16 pm

Creating a culture of academic rigor is difficult when so many students are either barely literate or functionally illiterate. My spouse taught for 20 years, at everything from community colleges to major research universities, and he just left teaching because he could no longer stand the decline in the students. When he began, the students mostly read the readings, did the assignments, and could write with sufficient skill that he could at least understand what they were saying. Over time, everything slipped. The last time he taught (a literature course), no one read the readings, not even 5-6 page short stories. As for writing, well, their work was essentially incomprehensible. He taught composition courses too - and these were students in college, who had no idea what a noun or verb or thesis statement might be. It's just too frustrating. And yes, he was always rated a top professor and got terrific evaluations, but it took too much of a toll on him. He ended up hospitalized more than once, and two years ago, with my full support, he quit a full-time position. Rare as those are, it wasn't worth his health. By the time a student gets to college, it's too late to teach basic literacy, at a level they should have learned in about grade 5. Start fixing the education system a lot earlier.

54. mainiac - January 18, 2011 at 04:23 pm

"....How do you sustain a democratic society," Mr. Arum said, "when large numbers of the most educationally elite sector of your population are not seeing it as a normal part of their everyday experience to keep up with the world around them?

Democracy is doomed; the US is lurching to the chicom model of totalitarian controlled "free enterprise."

55. americanist40 - January 18, 2011 at 04:56 pm

Class size--hello? Is there anything in the report that sifts the data on student success according to class size?

56. rice80 - January 18, 2011 at 05:07 pm

I worked in college for many years (1980s-90s), often in a TA or adjunct capacity. I taught classes upwards of 35 students at times. The classes I taught were writing-intensive. There are numerous problems now, from grade inflation to less-demanding classes, and as many here have pointed out, they often come from parent or corporate pressure (and then both complain over poorer training). A number here crticize evaluations. The problem is not evaluations per se, but the way they are conducted and handled. When I taught, evaluations were both written and required. Various data were included, such as expected grade, in order to (potentially) measure the validity of a complaint. Now, evaluations are often done online. They are not required. And the questions do not necessarily require certain information. This means that students who complain are likely the ones to fill out the evaluations. In other words: no accountability. Satisfied students have other things they prefer/need to do (such as studying current classes). Therefore, the percentage of negative reviews is likely to be higher. Politicians love to talk about accountability, but our culture treats it like a bad word. Or, it's important to be accountable, but "not me." Once accountability is across the board, then you will see these scores improve.

57. anonscribe - January 18, 2011 at 05:57 pm

Weird: writing, reading, and studying a lot help you learn? Who would have thought!

I echo most of the sentiments here. If you want students to learn more effectively, end/reform student evaluations and require more writing-intensive courses. If my career didn't depend so much on evals, I'd gladly grade harder and assign more work.

58. msehphdjd - January 18, 2011 at 07:50 pm

"...only 17 percent were earning more than $40,000 a year."


Given that "a starting lawyer with less than a year of experience averages $45,854 to $69,378 annually" and that many faculty with terminal degrees start in the mid-50s, "only" seems a bit of an odd choice of descriptor.

That one in six graduates is making more that $40K sounds pretty darn good to me.

Other than that, I agree with much of what is described about what students are getting out of their education. However, I don't think anyone should be quick to lay blame on the institutions. I'm so tired of students sending me messages from their smartphones to say that they can't afford the book...

And one more thing - tenured faculty can be "controlled by student evaluations," too.

59. trendisnotdestiny - January 18, 2011 at 09:21 pm

So many insightful comments that deserve more attention and response.

One issue that keeps chewing at my synapses involves reconciling how our economic objectives (the needs of capital in global marketplace) and the individual needs of incoming students (critical thinking, reading comprehension and learning pedagogy).

It is a this intersection that I believe Tony Benn has made the case (as many comments inthis thread do as well) that there is a tension between healthy, well educated and reflective students and many of the economic policies that are pursued among G-8 countries (privatization, de-regulation, huge debt loads and the free flow of capital).

We have to ask the question, do market-based solutions 'thin out the herd' (Lippman) during a period of peak resource extraction and the information age. In a technologically fast-paced world of informational asymmetries and hidden financial interests, it is incumbent upon the professorate to consider in the US that our increasingly poor health, difficulty with academic processes of reading, writing, math and science and the complete absorption of the consumer model (conceived by Bernays) have been purposeful constructions.

How else do we conceive of the repeal of Glass-Steagall, Corporate Monopolies (TBTF), Unjustified escalations in tuition and healthcare inflation, and Gutting the promises of the social safety net (often illuminating some sort of fraud, mispent resources, redundancies and wasteful spending by all parties).

Making connection between our (systemic)economic selves and our institutions where development is supposed to occur is a good start....

60. chroniclebarnacle - January 19, 2011 at 05:23 am

Many fine points were made here. The problem is so vast that it is a bit difficult to get my head around it. We should look at the problem from different perspectives. I think the problem began when we dumb-downed the curriculum to allow unqualified students in the system because test scores were so low. I also think it is a social or culture issue. When Americans could make it on one income in the family, the other parent was able to spend time actually raising the children. Today's family structure is different now. I was lucky- my mother made me sit down eah night and spent time with me going over my homework. Who does that today and why not? Lastly I see that some institution are concerned with student retention because of their business model and do put pressure on faculty to ease the work load. So where do we start to begin the fix? The solution would require a return to values of a past era. Pandora's Box has been opened...

61. mrmars - January 19, 2011 at 06:54 am

Money is tighter than ever, so we compete for students (customers?) more fiercely than ever before. To attract them you need to make nice with country-club style facilities, all sorts of creature comforts in the dorms, and coffee shops in what used to be a library reading room (books?), all of which drives up costs even more.

AND you need to keep them HAPPY, or they'll leave (and take their $ with them)!

Add to this the horribly misguided ethic that EVERYONE - regardless of motivation or ability - MUST go to college to be a success (and/or for the country to be competitive, etc.) and you are approaching a "perfect storm" of academic disfunctionality.

To sustain the charade (i.e the cash flow), happiness must be insured at all costs, so faculty are evaluated (re-hired, granted tenure and promoted - or not) mainly on the basis of customer satisfaction which - in what must surely be one of the most illogical fallacies of all time - is automatically equated with educational effectiveness (in a system that should involve the faculty member imposing rigorous standards of achievement no less?!).

And we wonder why the enterprise is failing? Maybe it's our critical thinking skills that are suspect.

And for icing on the cake, we have educational "experts" preaching that learning, which has always been first and foremost an INDIVIDUAL pursuit ( last I looked I only have one mind and its not normally in telepathic contact with anyone else's), MUST be approached from a group effort/ student self-directed perspective. So if you don't include a liberal dose of group projects, classroom discussions, and student-centered "discovery" exercises in your classes you can't possibly be doing it right. The fact that none of these methods was in vogue years ago when a college education had to be earned and was actually worth something is evidently irrelevant, and the huge time inefficiencies involved - not to mention the opportunities for factual error and misdirection - evidently are of no consequence either.

There was a time when a college education WAS generally effective for those who were admitted based on a record of achievement and/or evidence of potential, and who earned the right to stay and graduate through motivation and sustained personal effort. This glaring fact is always left out of present day discussions.

There are no mysteries here, only colossal failures of logic and memory. Too many colleges chasing too few "students" with too little motivation in a society that provides too little money while imposing unrealistic expectations.

62. jim_falcone - January 19, 2011 at 07:41 am

The issue of student desire to understand the boundaries of responsibility for an upcoming exam is not a new one. I always told my students in my 1st year chemistry courses my recollection from a first year English course in 1964...student rises days before our first hourly and asks, "For what material will we be responsible on the upcoming exam?" Professor peers over the top of his glasses (down from the platfrom on which he sat at his desk) and says, "For everything you have learned in your entire existance."....end of discussion!
The issue of critical thinking while critical will be problematic until one can define the meaning...it seems to be one of those "I know it when I observe it" issues. We assess our chemistry curriculum with the ETS-MFT and have scored at 92%tile in this area without conscious effort to place our majors in so-called critical thinking classes.
On another point, generally, those choosing to take chemistry in their first semester were among the best students in HS, but number of DWFs (students with less than C grades or withdrawals) in first semster classes are generally in the 30-40% range..about the same result as this study...it seems that our rigor sorts them out earlier.
I could go on..but bottom line is...you get what ask for..you get what you measure!

63. cleverclogs - January 19, 2011 at 08:47 am

I'm a little confused about the criteria for "intensive reading and writing." All reading and writing assignments are not equal. Reading 40 pages of Derrida is going to be much harder than reading 40 pages of a Helen Fielding novel, unless the definition of reading is "letting one's eyes skim across typed words." Similarly, a highly crafted 3-page paper is going to require more work and more thought than 10 pages of blather.

I don't know if the study accounts for these differences in their findings, but just for the record, simply assigning more work is not the same as demanding "rigor" if that work is just a longer version of a poor process.

64. tutzauer - January 19, 2011 at 12:53 pm

If the authors are so concerned with general academic skills like critical thinking, reading, and writing (those measured by the CLA), they might look to their own lack of scholarship and critical thinking in their overblown claims and conclusions based on a very limited measure of "learning." If there is blame to be assigned, it must equally point to our society at-large, where parents expect their children to "get training for a job" not wallow in "grand ideas." Look also to the quality of discourse on pressing social issues like health care or global military responsibilities. Sound bites, but little thoughtful discussion or analysis. And we wonder why college students don't have time to read and write. Why should they? Our political leaders don't model a very desirable (or intellectual) behavior themselves. Nothing in the CLA gets at higher-level domain-specific skills that are the core of a student's major field. Isn't that why they go to college -- to immerse themselves in a highly specialized field of study? And the CLA doesn't measure domain-specific abilities in reading, writing, and critical thinking. I was a mathematics major, and reading 10 pages of dense formulas and mathematical proofs took a great deal of deliberative thought and effort. But I didn't read a great many pages per week within my major field because it isn't a "verbose" discipline. The lack of "reading large numbers of pages" in college may speak more to the the fact that fewer and fewer students are majoring in traditional disciplines that USED to make up a liberal education.

65. 2catmama - January 19, 2011 at 01:25 pm

They are now finally doing to higher education what they have been doing to PK-12 for the last 10 years.

If educators are going to survive this assault we must band together to emphasize the fact that students hold the most responsibility for their progress.

66. pdcerys - January 19, 2011 at 03:34 pm

Many students have been very spoiled and expect to have a lot of free time to pursue their interests outside of the classroom. I'm assisting with admissions interviews for an elite undergrad program and several of my interviewees have nervously asked about free time and how much time a typical student spends studying. The ones who have asked didn't like the response which makes me wonder why you'd apply to a demanding program.

67. fortysomethingprof - January 20, 2011 at 12:01 am

"It might sound trite, Mr. Arum says, but those observations boil down to the lesson that colleges must find ways to build cultures of academic rigor."

A few suggestions:

(1) Replace anonymous student teaching evaluations with faculty peer evaluations of teaching.
(2) Phase out grades and phase in rankings. Start by including class ranks on transcripts for every course (e.g., History 215, The Civil War, B+, 10th of 15).
(3) Require each student to minor in a humanities subject chosen from a very short list (Literature, History, or Philosophy).
(4) Enact across-the-board 20% attrition after the sophomore year, based not on grades, but on aggregate class rankings.

Having said all of that I think high school is the real problem. Students can't learn in college because they haven't learned how to learn earlier. By the time they get to college it's too late.

68. lucconcord - January 20, 2011 at 01:45 am

Excellent assessments by so many! The drive for student retention is certainly key; the elimination of core curriculum (a related issue) is also a critical loss. The emphasis on "learning together in groups" has been one of the death knells for the education process. "Reflection papers" substituted for real research papers have allowed the most vapid of ideas to pass for astute analysis. As a non-tenured professor for many years, teaching undergrad to Ph.D. level students, I have encountered plagiarism at all levels. And I, too, have been asked by the department to change grades to be "sensitive" to students.

Education has become a debacle. The emphasis on techniques and strategies in K-12 classes, as well as the promotion of group learning, have not only utterly altered the risk and the thrill of the acquisition of knowledge for the student, they have dissolved the notion of content in a fraudulent quest for "process." By the time students arrive at university, their skills have been derailed and they have inverted notions about what it is to learn, think, or write.

I'm happy to see so many other ed professionals who can specifically identify these problems, though. Perhaps we can all found a new institution with reason-based coursework that bans "consensus-driven" instruction...

69. jcisneros - January 20, 2011 at 07:45 am

Teaching secondary school is a tough gig. This is my opinion only, take it as you will.

Standardized testing creates a floor, not a ceiling. The tests that states are requiring to pass high school are based on calculated minimums. As a result, when secondary school teachers teach the test, they are teaching the minimum standard to function in society. This rarely bodes well for students moving to the next level.

Community colleges can be a place for a weaker student to learn the skills and rigor necessary to go on to a four year institution, if they are allowed to do so. There is no bottom line here. There will always be varying levels of performance at university and a four year degree for one person does not necessarily equate to the four year degree another student earns. Some of it has to do with attitude, some of it has to do with the level of challenge. An honors student who is always taking courses with more demanding professors, has a high level of self-discipline, and expects nothing but the best from themselves will almost always outperform a student who parties, sleeps in class, and only demands the minimum from themselves to get the degree. Finally, a helicopter parent who demands that the precious darling absolutely cannot fail only hurts their child.

I detest student evaluations as a way of measuring the performance of a professor. The evaluations CAN yield some good ideas to improve as a teacher, but to expect candor and honesty on most of these evaluations is pure foolishness. Most of them need to be pitched into the circular file.

70. this_beats_research - January 20, 2011 at 02:11 pm

At the end of the day, there is a world of difference between teaching and learning. Professors do the former, and students do the latter. In this day and age, it is a realtively rare professor which impedes the latter (there are some, but not as many as people think).

Students who want to learn will learn. Those who don't will blow a boatload of someone's money on getting a degree. The two co-vary independently.

The big issue I see on campus is how students occupy their time: they are constantly busy, but rarely doing work. They think they are working hard...It's hard to assign work to them, because they are resentful about how much other work they have, arising from their empty busyness.

71. jkkrueger37 - January 20, 2011 at 05:47 pm

My concern is the use of the CLA for the findings stated by Arum and Roksa. If one would look at the methodology used for the CLA, most seniors complete the assessment in March and April. They do not take it as seriously as they should, since it is the last semester for them. Senioritis is a factor that plays into the results. Most don't see the importance or the relevance of completing the assessment--they JUST WANT TO GRADUATE. In addition, the seniors who take the instrument may not have taken it in their first-year, so it is not a true longitudinal study, so I would question the reliability of the data for each of the students.

I also find it ironic that no schools were listed in the sample; just by listing that it was representative of institutions, does not clearly show accuracy. Ironically, the institution I work at participated in the study, and we did not even received the data sets, so if these two sociologists received data then I would question the ethics behind the CAE and CLA.

We do live in a world of "best practices", so most institutions would like to understand what is being incorporated in curriculum for the success of students.

I do not deny that we should be having conversations discussing rigor and if the set learning outcomes are being achieved by students, but we need to be cautious of the latest craze being published by these two sociologist, who aren't accurately portraying the situation.

Lastly, we do need to look at the culture of those coming to college. Most students think "it's the thing to do," even though other educational systems in other countries know that NOT everyone is prepared, nor capable of college work. We still need skilled labor and that continued education in technical colleges is just as noble.

72. momof4boys - January 20, 2011 at 06:11 pm

As a parent of four sons who are all diversified in their education and employment I have to say that I disagree with the findings, or rather the summing up of the findings of this book. While there may be some students who in fact do not work up to their potential, I feel that the majority do. I currently have two sons in college and one daughter in law and two of the three are straight A's, the other is a first year student and has a B average. College students today are a broad range of ages and I truly feel that this study was not completed in a way that encompasses the overall projection of today's college student. Every day you read of new inventions, developments, and many, many outstanding events taking place in our nation. To say that our colleges are not doing thier job is unfair and unfounded. Maybe we should see where the author is in 10 years compared to the average college student in ten years and see who put forth the effort.........

73. lightgrav - January 20, 2011 at 06:52 pm

I got my bachelor's degree 3 decades ago after 164 credits.
Not unusual for a bachelor's degree 1 decade ago to require 130.
Some states now demand that bachelor's degrees fit in 120-121.
=> legislatures must think courses are much more effective now.

High-school classes are routinely given college "transfer" credit
(one student got 32 transfer credits from "life experience").
Colleges compute gpa's ignoring low grades, for retaken classes,
so "C" students can think of themselves as "B+/A-" students.
(They would have been "D/F" students, before grade inflation.)
=> colleges are deceiving their students.
"But I'll lose my scholarship if you give me a B!"

74. lightgrav - January 20, 2011 at 07:20 pm

Lab reports, at 1½ pages per week, are "writing-intensive"! (LOL)
but my calc-based Physics is scheduled to read 32 pages/week of text
... plus 2 pages/week of "summary" at the end of each chapter
... plus (some of) the 6 pages filled with homework problems
=> about 40 pages/week, so it is also "reading-intensive" .
oh, so THAT is why it improves their critical-thinking skills! ;->

75. normjones - January 21, 2011 at 08:43 am

Before we assume their findings are correct, take a look at the research. The Lumina Foundation funded a longterm study of the CLA. Its findings can be read at:


76. udippel - January 21, 2011 at 11:00 am


you've got it spot on! As a university teacher, mostly on the undergrad level, the result offered by the authors is no surprise at all to me. And my colleagues are surprised neither. Some of them may have excuses, but I would be hard pressed to find a single one who doesn't think likewise. Though we may not voice it out, because it has become one of the deadly sins in the period of 'everyone can' in (higher) education to question the aptitude of everyone to excel. [One could ask here, how one can excel when everyone can excel, btw.]
What we have seen is a societal phenomenon - or should I say phantom? - that nobody actually dares questioning the current target of getting 80% of the population onto degree level. It is reserved to the delusional ones to actually believe this could be achieved without significantly dumbing down the curricula.
A mean is a mean is a mean, and almost all living beings cannot escape the normal distribution (or the log normal). Which means that a graduation rate of 80% of the population with some degree will necessitate the lowering of the graduation bar on a large scale.

Actually, I pity the youngsters with an 'average' degree: They have accumulated debts, to be paid back over years if not decades, and nothing that renders them employable, except of a cert or a scroll that pretends to.

77. orwellsdisciple - January 21, 2011 at 11:40 am

I looked through the comments hoping someone had posted a certain lecture by George Carlin. Explains it all!!


78. gahnett - January 23, 2011 at 01:13 pm

drspektor (47)wrote:

interface (#9) wrote: "Where's the problem? I'd say in a 64% success rate. Should a doctor with a 64% success rate stay in business? Or a hairdresser, for that matter?"

Well, just to be snarky, I must say that a physician (I reserve the title doctor for those who hold the PhD) actually has a success rate of 0%. All the patients eventually expire.


Well, just to be snarky, I must say that a patient is no longer a patient when he leaves the care of the physician, so the success rate is not 0%. Besides, a 64% success rate is of the population. Individuals are either 100% or 0%.

A 64% success rate is a D, isn't it?

79. tcli5026 - January 24, 2011 at 04:10 pm

"Where's the problem? I'd say in a 64% success rate. Should a doctor with a 64% success rate stay in business? Or a hairdresser, for that matter?"

How about a baseball player? Batting .640 would make that player an automatic candidate for the HOF. Of course, I jest. The point is, you cannot arbitrarily pick out a few professions and use those as the only standard by which to judge "success" or "failure." You need to pick out ones in which a comparison with higher education makes sense.

80. dsmebane - January 25, 2011 at 10:47 am

So I heard a story (second-hand) from a fellow alum of Georgia Tech, who attended back in the days when college was much more rigorous and both university students and faculty were all much more virtuous. He said that a professor of freshman biology addressed the crowded lecture hall on the first day, and informed the students that half of them wouldn't make it to graduation. Now those were the days!

Nowadays, so the study says, two-thirds of the students really learn something in college, and even Georgia Tech doesn't flunk so many students out as it used to. Some say this means that higher education is on the rocks. But if that long-ago biology professor's prediction was anywhere close to accurate, then some might call it progress, even enlightenment.

In nearly every setting, in almost every culture, a certain number of an older generation feels like everything is falling apart, because things aren't like they were back when they were younger. This is an understandable human emotion. Students nowadays are just too coddled, and faculty are too permissive -- none will never be so wonderfully fantastic as their forbears. But another perspective I've often heard is that students and faculty alike have never been so accomplished as now.

81. comments - January 25, 2011 at 03:07 pm

I know people are offering all sorts of reasons for the failure of colleges to teach, but the fundamental reasons, it seems to me, are that:

1) people teaching in college have not studied teaching;
2) teaching is not properly evaulated or rewarded;
3) teachers are not allowed to mix other requirements with teaching (e.g., you should be rewarded for research that is cobmined with, not separate from, your teaching, etc.);
4) did I mention, people teaching in college have not studied teaching;
5) and, finally, people teaching in college have not studied teaching.

In short, there should be a requirement that teachers have taken a couple of courses in college and/or adult education, were mentored for a few classes by an recognized teacher of quality, and are taken workshops or courses every few years in the field (much as high school teachers are required).

82. bcamarda - January 26, 2011 at 09:56 am

Everyone seems to agree that "It would be a huge mistake... for the government to impose a new learning-accountability regime from outside."

Remind me why.

The institutions are clearly discinclined to do so on their own, and as the commenters have made clear, a perfect-storm conspiracy of outside forces (from students to markets) wishes them not to do so.

Kindly tell me how improvements will happen widely without the outside intervention of a force with the power and cash to mandate them. Kindly tell me who, other than the government, has that power and cash.

And as we wait for higher education to fix this on its own, kindly tell me how many millions of students will flood out of colleges and universities without the meaningful critical thinking skills they need.

83. hawkeyedj - January 26, 2011 at 11:16 am

For any post-graduate career worth a damn, there is a state-sanctioned independent exam that must be passed before one is allowed to participate in the career. Examples include medicine and all allied health care fields, attorneys, CPAs, engineers, and actuaries. Even cosmotologists and barbers must pass licensing exams before they are turned loose on the public.

If other degree programs were held to similar standards, where students had to demonstrate a minimum competency before the school could award the degree, it would give the institution the incentive to raise the academic performance bar. As it is, many degrees are virtually worthless, as they are handed out as so much evidence of 'attendance' and nothing more. Today, if a student pays their tuition, the school has little or no incentive to upset the student by requiring they stress their mind.

84. jlgraham - January 28, 2011 at 04:30 pm

With respect to collaborative education, I have doubts about the way I have seen it recently conducted. I am speaking as a layman with a keen interest in education, and strictly from personal experience, not statistical reseach. I have worked for a number of years in small, collaborative teams in small businesses and one very large corporation. I am left with the impression that the seemingly vague model of collaborative assignments does not faithfully reflect circumstances in the workplace.

If a manager is competent, he or she assembles teams based on member's demonstrated skills. This may not always be the best stategy for the classroom, but it is a difference. A manager may not observe the progress of every small assignment, but at certian points the skill and productivity of individual team members and the harmony of the team "chemistry" is evaluated. There may be efforts to analyze and assist team performance.

Educational team assignments often appear to be semi-random, with little or no tracking of individual contributions. High performing students may be burdened or penalized while unhelpful behavior patterns of poor, unmotivated students are reinforced.

The abilty work collaboratively is extemely important. So important that it should be analyzed and taught explicitly, with a focus on development of colaborative skills as well as mastering the topic of a course. I see little reason to assume that effective teams with necessarilly emerge spontaneously from a group assignment. The methods and mission of education differs from that of other circumstances, and the conduct of educational team assignments will reflect this, but pedagogy should at least call attention to these differences and as much as possible, prepare the student for cooperative work beyond the school.

85. mlalvarez227 - February 09, 2011 at 11:32 am

this was my favorite part: "Among those who were working full-time, only 17 percent were earning more than $40,000 a year."
As an educator, student success professional, supervisor, advisor, program manager...I have yet to break the 40K salary line at either of the 2 universities I have worked for, and I have a masters degree. I have come to the conclusion that the only way to get out of low-paying, over-working middle management positions is to get my EdD and become one of the snarky administrators telling professors to be nice.
I am kidding. I will say that as a former first year advisor and FYE instructor at a private HSI, we accepted a wide spectrum of underprepared students and just didn't have the resources to make up for thier lack of reading writing and math skiills. I worked with faculty who taught very challenging courses not so they could change their courses at all, but to learn what I could do with my students strategy and study wise to aid in their success. I believe that with true focus, we can bridge the gap. But as so many have stated...student success doesn't mean the same thing to everyone. retention=/=student success. great evals=/=student success. enrolling your target number regardless of their preperation=/=student success.
learning, growth and change in a student=student AND institutional success.

86. walsh05 - February 10, 2011 at 09:18 am

What's strange is that we have data already about which majors perform well on verbal skills and analytical writing. It is no surprise that PHILOSOPHY tops the list, along with History and English majors. Is it really so difficult to believe that students who take Logic courses and rigorous writing courses in their philosophy programs have superior analytical and writing abilities? I suspect that one reason for such poor performance across the country is that many colleges undervalue philosophy and do not require students to take it. The solution: require every college graduate to take a logic class at a minimum. As support for this, I offer this suggestive (though not conclusive) data for recent GRE scores by major:

Major, Verbal, Quant, Analytical Writing

Philosophy 589 636 5.1
English 559 552 4.9
History 543 556 4.8
Art History 538 554 4.7
Religion 538 583 4.8
Physics 534 738 4.5
Anthropology 532 571 4.7
For. Language 529 573 4.6
Pol Science 522 589 4.8
Economics 504 706 4.5
Math 502 733 4.4
Earth Science 495 637 4.4
Engin., Mat'ls 494 729 4.3
Biology 491 632 4.4
Art/Perf. 489 571 4.3
Chemistry 487 682 4.4
Sociology 487 545 4.6
Ed. Secondary 486 577 4.5
Engin. Chem 485 727 4.3
Architecture 477 614 4.3
Finance 476 709 4.3
Communications 470 533 4.5
Psychology 470 543 4.5
Comp. Science 469 704 4.2
Engin.Mech. 467 723 4.2
Ed. Higher 465 548 4.6
Agriculture 461 596 4.2
Engin. Elec 461 728 4.1
Engin. Civil 457 702 4.2
Public Admin. 452 513 4.3
Ed.Elementary 443 527 4.3
Engin. Indust. 440 710 4.1
Business Admin. 439 562 4.2
Social Work 428 468 4.1
Accounting 415 595 3.9


87. dboyles - February 12, 2011 at 07:45 pm

@walsh05-- Thanks for the reference to the GRE score/discipline comparisons. Philosophy rules! Next step: comparing disciplines with average mean salary for the disciplines (Bureau of Labor Statistics data, Oklahoma State Salary Survey data for academics, or other data base). Although complex factors including supply and demand will confound comparisons, a very rough comparison of the validation/lack of validation of our respective disciplines by employers if not by society might be interpolated. Those of us in academe who are salaried according to discipline against market surveys (such as the Oklahoma study) are well aware of the bias toward disciplines, a market bias perpetuating a bias within academe under the premise that people don't want to go into academe, but they will if you offer them a salary competitive with extra-academic employers. Clearly the English teacher doesn't contribute as much to the engineering professor, judging by relative salaries. No doubt philosophy and the sharpest minds will not be at the top of the salary list (chemical engineers may). So much for our validation of the brightest and best--engineers are technically trained but don't approach philosophy students. And the link between Asperger's and engineers has been well-publicized.

If we aren't validating at the level of the marketplace what the brightest and best have learned in the university, neither are we validating learning within the university according to 'Academically Adrift'. "But now that we've seen the data, we're very concerned about American higher education and the extent to which undergraduate learning seems to have been neglected." Seems to have been? Are we yet that uncertain?

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