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

You Are Invited: Universities, High-skilled Immigration, and Regulatory Reform: Implications for America’s Economic Future

The Program on America and the Global Economy (PAGE) Presents:


Universities, High-skilled Immigration, and Regulatory Reform: Implications for America’s Economic Future


Friday, July 13, 2012

12:00 – 1:15 p.m.

B-369 Rayburn House Office Building



 Joseph Kennedy, Former Chief Economist, US Department of Commerce

Karthick Ramakrishnan, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of California Riverside and Woodrow Wilson Center Fellow

 Jim Woodell, Director of Innovation and Technology Policy, Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities

 Kent Hughes, Director, Program on America and the Global Economy


 A panel of experts will discuss key aspects of the Start-Up Act with a special focus on the provisions designed to accelerate the commercialization of university research, the regulating of start-up companies, and the broadening of opportunities for temporary immigrants with post-graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) to eventually quality for permanent residency visas.


Please RSVP acceptances only to



Posted by: PAGE Staff

STEM Majors are the Smartest Bet for College Students

More and more students are graduating from college with massive debt.  This problem is compounded by a historically weak labor market for recent graduates.  Using government labor data, the Associated Press found about  1.5 million, or 53.6 percent, of bachelor’s degree-holders under the age of 25 last year were jobless or underemployed, the highest share in at least 11 years.  Young adults with bachelor’s degrees are frequently being forced into low-paying, low-skill service jobs (e.g. waiter, bartender, retail clerk or receptionist), making the debt they graduated with harder and harder to cope with. 

It is important to note that according to the data, prospects vary significantly based on the type of degree a student graduates with.  Those with degrees in the arts or humanities such as philosophy, art history, etc. were the least likely to find jobs and the percentage of unemployment or underemployment for students with those majors was even higher.

On the flip side, Forbes reports degrees in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) are the most likely to land a job right out of school and yield the highest median pay both starting out and over the course of their careers.  An amazing 94% of recent graduates with STEM degrees found employment after college.  These students are increasingly in demand and as a result not only find jobs, but well-paying ones.  STEM graduates are most likely to field multiple competitive offers and over a lifetime, their earnings are as much as 50 percent higher than the earnings of those who major in the humanities, the arts, or education.

So why, in the face of all this data, do only 16% of college students graduate with a STEM degree?  Many are simply not very proficient in math and science in high school and as a result have no interest in those fields at the college level.  According to a study of high school students performed by the Business-Higher Education Forum in December, only 17 percent of high school seniors were both proficient in math and interested in the STEM fields and many— 27 percent — weren’t interested in math or science degrees even if they were proficient.  The study concluded “Current interest in STEM fields and proficiency in math are not sufficient to meet U.S. workforce demand.”

Posted by: Sean Norris

Sources: The Associated Press, Forbes, The Washington Post

Photo Credit: STEM 2010-01-30 064 courtesy of flickr user skeggy

Can Online Learning Bend the Cost Curve for Higher Education?

The New York Times recently reported that between 1999 and 2009 tuition at public four-year colleges rose 73 percent on average and 34 percent at their private counterparts, all while family incomes fell 7%.  The rising cost of college has become the center of national debate.  It has made college an unattainable dream for some and, more commonly, has burdened those students who do attend with crushing debt.  At least 2 in 3 bachelor’s degree recipients’ graduate with debt and many are then forced to put off major purchases such as a car or house with broader effects for the national economy at-large.

The Wall Street Journal recently sat down at the All Things Digital conference in California with Stanford University president John Hennessy and Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, a non-profit online-learning organization, to discuss how online learning efforts offered by both traditional four-year universities and organizations such as Khan Academy might help bend the cost curve for colleges.

Mr. Khan points out that universities usually justify rising costs by pointing to the need to hire top rate faculty, expand facilities, and have top flight students services while, somewhat conversely, students say they are willing to take on $60,000 of debt only because they “need the credential” to get a job.  Universities are raising tuition to create an immersive educational experience while many students are paying higher and higher tuition because they need the diploma to be competitive in the job market.  Mr. Khan argues that an online educational experience could essentially deliver that “credential” without the high costs on both school and student of providing a holistic experience.  This would require a paradigm shifts of sorts, where credentials could be earned based on what you know and what you have learned and not where you acquired the knowledge.

Similarly, under Mr. Hennessy, Stanford has begun putting lectures online that would otherwise be delivered in large lecture halls and using classrooms for courses that inherently require person to person interaction.  Obviously, the more universities can relegate classes to the internet without sacrificing quality, the less need there is to continually build and upgrade physical learning facilities and to recruit more and more faculty to staff the classes.  Mr. Hennessy predicts that there may eventually be a hybrid type model at major universities, where students take a major portion of their classes online and go into the classroom only occasionally.  This will be useful especially for associate degrees or degrees that lend themselves to cyber learning, such as Internet programming.  While the outcomes of such efforts are too recent to be evaluated, technology will no doubt continue to play a role in the growing debate about how to cut down college costs.

Posted by: Sean Norris

Sources: The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Photo Credit: Asa Mathat of All Things Digital

Is a 4-year college degree still the answer?

In a recent article from the Washington Post, more and more students are finding alternative means of getting an education preferable to going to college. It’s been long since the post-World War II era, where college enrollment spiked from 2.3 million to 12.1 million students. Now, fewer than 60% of college freshman now graduate within six-years. In a recent survey by Public Agenda, 50% of college dropouts cited working as a major factor in their decision, which makes sense seeing that the debt of college dropouts has now topped $1 trillion according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. And this amount could increase as more and more students find occupational advantages to dropping out and not taking on the massive amounts of debt needed to complete a four-year degree.

The U.S. Department of Education recently found that college dropout rates have increased by 38% in the last decade, and that dropout rates amongst for-profit, four-year institutions have spiked from 34% to 54% since 2001. So how can a nation with increased dropout rates still compete in today’s global economy? Professor Robert Lerman of American University proposes instituting apprenticeship programs for college students that would pay them to participate in classroom trainings that would give them the skills needed to matriculate into occupation they want to take on. In 2008, 0.3% of the total U.S. workforce participated in apprenticeship programs registered with the Department of Labor. But Berman argues that in the EU, countries like Germany, Austria and Switzerland, with much greater reading, writing and math literacy than in the United States enroll nearly 50-70% of their young people in apprenticeship programs.

Although, the Obama Administration has made increasing graduate rates a focal point of his 2012 campaign, today’s “college-crazed” culture, as Robert Samuelson puts it, “cheapens the value of a college degree and spawns the delusion that only the degree — not the skills and knowledge behind it — matters.”


Posted By: Jonathan Sherman

Sources: The Washington Post, U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Department of Labor, CNN Online

Photo credit: Harvard University courtesy of flickr user Omer Kabir

Event Summary: Liberal Arts at the Brink

The discussion of Victor Ferrall, Jr.’s book Liberal Arts at the Brink began with a welcome from Wilson Center President, Director, and CEO Jane Harman, a graduate of Smith College, who stressed the important role of liberal arts in American public life. As Ferrall notes in his book, students in higher education have been moving away from an undergraduate education in the liberal arts, instead opting for career-focused vocational courses of study, creating broad implications for the future of American innovation and competitiveness. Liberal Arts at the Brink seeks to analyze the current state of the liberal arts education at 225 colleges across the United States and assess its prospects for the future.

Ferrall opened the discussion by highlighting the trend towards career-focused study, even at traditional liberal arts institutions, declaring, “College students, in increasing numbers, are turning away from liberal arts education.” This trend, he said, has its roots in the 1960s, when colleges began opening their doors to students for whom college “was not the next regular step.” As mostly first-generation collegians, these individuals wanted degrees that would enhance their career prospects and increase their earning potential, a trend that has now become the norm across higher education. At the level of the federal government, according to Ferrall, the purpose of higher education promotion has been not “preparing thoughtful citizens, but rather a trained workforce.”

Ferrall went on to say that one of the major challenges facing liberal arts institutions today is finances. While top-tier schools can afford to offer almost exclusively liberal arts curricula, budgetary constraints force others to modify their offerings in order to maintain enrollment. The topic of financial aid discounting is particular concerning. “Are we selling education or buying students?” he asked. Read more of this post

Disruptive Innovation and the Higher Education Business Model

On Tuesday, February 8th the Center for American Progress (CAP) hosted a discussion focusing on the challenges of performance and productivity facing American college educators in the 21st century. America currently ranks 12th in graduation rates and underperforms its competitors in math and science.  The event’s panel of educators and administrators suggested that the current business model for higher education in the United States needs to be rethought.

In the discussion, Clay Christensen presented his publication “Disrupting College: How Disruptive Innovation Can Deliver Quality and Affordability to Postsecondary Education,” and proposed looking at institutions through the lens of business innovation.  He described “disruptive innovation” as changing a “complex product” to become more accessible by “redefining quality in a simple and often disparaged application.”  Online education, particularly the successful Phoenix and Western Governors Universities, have emerged to challenge the preeminence of the 4-year model in just such a way. These institutions reach large groups of people at low cost by eliminating distance, “non-productive credits,” and moving towards “competency learning” where students are rewarded based on what they learn rather than time spent in the classroom.

In analyzing the flexibility of the higher education system, new and innovative business models are instructive.  Straighterline, for example, offers students their freshman year of college via online courses for $999; if models like this are able to compete with brick-and-mortar campuses now protected by accreditation rules, degrees could become more affordable and available to a much wider swath of the American public.  While the wave of online education presents a more affordable, accessible option, doubts have emerged about these universities.

As the CAP panelists argued, traditional colleges are invaluable to the American education system, and disruptive innovation simply adds another viable and affordable option for a broader range of the population to attain a postsecondary degree and stay competitive in the global market.

Posted by: John Coit

Sources: Center for American Progress, International Business Times, Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Washington Post,

Photo Credit: Columbia Alumni courtesy of Flickr user The Library of Congress