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Study Shows Colleges are Institutions of Little to No Learning

By Madeline Holler |

john belushi, universities and colleges

You laugh, but this could be your future college kid.

Wait, how much do four years of college cost? And for this?

More than 2,000 undergraduates at 24 colleges and universities around the nation were tracked and tested to see how much they learned and when. The short answer: not much and kind of all four years.

Results are in the book, “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” by sociologists Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia.

Of the students, 45 percent showed no improvement by the end of their sophomore year in several key areas of higher education: critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing. No wonder, since the study also found that half hadn’t taken a course the previous semester that required at least a 20-page paper. One-third hadn’t had a course the previous semester that required at least 40 pages of reading per week.

Sure, you could argue that those students had simply taken an easy prior semester. But half? One third? Will every other semester be like that?

The results are based on a standardized test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment exam,which students in the study took at the beginning of their freshman year in 2005 and again at the end of their sophomore year in 2007. Students who scored in the average 50th percentile pretty much stayed average as sophomores, raising only — across the group — 7 percentile points.

Junior and senior years didn’t exactly make up the difference either. After four years, 36 percent of the students didn’t show significant improvement. After two years, 45 percent didn’t.

Researchers also found that studying alone was better than studying in groups and that more reading and writing led to more learning.

The Associated Press summarized other results, such as the following:

Students who … 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.

Researchers said students and the institutions were to blame. Students sought out easy courses or didn’t study. Professors were more interested in research than teaching.

A common mantra among those trying to improve education at the K-12 levels is that all their students will end up graduating from college with a degree. Education officials also push college as the answer to keeping Americans competitive with the rest of the world. But colleges and universities appear to be using resources on students who are either not equipped to learn or don’t care about it. Which sounds not only like a waste of federal and state resources. But on personal ones.

All this saving for our children’s educations: it should amount to actual learning, right?

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About Madeline Holler


Madeline Holler

Madeline Holler is a writer, journalist, and blogger. She has written for Babble since the site launched in 2006. Her writing has appeared in various other publications both online and in print, including Salon and True/Slant (now Forbes). A native of the Midwest, Madeline lives, writes, and parents in Southern California, where she's raising two daughters and a son. Read bio and latest posts → Read Madeline's latest posts →

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