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Margaret Wente

Is our students learning? Add to ...

It's convocation season in Canada. On campuses across the country, the students are getting their degrees, proud parents in tow. Hope is in the air. They've shelled out eighty to a hundred thousand dollars to get to this moment, but it's worth it.

Or is it? My friend Ben teaches introductory sociology at a large urban campus that shall remain unnamed. "Fifteen or 20 per cent of the students are really terrific," he says. "Some of the others try hard. But most of them really don't have a clue."

Ben wouldn't be surprised by Academically Adrift, a new book that is today's must-read in higher education circles. Its findings are devastating. A large number of students learn little or nothing in university. More than a third show no improvement in their skills at all.

The message of Academically Adrift is that apart from getting that credential, for many students higher education is a total waste of time. The authors, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, aren't just another pair of cranks. They are scholars who conducted extensive research using a typical cross-section of 2,322 university students. The students were tested on critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills - the higher-order stuff that every university claims to cultivate, and is vital to success in the real world. They found that for a large number of students, the gains made in these areas "are either exceedingly small or empirically non-existent."

For years, we've been told that higher education is the key to prosperity in the post-industrial age. Our policymakers and politicians insist that expanding access to higher education is crucial to our economic fortunes. The trouble is, this will only work if higher education actually succeeds in turning most students into better reasoners and thinkers. It does not.

The authors found that universities are full of "drifting dreamers," with high ambitions, but no clear life plan for reaching them. For these students, university is primarily a social experience, not an academic one. (The research included only American universities but there is no reason to suspect the situation is any different in Canada.)

So what are kids doing for those four (or more) increasingly expensive years? They're not hitting the books. On average, students spend only 12 hours a week studying, and are academically engaged for no more than 30 hours a week. Thirty-seven per cent spend less than five hours a week studying. Many academic programs are not particularly rigorous or demanding. Less than half the senior-year students surveyed had been required to complete more than 20 pages of writing for any course in the previous semester. Even so, graduation rates are stagnant or decreasing. Only 34% of American students finish a BA in four years, and only 64% in six years.

A lot of students are very good at strategic management of work requirements -- that is, getting a degree with as little work as possible. On many campuses, students and professors have what the authors call a "disengagement compact" - a mutual understanding that "I'll leave you alone if you leave be alone." The reasons aren't hard to find. Because students are considered customers or clients, client satisfaction is tremendously important. Also, most professors would rather not teach. On average, faculty spend only 11 hours a week on preparing and delivering classroom instruction and advising students.

It's a good thing that universities aren't car companies. If they were, they'd be out of business. As higher- education critic Richard Vedder puts it, "We are sending too many kids to school to learn too little to get jobs for which often the little that they do learn is not even necessary."

Why do we keep forking over billions to institutions that don't deliver what they promise to so many of the people they are supposed to serve? One reason is the elaborate fiction we've developed that higher education is good for all, and that more education will automatically enhance cognitive competence. Another is that universities have long been impervious to scrutiny. They insist that what they do can't be measured. The authors of Academically Adrift politely and persuasively disagree. It can be measured, and the results aren't pretty.

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