There’s been a lot of hand-wringing and finger-pointing in academic circles this week over the release of a book claiming college students are “Academically Adrift” (see also the follow-up story here). The headline findings, as summarized by Inside Higher Ed are:
* 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college.
* 36 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over four years of college.
* Those students who do show improvements tend to show only modest improvements. Students improved on average only 0.18 standard deviations over the first two years of college and 0.47 over four years. What this means is that a student who entered college in the 50th percentile of students in his or her cohort would move up to the 68th percentile four years later — but that’s the 68th percentile of a new group of freshmen who haven’t experienced any college learning.
You can read a report on the study, which presents the same conclusions while also highlighting the authors’ appalling taste in graphic design (do you really want to make your report difficult to read by putting a huge background graphic on every page?). They also have a culprit in mind, of course, because it wouldn’t be a scary report on the parlous state of academia if they didn’t blame something for it. Again, quoting Inside Higher Ed:
The main culprit for lack of academic progress of students, according to the authors, is a lack of rigor. They review data from student surveys to show, for example, that 32 percent of students each semester do not take any courses with more than 40 pages of reading assigned a week, and that half don’t take a single course in which they must write more than 20 pages over the course of a semester. Further, the authors note that students spend, on average, only about 12-14 hours a week studying, and that much of this time is studying in groups.
We’ll leave aside for the moment the fact that their standard is preposterously humanities-centric (the most intimidating physic course most Ph.D. students take is E&M out of Jackson’s Classical Electrodynamics, and the longest chapter in my copy is about 70 pages, so it might pass their threshold for rigor if you did a chapter a week), and take this at face value: somewhere between a third and a half of college students are basically coasting, doing minimal work.
My reaction to this is, basically “Yes, and…?” I mean, really. This is shocking news?
I mean, sure, that sounds like a surprising figure when you first hear it– 36% of college students don’t learn much of anything. But on reflection, that seems about right. Their finding, basically, is that one in three college students are coasting, and that seems consistent with my experiences both as a student and as a faculty member.
My undergrad alma mater is about as good as it gets when it comes to small liberal arts colleges– they’re usually in one of the top three spots of the US News rankings, and even there, I knew plenty of people who were just dogging it. There were a lot of people who spent far more time drinking than studying (at different points in my college career I was among them), people who joked that they were “majoring in [notoriously easy professor's name],” because they arranged their major track to hit as many of his classes as they could. I don’t know that I’d put the fraction as high as 1/3rd– certainly not among my close friends– but a good number of people were constantly on the lookout for ways to avoid doing work.
The same is true at Union. Physics is a notoriously difficult subject, but even here, it’s not hard to think of students I’ve taught who did as little as they could possibly manage and still get a degree. And for the college as a whole, based on the occasional faculty gripe session, there’s no shortage of students who are coasting. And I would expect that as you move down to even less elite institutions, the fraction of students who are just marking time is constant, or even higher.
(It’s a little tough to say exactly what I would expect in this regard, actually– since we have a very well-off student population, there are probably quite a few students here who feel free to coast because they know they can fall back on family resources. On the other hand, though, there are probably many more students at large state schools who picked a college based on the sports teams, or that sort of thing. I wouldn’t expect the coasting fraction to be significantly smaller at Maryland (my graduate alma mater) than at Williams, but it’s conceivable that it might be larger.)
So, yeah, it’s not hard to believe that a third of college students don’t gain much in the cognitive skills department, often by dint of their own successful efforts to find the easiest possible path to a degree. But really, I don’t think that’s all that surprising. Think of any job you like, and probably close to a third of the people doing it are doing just enough to get by. People are lazy, and college students are just young people.
It’s also important to note that the fact that students didn’t gain significantly on this particular measure of cognitive skills doesn’t mean that the experience of college wasn’t valuable for them. On the faculty side, we like to think that the only important part of college is what goes on in our classes, but in reality, there are lots of different aspects to college that end up being valuable to students.
At the most basic and cynical level, students graduating from college have gotten a credential that makes it easier for them to get a job. But there are other academic and non-academic processes that can act to benefit them without necessarily making them better essay writers. They get some exposure to different fields and ideas, which leads many students to find a passion for and even a career in some field they didn’t know they cared about before getting to college. They meet people, and make friends and connections that can come in handy later on– this isn’t such a big deal in academia, but in the business world, that can be worth a lot. On a personal level, lots of people meet their spouses in college or because of something they did in college, which can be a huge impact on people’s lives. Those are all experiences that make college valuable that won’t necessarily be reflected in a test of cognitive skills.
So, for all the splashy headlines, I really don’t see a lot here to be distressed about. A third of our students are coasting, but a third of our students have always been coasting, and will always be coasting. And if you think about it, around a third of all the people we interact with are probably coasting. That’s the way the world works, and academia is not exempt.
Beyond the headline results, there’s a lot of stuff in the report that verges on interesting– the highest gains are apparently realized by students majoring in science and math, followed closely by traditional liberal arts disciplines, while the lowest spots are occupied by business, education/social work, communications, and, weirdly, “health” (which I really hope doesn’t mean “pre-med”). It’s hard to get anything all that meaningful out of the report, though, because all the data are presented really oddly– the spiffy bar graphs are actually predictions based on a multiple-regression fit to their data set, as opposed to, you know, actual data– and I’m dubious enough about the way they’re presenting things that I wouldn’t want to use this document to make any more detailed argument. Some actual quantitative information is presumably provided in the book they’re flogging, but I’m not interested enough in this argument to invest that much of my limited free time in reading it.