A new book titled “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” authored by New York University professor Richard Arum, unveils data indicating that nearly half of the nation’s undergraduates learn little or nothing in their first two years of college, primarily because colleges don’t make learning a priority.
Arum’s findings were based on transcripts and surveys of more than 3,000 full-time students on 29 campuses nationwide, as well as their results on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test that gauges students’ critical thinking, analytic reasoning and writing skills.
Among the book’s disturbing revelations:
- After two years in college, 45% of students showed no significant gains in learning.
- After four years, 36% of students showed minimal gains.
- Students spent 50% less time studying compared with students of a few decades ago.
- 35% of students reported spending five or fewer hours per week studying alone.
- 50% said they never took a class in a typical semester where they wrote more than 20 pages.
- 32% never took a course in a typical semester where they read more than 40 pages per week.
- Despite the above, students earned an average GPA of 3.2.
Yet our national leaders and employers continue to spread the apparent myth that a college degree confers special competence to graduates, placing non-college grads at a competitive and economic disadvantage that is indefensible given these findings. In far too many cases, students are paying for a credential rather than the skills and knowledge the credential is supposed to signify, meaning that in far too many cases as well, the individual with superior financial resources will get a job based on the meaningless degree his resources purchased, while an industrious individual who gained as much or more education by working for the same four year period is rejected as “unqualified.”.
Colleges and universities have to be held accountable for their failure to educate, and employers have an obligation to reject the easy but irresponsible approach of using degrees as indicia of ability and knowledge, when for so many individuals this is not warranted. The consequences of the consumer scam represented by colleges charging thousands of dollars for educations they do not confer, then falsely representing to employers that their graduates have special virtues they in fact do not have may be significant and broad. They could include the misallocation of human and financial resources on four years of dubious value, unfairly penalizing millions of able Americans who choose to do something else in those four years, and the hiring of unqualified employees to perform important tasks in the private and public sector, to the disadvantage of American productivity, efficiency, competitiveness, and the general public welfare.
It can be expected that colleges will dispute the study. No one, however, who has watched Jay Leno interview clueless and apparently shameless college students who can’t answer questions one would expect a fourth grader to know, or who has, as I have, encountered dozens of recent graduates of elite schools whose analytical, writing, and rhetorical skills are negligible, will be inclined to doubt Prof. Arum’s conclusions. If college degrees are a scam, more than just the graduates are victims. His book should be the beginning of a serious, open-minded inquiry. There is too much at stake to take the integrity of college degrees for granted.