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UNDATED (AP) — You are told that to make it life, you must go to college. You work hard to get there. You or your parents drain savings or take out huge loans to pay for it all.

And you end up learning… not much.

A study of more than 2,300 undergraduates found 45 percent of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years.

Not much is asked of students, either. Half did not take a single course requiring 20 pages of writing during their prior semester, and one-third did not take a single course requiring even 40 pages of reading per week.

The findings are in a new book, “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” by sociologists Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia. An accompanying report argues against federal mandates holding schools accountable, a prospect long feared in American higher education.

“The great thing — if you can call it that — is that it’s going to spark a dialogue and focus on the actual learning issue,” said David Paris, president of the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability, which is pressing the cause in higher education. “What kind of intellectual growth are we seeing in college?”

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

“It’s not the case that giving out more credentials is going to make the U.S. more economically competitive,” Arum said in an interview. “It requires academic rigor … You can’t just get it through osmosis at these institutions.”

The findings also will likely spark a debate over what helps and hurts students learn. To sum up, it’s good to lead a monk’s existence: Students who study alone and have heavier reading and writing loads do well.

The book is based on information from 24 schools, meant to be a representative sample, that provided Collegiate Learning Assessment data on students who took the standardized test in their first semester in fall 2005 and at the end of their sophomore years in spring 2007. The schools took part on the condition that their institutions not be identified.

The Collegiate Learning Assessment has its share of critics who say it doesn’t capture learning in specialized majors or isn’t a reliable measure of college performance because so many factors are beyond their control.

The research found an average-scoring student in fall 2005 scored seven percentage points higher in spring of 2007 on the assessment. In other words, those who entered college in the 50th percentile would rise to the equivalent of the 57th after their sophomore years.

Among the findings outlined in the book and report, which tracked students through four years of college:

—Overall, the picture doesn’t brighten much over four years. After four years, 36 percent of students did not demonstrate significant improvement, compared to 45 percent after two.

—Students who studied alone, read and wrote more, attended more selective schools and majored in traditional arts and sciences majors posted greater learning gains.

—Social engagement generally does not help student performance. Students who spent more time studying with peers showed diminishing growth and students who spent more time in the Greek system had decreased rates of learning, while activities such as working off campus, participating in campus clubs and volunteering did not impact learning.

—Students from families with different levels of parental education enter college with different learning levels but learn at about the same rates while attending college. The racial gap between black and white students going in, however, widens: Black students improve their assessment scores at lower levels than whites.

Arum and Roksa spread the blame, pointing to students who don’t study much and seek easy courses and a culture at colleges and universities that values research over good teaching.

Subsequent research found students one year out of college are not faring well: One-third moved back home, and 10 percent were unemployed. The findings are troubling news for an engaged citizenry, Arum said. Almost half of those surveyed said they rarely if ever discuss politics or public affairs with others either in person or online.

The report warns that federally mandated fixes similar to “No Child Left Behind” in K-12 education would be “counterproductive,” in part because researchers are still learning how to measure learning. But it does make clear that accountability should be emphasized more at the institutional level, starting with college presidents.

Some colleges and universities do not need convincing. The University of Charleston, in West Virginia, has beefed up writing assignments in disciplines such as nursing and biology to improve learning.

President Edwin Welch is among more than 70 college and university presidents pledging to take steps to improve student learning, use evidence to improve instruction and publicize results.

“I think we do need more transparency,” Welch said. “I think a student at a private institution who might go into debt for $40,000 or $50,000 has the right to know what he can learn at the institution.”

Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Comment on this Story

  • Guest3230

    College should be a place for learning and colleges are more interested in producing income for jocks and sports and students go to party. Educationally we are becoming a third world. Throw that football and party students, but learn to at least say “you want fries with that”.

  • Guest7969

    GREEDY teachers who are more concerned with tenure than performance. Parents…who don’t discipline.

  • Guest6979

    Well maybe we should move back to a society where not everyone is expected to go to college. Universities should be about higher education and professors need to be harder on their students. Parents should not be able to bully school officials into passing their children or inflating student’s grades. Even at the high school level students are allowed to take honors or ap classes even when they have no business being in those classes. As a teacher I assign readings weekly and find that the majority of my students fail to do the readings, and then they wonder why they do not have an A. Students (not all, but a majority) feel entitled. What happened to our society?

  • Robo

    It all depends on the University and the course of study. Certainly those in difficult disciplines work very hard in their first two years just to advance. This study does not provide much in-depth information, and seems to suggest that one size fits all.

  • guest999

    Many of my textbooks this semester put emphasis on social issues rather than fundamentals. My English textbook, for example, is loaded with political activist authors, and very little in the way of unbiased literature.

    I think if colleges eliminated opinion shaping agendas, and concentrated on the ABC’s of education, kids would be in better shape when they graduated. Right now people are getting four year degrees in useless subjects (Sociology, for example) and still can’t find Canada on a map. To top it off, they are going into debt in the process.

    I’ve also noticed that academic standards for certain scholarships are declining. I’ve seen a couple that require you to only have a 2.0 and be a member of certain ethnic groups. Seems like rewarding those who work harder for good grades would be more wise than giving incentives to those who don’t.

  • College isn’t for learning. What an antiquated notion. College is for teaching kids how to be good little statists who never question the actions of the government, think emotionally regarding every issue, wage war against American tradition, praise the sovereignty of the world over that of the United States, sacrifice individuality in favor of collectivism, mock Constitutional thought, and celebrate progressivism.

  • watchyoursix

    we don’t even hire most 4yr college grads anymore. Students from Wake Tech (Raleigh) & some from CFCC as well as Pitt C.C. will actually do the job & show up for work. Most of our UNC (& similar schools)new hires are disasters. Sadly, our 4yr people want more money than they’re worth.

  • Kate

    Gee, can’t wait to buy this book! Just kidding, I’m a graduate student with no money or prospects. However, I will search the library soon with the hope that I can find one of these schools cited that requires little homework, either reading or writing. Frankly, after many years in school, the unrealistic requirements are onerous at most colleges today. Perhaps, that’s why so many young people are getting drunk and dropping out…Far too stressful & too much work, costing too much, with intense expectations and competition!

    Thinking that there may be a bit of disinformation floating around the media today about current college students…Looking for the new agenda…

  • Guest

    If a freshman in high school who is an average student can successfully take college level classes and pass them such as early college high school students does that not speak to the level of expectations on the college level? It used to be that only the intellectual genius could be 13 and successful…..one in a 100,000. Also, when teachers are expected to give students multiple opportunities to pass a test, how does that speak to the students ability or desire to learn to study?

  • Jess

    I started taking college classes at the community college the summer before freshman year. One of my classes, I spent hanging out and not listening, but when it came time for assignments to be due, I was able to turn them in the last day of class and receive full credit. I’m a senior now and all I got to say is the education system is horrible. From Pre-K to 12. For 8-11 grade, I attended a charter school that had opened up and had “stolen” the top teachers from the public school. In the past 4 years, the scores at the public high school have dropped. In order to prepare the students for the real world, we need to get rid of the teacher unions, and the rest of the political bull that has burdened our schools. The No Child left behind and the teaching to the test has to stop. My charter school has a great pass rate, but the differences is that when people have come in and interviewed us about subjects such as economics, we were able to answer twice as much as the public school because we weren’t taught the test. Now I’m at a different high school, different state for my senior year and the kids are clueless about the world around them. Heres an idea, stop the government required tests like the EOCs, EOGS and set guidelines on what needs to be taught and let the final decision be up to the teacher on whether the kids passed the class. Way back, when there wasn’t all this testing, school was so much harder, they actually learned stuff.

  • justin

    The students were lacking in “critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills by the end of their sophomore years.” Really? And shouldn’t all of those skills been honed and mastered BEFORE they began their four years of college? Attending a university isn’t about hooking students up to a computer and pumping their brains full of life-needing knowledge. My favorite line is, “students one year out of college are not faring well: One-third moved back home, and 10 percent were unemployed.” Of course they’re not faring well – they’re dropouts! This has to be one of the most seriously flawed studies ever reported!

  • Norm

    Real educators are kept out of high school classrooms. They are also driven away by Praxis testing, licensing fees, standardized testing and local politics. The students only learn how to score high on standardized tests so they can pass. No one teaches them how to think or synthesize knowledge. No one is allowed to teach them how the world really works since it would offend their sensibilities or hurt their self-esteem. Due to all these limitations they go to college like a lamb going to the slaughter. The professors are only interested in their personal ego, salary status and tenure. So the young people they just sit there and play with their i-pods.


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