• September 3, 2015

'Trust Us' Won't Cut It Anymore

"Trust us."

That's the only answer colleges ever provide when asked how much their students learn.

Sure, they acknowledge, it's hard for students to find out what material individual courses will cover. So most students choose their courses based on a paragraph in the catalog and whatever secondhand information they can gather.

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No, there's isn't an independent evaluation process. No standardized tests, no external audits, no publicly available learning evidence of any kind.

Yes, there's been grade inflation. A-minus is the new C. Granted, faculty have every incentive to neglect their teaching duties while chasing tenure—if they're lucky enough to be in the chase at all. Meanwhile the steady adjunctification of the professoriate proceeds.

Still, "trust us," they say: Everyone who walks across our graduation stage has completed a rigorous course of study. We don't need to systematically evaluate student learning. Indeed, that would violate the academic freedom of our highly trained faculty, each of whom embodies the proud scholarly traditions of this venerable institution.

Now we know that those are lies.

Richard Arum, a professor of sociology and education at New York University, and Josipa Roksa, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, recently completed a study of how much 2,300 statistically representative undergraduates—who enrolled as freshmen in a diverse group of 24 colleges and universities in 2005—had learned by the time they (in theory) were ready to graduate, in 2009. As a measuring tool, the researchers used the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a respected test of analytic reasoning, critical thinking, and written communication skills. Their findings were published this month in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press) and in an accompanying white paper. It is, remarkably, the first study of its kind.

Their finding? Forty-five percent of students made no gains on the CLA during their first two years in college. Thirty-six percent made no gains over the entire four years. They learned nothing. On average, students improved by less than half a standard deviation in four years. "American higher education," the researchers found, "is characterized by limited or no learning for a large proportion of students."

The results for black students were particularly sobering. It turns out that the racial achievement gaps that shock the conscience in K-12 education get worse when students go to college. Those who see affirmative action as the defining issue for minority-student opportunity should look again. The biggest injustice falls on the majority of black students, who attend nonselective colleges—and thus don't engage with affirmative action—and all too often fail to learn.

Critics like Charles Murray will probably say those students should not have gone to college in the first place. But that would amount to condemning them for the failures of their institutions, because the study found that how much students learn has a lot do with how much colleges ask them to work. After controlling for demographics, parental education, SAT scores, and myriad other factors, students who were assigned more books to read and more papers to write learned more. Students who spent more hours studying alone learned more. Students taught by approachable faculty who enforced high expectations learned more. "What students do in higher education matters," the authors note. "But what faculty members do matters too."

The study also found significant differences by field of study. Students majoring in the humanities, social sciences, hard sciences, and math—again, controlling for their background—did relatively well. Students majoring in business, education, and social work did not. Our future teachers aren't learning much in college, apparently, which goes a long way toward explaining why students arrive in college unprepared in the first place.

Financial aid also matters. The study found that students whose financial aid came primarily in the form of grants learned more than those who were paying mostly with loans. Debt burdens can be psychological and temporal as well as financial, with students substituting work for education in order to manage their future obligations. Learning was also negatively correlated with­—surprise—time spent in fraternities and sororities.

Some will question whether learning can be fairly measured with a standardized test. But the Collegiate Learning Assessment has been validated by numerous independent studies. The fact that the results are sensitive to academic and curricular rigor tells us that the instrument measures more than just innate aptitude. Students who are asked to work harder learn more than similar students who are not.

Others might argue that students gain specific knowledge in the disciplines not picked up by the CLA. But as college leaders constantly emphasize, the most important part of higher education is learning how to think, not accumulating facts and figures. In any event, I'm sure those who disagree with Academically Adrift's findings will provide counterevidence that meets the high standards of scholarship and empiricism embodied by their own institutions of higher learning.

The study makes clear that there are two kinds of college students in America. A minority of them start with a good high-school education and attend colleges that challenge them with hard work. They learn some things worth knowing. The rest—most college students—start underprepared, and go to colleges that ask little of them and provide little in return. Their learning gains are minimal or nonexistent. Among them, those with a reasonable facility for getting out of bed in the morning and navigating a bureaucracy receive a credential that falsely certifies learning. Others don't get even that.

Consider too that the study measured the growth of only those students who were still in college two and four years later. The all-too-common dropouts weren't included. It's a fair bet their results were even worse.

Who is hurt the most by all this? Students saddled with thousands of dollars in debt and no valuable skills, certainly. Even worse, workers who never went to college in the first place, languishing in their careers for lack of a college credential. To them, the higher-education system must seem like a gigantic confidence game, with students and colleges conspiring to produce hollow degrees that nonetheless define the boundaries of opportunity.

This study should be a wake-up call for the Obama administration. The president's goal of substantially increasing college completion by 2020 is admirable. But the students on the margins of college completion are much more likely to fall into the danger zone of poor preparation, low admissions selectivity, and lack of academic rigor. New federal policies need to ensure that they don't just earn a degree, but actually learn something along the way.

Fortunately, the way forward is clear. The students who learned the most in the study came from all manner of academic backgrounds. Nobody is doomed to failure.

Colleges can start by renewing their commitment to the liberal arts. Let's be honest—a lot of students are majoring in business simply because they plan to get jobs in businesses and need a degree of some kind to do it. Making college less vocational will actually help more students learn the skills they need to succeed in their careers.

The study suggests that we have overcomplicated the practice of higher education. It comes down to what it always has—deep engagement with complex ideas and texts, difficult and often solitary study, the discipline to write, revise, and write again. What students need most aren't additional social opportunities and elaborate services. They need professors who assign a lot of reading and writing. Professors, in turn, need a structure of compensation and prestige that rewards a commitment to teaching. Some object that today's hedonist undergraduates won't do the work. But the research suggests otherwise. Colleges are responsible for taking the first step toward reaching a newer, higher equilibrium of mutual expectations.

Federal and state lawmakers should stop providing hundreds of billions of dollars in annual subsidies based purely on enrollment, and should start holding colleges accountable for learning. Lawmakers also need to shore up crumbling budgets, restrain college prices, and mitigate higher education's growing dependence on debt.

Deep down, everyone knows that learning has long been neglected. But they don't want to know. Policy makers who have poured gigantic sums of money into financial-aid programs designed to get people into college don't want to know that many of the graduates, leaving with degrees in hand, didn't learn anything. College presidents don't want to know, because fixing the problem means arguing with faculty. Faculty don't want to know, because it would expose the weakness of their teaching and take time from research. Students don't want to know, because they'd have to work harder, and it would undermine the value of their credentials.

It has been a conspiracy of convenience. This study should bring the "trust us" era of American higher education to a close.

Kevin Carey is policy director of Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington.


1. moyenage - January 18, 2011 at 06:55 am

A problem with grade inflation that you don't mention is that over 70% of faculty are not on the tenure track--and so have even greater incentive to cater to students and garner good student evaluations, on which they depend to be offered teaching the next term.

2. psel8105 - January 18, 2011 at 07:03 am

And yet why do I think that colleges will respond to this study (although let's not overreact to one study) by instituting more "value added" testing rather than by making a deeper commitment to the kind of teaching and learning advocated in this article.

3. corwinamber - January 18, 2011 at 08:06 am

After all, it is cheaper to hire adjuncts and administer huge lecture sections graded only by bubble score sheets from computerized exam banks than it is to hire, nurture and empower qualified tenure track faculty committeed to a career in high quality teaching.

4. dank48 - January 18, 2011 at 09:03 am

One bit of ancient history, from a participant (Indiana U., 1970). Anyone who thinks today's students are more hedonistic than we were forty-fifty years ago is out to lunch and will never come back. But we did study, if not quite enough to really brag about.

I think one advantage we enjoyed over today's students is that we didn't have us as high school and college teachers.

5. 11167997 - January 18, 2011 at 09:17 am

Watch for the release of the Degree Qualifications Profile on Jan 25. If higher education takes its transformational challenge seriously, this story will change over the next decade, but it sure won't happen as long as administrators fall back on quick and phony test score answers.

6. tomupnorth - January 18, 2011 at 09:21 am

As educators we can respond to the study by either improving what we do or by producing the evidence that refutes the study. Making excuses and doing nothing does not benefit students, future employers, or higher education. The greatest threat to academic freedom is allowing anyone; faculty or administration, to blame others or accept that what we are doing is simply adequate. Adequate, is the new “not good enough.”

7. mainiac - January 18, 2011 at 09:24 am

....more evidence for the need of collaborative learning. Colleges and universities should be made into academic kibbutzes.

8. tclundberg - January 18, 2011 at 09:24 am

This is an interesting claim:

"Forty-five percent of students made no gains on the CLA during their first two years in college. Thirty-six percent made no gains over the entire four years. They learned nothing." (Imagine the word "nothing" in bold or 24 point font or some such.)

The 2,300 students surely "learned" a great deal during the time of the study (I am sure Arum and Roksa consider just as Cary covers it over). This study establishes that not much of what they learned was measured as learning by the CLA.

Colleges do indeed need to respond to this study. I hope part of that response is careful thinking about about the relationship between the learning colleges count as important and the learning in which students are engaged. Carey may be right, more directed reading and writing may be called for. Maybe the CLA does indeed tell us what learning matters. But it seems to me unlikely that just getting back to what we "always" have done, what "everyone knows" works won't serve students or their society all that well.

9. snapcase - January 18, 2011 at 09:29 am

What schools will emerge as leaders in the 21st century by bucking the trends, hiring great teachers and making students work really hard? We have yet to see. Either everyone has the blinders on or we don't hear about the little success stories. I'd love to see the Chronicle do an article on a school that is doing things differently and getting drastically better results.

10. owliebehn - January 18, 2011 at 09:59 am

Here's a scenario: A professor reads Academically Adrift and decides to tighten up his course. He demands college level writing, critical thinking, thoughtful completion of assigned readings, projects, and written papers. He provides frequent and constructive feedback throughout the course to each of his students. The criteria for earning an A or B in his course are clearly laid out and no one gets an above average grade without doing above average work. Some students heed the advice and begin to develop college level knowledge and skills. But, at the end of the semester about a third of the class fails the course. Some drop out as a result; others have parents call the vice president or president of the college and complain about the professor. At the start of the next semester, the professor is no longer employed at the college.

For all the effort that goes into analyzing faculty and students, some effort should be spent analyzing the unwritten policies of many institutions of higher ed. All faculty -- from the most senior professor to the newly hired first-time adjunct -- know that dissatisfied students equal the end of their career. Of course the top administrators want the degree to mean something, just not as much as they want high enrollments. We don't like to admit it, but the culture of student satisfaction IS about tuition dollars and nothing else.

11. drj50 - January 18, 2011 at 10:07 am

"What students need most aren't additional social opportunities and elaborate services." Interesting observation at the very time many are faulting Pima County Community College for not doing more to address the needs of an apparently disturbed student. Sorry, Kevin, but there is substantial research about student success that shows very clearly that students are more likely to succeed (personally as well as academically) when they have mentors, make friends, and feel connected to the school, its faculty, and others. You so often (including in this piece) ask for research-based conclusions, I am surprised (and disappointed) that you missed that here.

"Colleges can start by renewing their commitment to the liberal arts." Yes, if this means having a coherent curriculum that is designed to build the desired skills of reading and critical thinking course by course -- and not just a menu of courses assembled because "everybody ought to take a philosophy course at some time in their college experience." I suspect (though I do not have the data to demonstrate this) that an 18-credit gen ed curriculum that builds skills from one course to another will see greater gains in student learning than a 45-credit curriculum that does not. It is not first of all a question of the number of hours but of what is done in those hours.

12. earthscienceprof - January 18, 2011 at 01:02 pm

I taught a large intro oceanography course for about 25 years, at a major public research institution. The last 10 years of my career were devoted to developing online software that enabled me to make these students accountable for their learning, and to enable advanced learning environments. I believe strongly that the nearly universal custom of using student evaluations to evaluate teaching has consequences that lead us toward this situation. Of course, it's not the whole story, but I do believe it has a significant effect. For more info, see: http://es.earthednet.org/node/73

13. dank48 - January 18, 2011 at 01:44 pm

The situation in which we find ourselves is the logical result of the Las Vegasization of America: everything and everybody is assumed to be for sale.

Students think they can buy an education like they buy anything else. Do other customers put up with annoying criticism from a clerk while they're purchasing? Of course not. Why then should student customers put up with some professor (or less) telling them they need to study, read, work, etc.

Of course there are exceptions. About as many as like to listen to what any sales clerk has to say.

14. jsobrien - January 18, 2011 at 02:03 pm

Perhaps a perspective from the business world might be of some use; or perhaps not. Here it is, anyway.

I have worked for many years in a field requiring new hires to very, very quickly absorb enormous amounts of data and build them into a coherent whole that they can use to consult to hire-powered organizations. It became clear to us, back when I was in Chicago in the early 90s, that our failure rate among these new hires was rising at an alarming rate. We did a quick look at characteristics our failing associates had in common. There weren't any we could identify, but we DID identify characteristics that our success stories had in common: They were all from highly selective schools which, in the Chicago area, generally meant Northwestern, Chicago, and Notre Dame.

We didn't cease hiring grads from other, local colleges, but we did begin to give preference to those from highly selective collegs, and our new hire failure rate plummeted.

Now, some of you will say, correctly, that it's "diamonds in, diamonds out." Obviously, if it's brutally competitive to get into those schools, the grads are likely to be highly competent students upon graduation. Fair enough. I agree. But let me throw a twist in there that you might not have considered: the issue of branding.

The fact is, the Northwestern, Chicago, and Notre Dame brands became very appealing to us, and other brands much less so. One can argue about the reason the grads of these schools had better brands, but the fact is, they did. It strikes me that other schools could improve their brands by refusing to grant degrees to those students who don't meet rigorous skills standards upon graduation. By graduating schleps, you have hurt those of your grads who really might have been able to meet our standards, but who weren't hired. Not being hired into my business is not the end of the world, but those who are hired into it generally become wealthy by most standards. Hurting your brand means hurting those students who would have been successful, happy, and productive in my business, but who were passed over for more "reliable" brands.

15. garlic_tooth - January 18, 2011 at 02:38 pm

I completely agree with owliebehn. There is a lot of pressure on faculty to increase graduation rates. Well, how can you increase graduation rates when your students do not want to work as hard as you want them to? Simple answer: by lowering your standards. Everybody is happy in the end - students do not learn much, but they have a diploma, right?

16. ellachar - January 18, 2011 at 02:43 pm

For thirty years, I taught English in a number of different secondary schools. The last ten years of that career, I taught AP English, Honors English, and Gifted English. I held my students to rigorous academic standards: I expected their best, and I got it. Maintaining such expectations was not easy, and therein lies a tale for another day. After leaving the public schools, I took a position as an adjunct instructor of second semester freshman English at one of my state's universities. I was so excited to be teaching at the "university." I began my first class with high expectations. After reading their first papers, I was appalled by my students' lack of skill, and demoralized by their lack of effort. My students could not write an adequate essay. I spent the semester trying to teach them to write a quality essay, but I was not popular. My students were angry, telling me they had made A's and B's in their first semester writing class. I checked the records. They spoke the truth. I did not understand how such grades could have been "given" to students who couldn't write sentences. After a couple of semesters, I was summoned to my supervisor's office to discuss my students' evaluations of me. The meeting and my evaluations were not good. I was devastated. It seems that my students believed I expected too much and gave too much work. For over thirty years I had received glowing evaluations, accolades, and recognition. I had taught other teachers through Staff Development programs. Had I suddenly become a bad teacher? Faced with such criticism, I immersed myself in self-examination to determine how I could improv. I sought input from instructors who had taught many years at this university. What did they tell me? Well, one instructor told me she/he knew the grades she/he gave were inflated, but she/he needed the job, and since hiring seemed to be based on students' evaluations of teachers, she/he did what was necessary to get good evaluations.

I am saddened to say I believe this teacher's assessment of what is expected of us by our "bosses" is accurate. I am in a crisis of conscience. Do I relax my standards in order to keep my job?
The emphasis is on student RETENTION. We must not make classes too difficult for them.

17. christophknoess - January 18, 2011 at 03:08 pm

The book and Kevin Carey's article blame institutions, not faculty. Neither the "non-aggression pact" between faculty and students that underlies grade inflation and course evaluations, nor the use of adjuncts, nor the priority given to research over teaching were caused by faculty. They are all symptoms of the problem, not its root causes.

Higher education has had to deal with many conflicting pressures: admit increasing percentages of high school graduates with decreasing college readiness, compete for ever more research dollars, move up in the rankings, create a country club atmosphere on campus, solicit ever higher donations from alumni and friends, all while maintaining accreditation. And campus leaders have dealt with these contradictions very poorly: costs were not among the pressures, so they got completely ignored; and accreditation is awfully hard to lose, so learning outcomes deteriorated, too. Accountability, to the extend it existed, was limited to how much money could be raised and spent outside the classroom.

The rules of the game have changed very rapidly: state appropriations have decreased and are far from their low point, student loans have become less available and less attractive, state boards have woken up to the poor educational outcomes of their institutions. Higher ed needs transformational change, not tweaking. Yet at conferences and in the press I only see "tweakers".

Undergraduate education can be fixed. But it takes more than tweaks. http://www.engagedmindsinc.com

18. jung_gt - January 18, 2011 at 03:13 pm

jsobrien is right on. Maintaining high standards may be unpopular with students in the short term, but makes their degree more valuable in the long term. The better students know this, and welcome rigor, in my experience (25 years of teaching at an academically rigorous, and prestigious, public university). Indeed, colleges with high reputation (good branding) have no problem attracting applicants and students.

19. rgregory - January 18, 2011 at 03:19 pm

@ jsobrien - I too spent a very large portion of my career in the industrial sector, and I, too, worked for a Chicago-based company that required very high quality graduates. We, too, recruited from the attractive brand universities in the area. And I always had a bad feeling about that, for I had come from somewhere else (although I graduated from one of those top-tier graduate schools).

I am now in academia, and I have to say that the flaw in your plan is that we are constantly hammered for something entirely different than selectivity and excellence in our graduates. I have worked in three universities, and in each one, the conversation has turned away from how good our graduates are, and focused on the issues of retention and completion. Everyone, from the local newspapers to the politicians, to our own recruiters are hammering the message home - an institution is a failure if the students don't or can't stay, or if they don't graduate. So, you get what you measure.

I worked in laboratory management for many years, and there was an old expression regarding incoming work that floated around all the time - "You can have the results fast. You can have them cheap. You can have them comprehensive. Pick two." Education today seems to be in a quagmire - we want it all. We want everyone to "have access" - meaning, we will accept all comers. We want everyone to complete - meaning everyone graduates. And we want everyone to be superb students - meaning that we should reward students who learn the things we want them to learn, who learn to be critical evaluators of incoming information, who learn to express themselves with aplomb. And we must be cost effective - meaning we have to be cheap. The only problem is that you can't have all of these together. If everyone is accepted, and everyone graduates, as the current public opinion appears to expect, then the learning gains will be broadly distributed in the best case. And if the students are to be retained, then the courses have to be easy enough for the less prepared student to pass. There isn't any other alternative, unless you allow for remediative learning. But then 4 year graduation rates suffer, and the college gains the reputation of taking too long with their students.

We have to decide what we want out of higher education in this country. And that, unfortunately, means that we must choose between excellence in higher education and universal access, or we have to design remediation programs that work for the students who enter underprepared. The latter will cost money. And money doesn't seem to be something we are willing to commit to the cause. Not at the state level, nor at the federal level.

Kevin's expectation of testing accountability will do nothing to further the cause. It will not work in higher ed any more than it has at the K-12 level. You will, yet again, get what you measure. You will have a bunch of college profs, all in lock-step, teaching to the 'standards' - another euphemism for teaching to the test - out of fear for their careers, if nothing else. And we will have another set of meaningless statistics to show how we are all succeeding, while our students continue to decline in the very skills we are hoping they will gain.

20. jsobrien - January 18, 2011 at 04:32 pm


Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Like you, I wasn't entirely comfortable with weighting graduates of good brands more heavily than those of lesser brands, because I knew for a fact that there were many good grads of other schools that would have done very well. In a business environment, though, when faced with the alternative of panning for gold in a place that yields a nugget every now and then after expending considerable effort, or mining a rich vein of gold that yields value with little effort, it's usually the latter course that businesses will pursue. Or, perhaps it's more accurate to say, "businesses that thrive on talent."

I didn't really feel that I had a plan as much as an observation. Clearly, there is tension between "good, fast, cheap" (as I have always heard it), and it's been my experience that organizations tend to err on the side of fast and cheap, to the detriment of "good." It's a short-sighted approach, of course, as anyone at GM can tell you after it took them three decades to learn the lesson, but it is a human approach in which instant gratification trumps long-term interests.

As for a plan, I'll throw this one out as red meat for the pack.

What if lesser-name-brand colleges started offering gilt-edged degrees that are different from their standard degrees? The guilt-edged one (we'll call it a GED just to confuse people) would cost more, and it could be acquired only by attending a sort of academic boot camp that would have made Socrates blanch. You wouldn't get to graduate with the GED unless you could demonstrate very high-level logic and thinking skills in both written and oral exams. If you failed these, you'd get a regular degree.

To make the GED more valuable, colleges could guarantee to employers that students with this degree are of the highest caliber, have ridiculously strong work ethics, and have measurable and stunning thinking and learning skills. They could even offer to cover the first six months of pay for GED grads if they don't work out, which would give colleges a huge incentive not to grant this degree to anyone unqualified for it.

This allows colleges to continue current revenue streams by retaining more students who get a regular degree, while bumping its branding for the GED. Of course, more and more students would want to obtain the far-more-valuable GED, and might just subect themselves to academic boot camp for it (I'm betting they would, and in large numbers). Many may work harder -- even much harder. Many would actually leave college much changed for the better. Eventually, the regular degree might almost die out, since its value would be much diminished by the GEDs others were receiving.

As for measurement, boy, are you preaching to the choir. I agree entirely that measurement drives behavior, and that the law of unintended consequences is written on a P&L statement. If measurement is the issue, though, it can be refined and made as perfect as it can ever be.

And I think that needs to happen.

21. romansinclair - January 18, 2011 at 05:09 pm


22. livesinfl - January 18, 2011 at 05:23 pm


23. cmacksnow - January 18, 2011 at 10:43 pm


your comments regarding the "everyone graduates" approach were spot-on. I couldn't have said it better. It's an issue my colleagues and I struggle with as we advise students regarding their post-secondary options, and it's reassuring to know we aren't the only ones worried about it.

Re: accountability - I agree with Kevin that the "trust us" approach does a disservice to its students and those investing in higher education. However, like others have said, I have very little confidence that a large-scale system of accountability would have anything less than the same kind of disastrous effects NCLB caused. I would like to be optimistic and think that, by instituting higher teaching/learning standards coupled with strong support for students, they would experience the satisfaction that comes from meeting academic rigor in the face and coming out victorious - but I know that scenario isn't always very realistic, either.


24. tardigrade - January 19, 2011 at 07:23 am

"those with a reasonable facility for ... navigating a bureaucracy receive a credential..."

Thank you, thank you, thank you for making this oh so explicit. It's an implicit expectation that doesn't ever seem to be explicitly taught, despite its importance to college success.

25. obelix - January 19, 2011 at 01:20 pm

I reject the assertion that it takes generous grading in order to obtain good student evaluations. In my experience, students respect blunt feedback that also offers concrete suggestions for improvement, and grades that in fact reflect the quality of their work. A great number of students are tired of being told their work is great (or even passable) when they know that it is not. They seem more eager for professors who demonstrate that they actually care about the students' progress.

26. 11134078 - January 19, 2011 at 03:16 pm

May we please quit calling colleges and universities "brands"? This language points to an attitude that is a large part of the problem, but is used as if it had something to do with the solution.

27. aaroncj - January 19, 2011 at 03:19 pm

To jsobrien:

I believe most colleges and universities have a "GED-like" program. It's usually the "Honors College" or "Honors Program" and often such programs offer require more rigor in exchange for a more personalized learning environment.

28. tutzauer - January 19, 2011 at 05:02 pm

Lets assume that we successfully teach and that students successfully learn (at least at the time we teach them) the (generalized basic) skills assessed in the CLA: Critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem solving, & written communication. Does our society value these skills and encourage their use? If students don't get to move the skills from the classroom to their daily lives, how can we expect them to retain them? We have bright, highly educated government "leaders" who themselves cannot write (reasonable legislation or anything), do not think critically (but grasp at labels and sound bites), don't reason (or even want to attempt to do so, because their constituencies don't want to think), nor solve problems (do Congressional obstructionists rule on Capitol Hill)? Cable and the airwaves resonate with the shallow depth of thought and intellect that we have come to accept (and expect). What skills will we value in our society? Will we have the patience to listen, reason, and communicate our concerns effectively? Will we value this in others? Instead, we have come to expect credentials, not reasoned discourse. And so, it is credentialing that we expect of our higher educational system. But hey . . . our students are really good at Facebook and Twitter!

29. pierce_library40 - January 19, 2011 at 05:41 pm

We keep hearing about professors fired or denied tenure for being "too tough." I've been in higher education for 27 years now, as both faculty and administration. I have never ever seen this kind of retribtuion done, not once, nor talked with anybody who's had it done to them. I smell urban legend....

30. jsobrien - January 19, 2011 at 10:23 pm

1113407: On the issue of colleges and universities being "brands": I submit that you may use any word you like, so long as it recognizes the reality of the issue of "reputation." If I hire someone from your college who has a degree and is entirely incapable of doing work requiring skills I expect of those with college degrees, then my opinion of your college is diminished. I am less likely to trust that the next applicant who shows up at my door with a degree from your school would actually be a good hire. In other word, the value of the degree -- at least as "value" applies to obtaining a high-paying job in my field -- is diminished. Eventually, if I hire enough people with degrees from your college, all of whom cannot do the work graduates from other colleges can do, then your degree, in my eyes, becomes worthless.

I find "brand" to be a useful term to describe this phenomenon, but by all means, please suggest a more useful one that better captures the essence of what is happening.

aaroncj: I'm afraid that honors colleges and honors college degrees are not what I'm suggesting. I have not found that people with those degrees have skills that differ substantially from those with regular degrees. Please note that the most selective colleges generally do not have honors programs. They don't need them. My sense of most honors colleges is that they are gimmicks designed to attract better-prepared high school students to overhyped programs that amount to very little. I believe that honors colleges are usually marketing ploys that tend to sell value that isn't there. I'm suggesting something with real value; not imaginary value.

tutzauer: I can assure that higher order thinking skills are in great demand, and highly valued. I doubt most businesses can articulate that they want those skills, but they can tell the difference between employees who think ahead, come up with creative and elegant solutions, and who ask extremely useful questions. Once you've had employees like that, the run-of-the-mill, entry-level employee is always a bitter disappointment.

31. formerprof05 - January 21, 2011 at 03:37 pm

I think that jsobrien and rgregory have nailed it. This is just the sort of discussion that is needed to reform our educational system. On the one hand, universities must avoid selling out to technical training only by ignoring or diminishing programs that actually teach the higher order thinking skills and by reducing academic standards merely to retain or attract students. On the other hand, businesses and other organizations need to help the general public see that a truly excellent and broad education benefits not only individuals, but also society as a whole.

One of my concerns is that the wider culture no longer values the sort of education that jsobrien and rgregory encourage here. Hence, there is great reluctance by individual students and by society at large to commit the effort, time, and financial resources to make it happen.

I've recently discussed this at greater length in my blog, "Adrift without a Paddle," at http://bit.ly/eip5y6.

By the way, after teaching in honors programs for many years, I generally agree with jsobrien's assessment of their effectiveness.

32. citizenwhy - January 24, 2011 at 12:32 pm

Learning is important, and needs to have top priority. But the students have an agenda of their own, which is focused on relationships, social experimentation and/or recreation, including the new recreation that focuses on withdrawal into technology. If a college somehow cannot get students to make relationships and recreation secondary to academic commitment, then it is failing.

The disciplines where students did better all require some kind of genuine intellectual curiosity about the discipline being studied. Thus these students are disposed to pursue the transformational purpose of education, the process of becoming a better thinker and perhaps a more ethical person.

The disciplines where students did not do well - pre-professional studies - are, in the students' minds, mainly instrumental in becoming of value to employers. Yet pre-professional disciplines can also offer a transformative education. The colleges have to work harder to make this happen. "Getting a job" is a very poor primary reason to go to college. It is one legitimate reason, but it should not be primary.

33. jeff1 - January 24, 2011 at 12:43 pm

The United States arguably has one leading industry remaining: higher education, where the balance of the world sees us as a model. Thanks to all those who are so positive and constructive (as well as to the two assistant professors who wrote this book). Way to go . . . now we are going to get somewhere as a society!

34. alanng - January 24, 2011 at 05:00 pm

I'm curious: Did this study compare versus a control group? Put positively: so 2/3rd of these students _did_ make positive gains according to CLA over 4 years. Now, what if students simply spent 4 years growing up in any other way than going to college? Would we still see the same gains on the CLA?

Was that simply too scary a question to ask? My hypothesis: there would be at least some measurable gain in a large group of 18-year olds who made it to age 22 in some other (non-college) fashion. The real question is: did the college students gain _more_ than the non-college students did?

35. realtyannie - January 24, 2011 at 08:25 pm

Perhaps we should adopt the British system of classifying all Bachelor's degrees by their honor (honour in the UK) levels. We do have honors programs, but they are far less well-defined than in the UK system.

The lowest passing degree is an Ordinary degree, but it is not very highly respected and most students attempt an honours degree. The honours degrees go up from there, 3rd Class, Lower 2nd, Upper 2nd, and 1st.

In jsobrien's case, his firm might have found that 1st class honors students from less-selective schools compared favorably to lower class degrees from the top tier brands.

36. sms2everyone - January 25, 2011 at 02:24 pm

The book and Kevin Carey's article blame institutions, not faculty. Neither the "non-aggression pact" between faculty and students that underlies grade inflation and course evaluations, nor the use of adjuncts, nor the priority given to research over teaching were caused by faculty. They are all symptoms of the problem, not its root causes.

37. physicsprof - January 28, 2011 at 11:10 pm

Great article, good points, nothing will change.

38. klwilcoxon - February 01, 2011 at 08:56 pm

I've recently been reserching (in the literature) cheating. One of the most prominent trends I found is the emphasis on proving ones competence - getting A's so one can gain admission into the most prestigeous institutions or get hired by the most prestigeous firms. Grades are what counts, not learning.

Competencies were briefly brought up as a way to disrupt this sort of thinking. It now seems beyond the range of current discourse. I believe we need to bring it back to the center. Yes, yes, lots of arguments. But it has to be better than grades and all they represent.

39. momprof - February 02, 2011 at 10:13 pm

I agreed with virtually every claim and comment in "'Trust us' Won't Cut It Anymore" until I reached the second to last paragraph where I read that "faculty don't want to know". Maybe some don't--but lots of faculty already do know, or I would be reacting to this article with shock and disbelief instead of being glad that the water-cooler talk in my department has been substantiated by research, and well-expressed in this piece. I don't have decades of experience, but my experience absolutely confirms these findings in every respect. I completely agree that students are poorly prepared by teachers who are the products of lousy college educations. In particular, I entirely agree that African American students are being shafted more than most, and this is especially grievous because of the decades when a college education was the grail of civil rights activism. We are letting our children settle for a papier-mache education with candy tumbling out of it.

40. prof1977 - February 06, 2011 at 01:11 pm

This is a lame article. Most of what is wrong with education today is that we think everything has to be quanified via some "test". If you don't score higher on a post-test than you did on the "pre-test" then you have learned nothing--Bull--What it tells you is that you haven't memorized the right answers, it tells nothing about what you may or may not have learned during your four years of College. Can students today learn more than they do, absolutely, that has always been true and always well. Are our Universities perfect, of course not, each is a composite of its faculty and support services. Each will be successful based upon each fulfilling their role in helping education each student.

We need to spend less time on testing to see, if students learned a specific fact and more time focus on helping each learn to think and challenge their abilities. The great teachers challenge their student, not making memory "geniuses" of them.

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