College: the Worst Consumer Scam of All?

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.

6 thoughts on “College: the Worst Consumer Scam of All?

  1. I’m going to dispute the study (in your summary) shows us anything related to the conclusions you make.

    After two years in college, 45% of students showed no significant gains in learning. After four years, 36% of students showed minimal gains.

    55% showed significant gains in 2 years and 36% showed minimal gains in 4. That’s at least 91% of the population. It look like a lot less they way it was written up. Now that we have a clear number, what does that number even mean? How do they define “learning”? Is college supposed to teach us to learn better, or is it supposed to teach us knowledge we’ll need to work in certain fields? I’ll come back to that last question.

    Students spent 50% less time studying compared with students of a few decades ago.

    They also spend more time working to pay for school. Was that accounted for? More importantly, the technological improvements have greatly sped up formerly arduous tasks. I remember looking for criticism of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book in high school. I spent 2 full days in a college library digging through various card catalog systems, reading reference books, pulling out old Sunday newspapers on microfiche, and generally monopolizing a librarians time. Now, I could get the same information in 20 minutes while lying in bed.

    35% of students reported spending five or fewer hours per week studying alone

    I don’t think I studied alone 5 hours a semester in college. What does that have to do with how well prepared I was coming out? For classes that required studying, I studied in groups. For most of my classes though, there was no studying. As more and more people get degrees in technological fields, the amount of studying is sure to go down. If I spent 20 hours one week writing a computer program, I wouldn’t call that studying, but it was definitely learning time.

    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.

    Does number of written pages have any correlation to learning? As a Math/Computer Science major, if I’m reading 40 pages per week or writing 20 pages for one Math/Science class, the class likely sucks. While I did a ton of reading and writing for my philosophy classes, I would say that those were the least useful for anything I have done since (excepting commenting on blog posts).

    Despite the above, students earned an average GPA of 3.2

    I have no idea how anyone thought that “despite” makes sense. The sections mix and match comparing previous generations to todays generation vs just giving numbers for today’s generation. Is 32% a low number? What was it previously. The only thing we know that has changed is people study less.

    Maybe students’ writing abilities and critical thinking abilities are not being increased as much as they were previously. There’s no actual evidence of that, but lets say they are. For example, I didn’t learn to think or write much in College. Instead, I learned how to do complex mathematics, write computer programs, and make fun of Plato. I dont’ think my employer or I got gypped.

    The key is that there are very different college educations. You can no longer assume that everyone was forced to take classes on the Greek philosophers or to break down Shakespeare like it’s the 70s. Those classes (and the skills picked up from them) aren’t necessary for most scientific or technological field graduates now, and one would have to shortchange more directly useful classes to fit them in. 80 credits worth of engineering classes to get the basic fundamentals of that realm? Not out of the question. That leaves 13 other classes for a standard 4 year program. Compare that to a literature degree requiring only 40 credits in the field. With 26 free classes left, you can learn a hell of a lot more Plato.

    • I fixed a “their” when you meant “there.” These are classic Jack typos—I can’t resist fixing them when you do it.

      I think your critique is valid, except that the first set of figures shouldn’t be combined. 45% showed no significant gains after two years, and the group had improved to only 36% after four. 64% learned something. I still think it’s pretty wretched. I admit that my personal bias is that college is way, way over-rated, that the people who learn in college would learn at least as much out of it, and the business world’s insistence on a degree just inflates tuition. Nothing in the study’s findings surprise me in the least.

      I was responsible for “despite.” If about half learns nothing, a B average for the whole should be impossible.

      • Jack,
        A correction: in the article is says 45% showed no significant improvement after 2 year, in the post above you have it as 55% showed ….

        I don’t think it changes your argument, but the typo does muddy the waters a bit.

        Feel free to delete my post if you’ve made the correction.

        –Dwayne

  2. This is not surprising at all. It is only surprising to those who close their eyes, plug their ears, and hum really loudly when any concerns like this are raised. Student achievement has been falling so fast, it is ridiculous. I can see the difference year to year. Students aren’t required to study much, are not challenged, and are taught to ‘think’ by people who believe the word ‘think’ means ‘repeat everything I say’.

    Differences between my college experience and todays college experience:

    1990: General chemistry was remedial because everyone learned it in high school.
    Today: General chemistry is being ‘dumbed down’ so that students can understand it

    1990: History classes required a minimum of 250 pages of reading/week.
    Today: Students complain about 100 pages/week as ‘unrealistic’

    1990: I spent 60-70 hours/week on my classes.
    Today: Most spend about 20 hours/week.

    1990: Calc I was the first math class for college credit. Trigonometry was remedial.
    Today: Algebra II is the first math class for college credit. Algebra I is remedial.

    1990: The professors had tests from 7-9PM so they didn’t lose lecture time.
    Today: Students won’t come to a test time at night because they have other things to do.

    1990: Professors had us read and learn material on our own that we were responsible for knowing (on tests).
    Today: A faculty member would be in deep trouble if they tested students over material they didn’t mention in class.

    1990: We were required to write in a professional manner We had to have proper grammar and mostly proper punctuation in our writing.
    Today: Journals are changing their standards because too few young scientists can write in the passive voice.

    1990: We had a part time jobs that took 10-12 hours/week. We had modest college funds ($10,000-20,000) to help us get through school.
    Today: Students try to work 30+ hours to pay for school. Their parents saved nothing for college for them. They are unaware of what a college fund is.

    1990: We did independent research for 2-3 years as undergraduates. This required at least 20 hours/week. Research made us bring together what we learned in our lecture and lab classes and apply it to new situations (how do I remove the sulfur from petroleum?).
    Today: Students are too busy with extracurricular activities and work to take part in research.

    You can claim this is all false, that I am an old curmudgeon, but I know that at least half of the assertion is false (I may be a curmudgeon). I have a file of the standardized exams from years past. Anyone can look at those and see that the tests from the 80’s and early 90’s are significantly harder than the ones given today. If you took an ACT or SAT test from that time period, gave it to the students today, and graded them on the scale from the test’s time, you would see the difference instantly.
    To shock my students into studying, I sometimes give them a sample final exam from the early 80’s. They freak out and study like mad. When they finish the actual exam, they get kind of mad about how easy it was. Then I tell them why.

    Oh, I wouldn’t put too much weight on that study, however. My students are given that survey. The problem is, it isn’t mandatory. The only benefit is that it helps you get off probation (on my campus). Who takes a voluntary 2 hour test? That means that only the lower-performing students get surveyed.

    • 1990: I spent 60-70 hours/week on my classes.
      Today: Most spend about 20 hours/week.

      You changed bases. Some people do spend 60-70 hours/week still. Your classmates might not have been spending 20 hours/week. You might have been either a slow or dedicated learner. Your class might also be easy.

      1990: Calc I was the first math class for college credit. Trigonometry was remedial.
      Today: Algebra II is the first math class for college credit. Algebra I is remedial.

      At the same school? I looked at my alma mater. In the 70s, Math majors took 2 classes for credit before calc. Now, Calc 1 is the first class that counts toward their degree.

      1990: History classes required a minimum of 250 pages of reading/week.
      Today: Students complain about 100 pages/week as ‘unrealistic’

      I bet students also used to complain that 250 pages of reading/week was unrealistic.

      1990: The professors had tests from 7-9PM so they didn’t lose lecture time.
      Today: Students won’t come to a test time at night because they have other things to do.

      So, colleges are encouraging people to have outside activities and accomodating them? What a downgrade in our educational system.

      1990: We were required to write in a professional manner We had to have proper grammar and mostly proper punctuation in our writing.
      Today: Journals are changing their standards because too few young scientists can write in the passive voice.

      Most of the college professor I had required professional writing. Are they not requiring that now? You don’t say anything has actually changed.

      1990: We had a part time jobs that took 10-12 hours/week. We had modest college funds ($10,000-20,000) to help us get through school.
      Today: Students try to work 30+ hours to pay for school. Their parents saved nothing for college for them. They are unaware of what a college fund is.

      Your generalization seems a bit much. I do agree College is considerably more expensive today and many students need to work more to support the cost.

      1990: We did independent research for 2-3 years as undergraduates. This required at least 20 hours/week. Research made us bring together what we learned in our lecture and lab classes and apply it to new situations (how do I remove the sulfur from petroleum?).
      Today: Students are too busy with extracurricular activities and work to take part in research.

      You did research for all your classes? Or for your Major concentration? Did all students do this? Does that same school have different requirements now? To use a personal example, my alma mater never required a research project for my major. It was in the early oughts that they started pushing more research for undergraduates.

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