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  • National Context
    Increasing college attendance and graduation rates has long been a goal for many wanting to reform the U.S. education system. These myriad efforts have been chronicled on the Michigan Policy Network. From President Obama's to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's K-14 initiatives, increasing college attendance and graduation rates is seen as a means to improve the quality of U.S. workers. These efforts are predicated on the notion that a college education teaches a student the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in the workforce; these skills include critical thinking, analytic reasoning, and other important yet ambiguous concepts. However, what if such a notion were unfounded? What if students were failing to learn these skills? The implications for the policies seeking to increase attendance and graduation rates would be considerable; if colleges are underachieving, increasing the quantity of students and graduates would be wasteful. Disconcertingly, a new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, released by the University of Chicago Press asserts students are underachieving. .

    The authors, Josipa Roksa, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, and Richard Arum, professor of sociology and education at New York University, conclude that many college students are failing to glean the skills and knowledge expected of a college graduate. The authors write, "How much are students actually learning in contemporary higher education? The answer for many undergraduates, we have concluded, is not much." Their conclusions are based on data from student surveys, transcript analysis, and the results of the Collegiate Learning Assessment test that was administered before and throughout an undergraduate's education. The data was collected on 2,300 students enrolled at numerous four-year colleges and universities.

    According to Inside Higher Ed, the authors discovered:

    • 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.

    As for a cause of the disappointing findings, the authors postulate that a lack of academic rigor is the primary cause for the disappointing outcomes. The authors write, "[E]ducational practices associated with academic rigor improved student performance, while collegiate experiences associated with social engagement did not." According to Inside Higher Ed, this postulation is evidenced by the authors' discovery that:

    • Students who study by themselves for more hours each week gain more knowledge -- while those who spend more time studying in peer groups see diminishing gains.
    • Students whose classes reflect high expectations (more than 40 pages of reading a week and more than 20 pages of writing a semester) gained more than other students.
    • Students who spend more time in fraternities and sororities show smaller gains than other students.
    • Students who engage in off-campus or extracurricular activities (including clubs and volunteer opportunities) have no notable gains or losses in learning.
    • Students majoring in liberal arts fields see "significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study." Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the smallest gains. (The authors note that this could be more a reflection of more-demanding reading and writing assignments, on average, in the liberal arts courses than of the substance of the material.)

    As for solutions, the authors reject the need for federal mandates on testing or curriculum. They conclude that such mandates are rarely successful. Rather, the authors assert that increasing the rigor of academic programs is necessary for appreciable improvement. This holds even if the increases reduce enrollment and graduation rates. Professor Arum stated, "It's a question of what outcome you want;" furthermore, "If the outcome is student retention and student satisfaction, then engagement is a great strategy. If, however, you want to improve learning and enhance the academic substance of what you are up to, it is not necessarily a good strategy."

    Sources:

    Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

    Inside Higher Ed-'Academically Adrift'

    Michigan Policy Network-"The Advent of K-14 Education: A Working Definition"

    Michigan Policy Network-"The Gates Foundation and K-14 Education Initiatives"

     

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    The Michigan Policy Network is a student-led public education and research program to report and organize news and information about the political process surrounding Michigan state policy issues. It is run out of the Department of Political Science at Michigan State University, with participation by students from the College of Social Science, the College of Communication, and James Madison College. 

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    Meet your Policy Fellow: Andy Chou and Andrew Revard

    Andy Chou and Andrew Revard are Education Policy Correspondents for the Michigan Policy Network. Andy is a first-year student in Economics at Michigan State University. Andrew is a senior in Political Science at MSU.