That would be Academically Adrift, by NYU sociologist Richard Arum and his colleague Josipa Roksa, released today. The study measured how much 2,300 statistically representative undergraduates who enrolled as freshmen in a diverse group of 24 colleges and universities in 2005 had learned by the time they (in theory) were ready to graduate, in 2009. As a measuring tool, the researchers used the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a respected test of analytic reasoning, critical thinking, and written communication skills.
Their finding? Forty-five percent of students made no gains on the CLA during their first two years in college. Thirty-six percent made no gains over the entire four years. They learned nothing. On average, students improved by less than half a standard deviation in four years. “American higher education,” the researchers found, “is characterized by limited or no learning for a large proportion of students.”
For a more detailed explanation of the findings and my take on what they say about accountability, affirmative action, the Obama higher education agenda, and why this doesn’t mean that fewer students should go to college, read my Chronicle of Higher Education column. There’s a lot more to talk about beyond that and it’ll take several blog posts to cover the ground, but here are some additional thoughts to start:
First, while you can download a summary of the findings here, you really ought to read the whole book. I don’t say this lightly–in fact, I think you’ll find few if any academic book recommendations on this blog. But if you’re interested in higher education research, or if you’re a policy generalist who likes to keep up with education along with many other topics, Academically Adrift is a marvelously concise and well-reasoned synthesis of the authors’ groundbreaking research, the larger policy context, and the extant literature. Read it and you’ll be a smarter person.
Second, this is the next frontier of education policy. For decades the public conversation has focused exclusively on higher education access, getting more students into college with enough money in their pocket to pay for it. The last five to 10 years have seen that agenda extended to include higher education attainment–getting students through college to a degree. What very few people have written, studied, or talked about is higher education learning–because learning was always assumed. Well, assume no more. As the few other studies on the topic indicate–this and this most prominently–a significant number of students appear to be learning little or nothing in college. This should profoundly change the assumptions on which higher education policy is based.
Third, it’s appalling that it took this long for someone to design and execute a straightforward study of college student learning. We have decades of such research in K-12 education, which receives a hugely disproportionate share of research dollars. There should be 10 more studies using different instruments and methods to enrich and challenge Arum and Roksa’s findings. Funding such research should be a major priority for the Department of Education.
Fourth, “limited or no learning for a large proportion of students”? What the hell? Students are spending and borrowing massive sums of money for those degrees. Huge parts of our economy depend on them. Taxpayers are shelling out hundreds of billions of dollars per year to support them. This seems like the epic fail to end them all.
More to come.