Is College Too Easy?
June 02, 2011, 11:02 PM
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From the L.A. Times:
College, too easy for its own good
Colleges have abandoned responsibility for shaping students' academic development and instead have come to embrace a service model that caters to satisfying students' expressed desires.
By Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa
As this year's crop of college graduates leaves school, burdened with high levels of debt and entering a severely depressed job market, they may be asking themselves a fundamental question: Was college worth it? ...
We recently tracked several thousand students as they moved through and graduated from a diverse set of more than two dozen colleges and universities, and we found consistent evidence that many students were not being appropriately challenged. In a typical semester, 50% of students did not take a single course requiring more than 20 pages of writing [i.e., no more than two ten-page papers], 32% did not have any classes that required reading more than 40 pages per week, and 36% reported studying alone five or fewer hours per week.
Not surprisingly, given such a widespread lack of academic rigor, about a third of students failed to demonstrate significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing ability (as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment) during their four years of college.
The interesting analysis would be whether most of the students who aren't getting better at analyzing information are ones whose SAT / ACT test scores would predict that they have about topped out intellectually, or whether they are often just lazy students who would be getting better if they applied themselves.
... Indeed, the students in our study who reported studying alone five or fewer hours per week nevertheless had an average cumulative GPA of 3.16.
... These trends have all added up to less rigor. California labor economists Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, for example, have documented that full-time college students' time spent studying dropped in half between 1960 and today.
My experience at Rice in the 1970s was that, by today's standards, there really wasn't all that much to do other than to study. Almost nobody had a television in their dorm room, the only video game was Pong, and computers were programmed with punch cards, so they were no fun. Not all that many students had cars, either. (On the other hand, their were two bars on campus, a beer cost 35 cents, the legal drinking age was 18, and nobody carded freshmen to see if they were 18.) But researching a paper in the library was a total drag compared to looking stuff up on the Internet, so I'm not sure how productive all those hours of study were.

In contrast, I watched lots of TV in high school. Maybe we're turning into a Japanese system where you work hard in high school to get into a fancy college, where you take it easy.

Moreover, from 1970 to 2000, as colleges increasingly hired additional staff to attend to student social and personal needs, the percentage of professional employees in higher education who were faculty decreased from about two-thirds to around one-half. At the same time, through their professional advancement and tenure policies, schools encouraged faculty to focus more on research rather than teaching. When teaching was considered as part of the equation, student course assessments tended to be the method used to evaluate teaching, which tends to incentivize lenient grading and entertaining forms of instruction.
It's fun to look up student ratings of celebrity professors. For example, Harvard students express their disdain for Alan Dershowitz with impressive vocabularies: e.g., "repugnant." But, mostly it's pretty depressing reading what students have to say about their classes. The reviews of films submitted for free on Internet Movie Database are a lot more intelligent on average than college class reviews.
So how should this academic drift of our colleges and universities be addressed? Some have proposed introducing a federal accountability system. We are against such a move, as federal regulation would probably be counterproductive and include a large set of detrimental, unintended consequences.
Accountability in higher education rightly resides at lower levels of the system. College trustees have at the institutional level the fiduciary responsibility to begin holding administrators accountable by asking: How are student learning outcomes and program quality being measured, and what is being done to address areas of concern that have been identified?  ...
In general, our society doesn't seem to really want to know how much value colleges are adding.
Richard Arum, a professor of sociology and education at New York University, and Josipa Roksa, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, are the authors of "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses."