A new study featured in the forthcoming book "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses," by sociologists Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia, is getting unfortunately scant coverage in the mainstream media.
Maybe it’s because it exposes the institutional decline of higher education in America. Maybe it’s because it upends the nostrums about every American’s need for (and right to) a college education. These scandalous findings, however, should be the basis for a wholesale revolution in how we think about higher ed. As CBS News reports:
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.
By my lights, two observations jump out in the report. The first is captured in two quick hits in the CBS report:
-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.
The second, provocatively enough, doesn’t appear in the CBS report, but made its way into the Business Insider’s description of Arum and Roksa’s work:
Even though students are about 50% less likely to study today than in previous decades, the report found universities are to blame as well; largely because professors spend too much time focused on research and not enough time on the students.
If we want to right the course of the modern university, this seems like two good places to start. First, diminish the social premium of college life. If I were an administrator, I’d start by abolishing the dormitory model of student housing. Dorms have the tendency to inhibit responsible behavior instead of encouraging it and they almost always make life harder for diligent students.
Second, separate the research and teaching components of the professorial life, particularly in the humanities and social studies (I intentionally avoid the designation “social sciences”). In the hard sciences, it may make sense to have a cutting-edge researcher splitting his time between the laboratory and the classroom. But in a discipline like political science, the wonk who has just produced the magnum opus on the correlation between Honduran zinc prices and voter fraud may not have the right skill set to lead a freshman seminar. Obviously, these profs should still be attempting to deepen their knowledge of the field, but too much superfluous academic research gets subsidized by the current system at the expense of people who can actually teach. It’s a sad day when the Teaching Company has become the best value in American higher education.