Is College Too Easy?

This blog has focused on the current unemployment and underemployment crisis among recent college graduates and explored several of the proposed explanations for it.  One explanation that many are reluctant to talk about however, is the possibility that students are learning far less in college than they used to.  Evidence has mounted recently that shows that students, across majors and schools, are spending less time studying and are demonstrably learning less.  This mirrors the trend we wrote about previously in the K-12 system.

In 2010, the American Enterprise Institute released a highly-cited paper entitled Leisure College, USA that concluded, among other things that “In 1961, the average full-time student at a four-year college in the United States studied about twenty-four hours per week, while his modern counterpart puts in only fourteen hours per week”  and that the decline cannot be explained by “changes over time in student work status, parental education, major choice, or the type of institution students attended”.  Instead, the overwhelming evidence points to a culture change that has turned the “college campus into a place where academic effort is scarcely detectable and the primary student activities are leisure-based”.  Students rarely have to perform intellectual tasks to receive high grades and spend little time devoted to studies outside the classroom.

But maybe students are studying less because technology makes it more efficient or because they come to higher education better prepared than they used to.  Unlikely, say Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, authors of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, published in 2011.  Not only are students studying less, they are evidently learning less.  Arum and Josipa examined survey responses, transcript data, and results from the Collegiate Learning Assessment (a standardized test taken by students in their first semester and at the end of their second year) and concluded that “for a large proportion of students, the gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication are either exceedingly small or empirically nonexistent”.  According to their research at least 45 percent of students did not demonstrate any statistically significant improvement in CLA performance during the first two years of college and further study has indicated that 36 percent of students did not show any significant improvement over four years. They state, “While these students may have developed subject-specific skills that were not tested for by the CLA…they are failing to develop the higher-order cognitive skills that it is widely assumed college students should master”.

Arum and Roksa’s conclusions are strengthened by the accounts of many students who report that they spend increasing numbers of hours on nonacademic activities, including working, rather than on studying. They enroll in courses that do not require substantial reading or writing assignments; they interact with their professors outside of classrooms rarely, if ever; and they define and understand their college experiences as being focused more on social than on academic development.

There have been specific accounts as well about, for instance, the relative ease of a major in business, which is the most popular major in the country, or the lack of writing required of students.  The fact is that many students and institutions seem to be operating under the assumption that graduating with a diploma, a credential, is enough to be competitive in a knowledge-based, globally competitive economy.  This may or may not be the case right, but it almost certainly will not be in the medium or long term.  The American higher-education system is still the envy of the world but the gap between the US and other countries is closing in both measures of quantity and quality.  As the gap closes, college graduates will be expected not only to have the credential, but also the knowledge and skills that the credential ostensibly indicates meaning that a serious examination of the culture and methods at American universities would serve everyone well.

Posted by: Sean Norris

Sources: The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times, Inside HigherEd

Photo Credit:Studying on the Heart” courtesy of flickr user Earlham College

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