It’s college commencement season. Across the country, moms and dads, grandparents, and other family members are gathering on campus quads, football fields, and in basketball arenas to celebrate a rite of passage for the Class of 2013.
The graduates are now ready for the next stage of their life—a job (hopefully), their parents’ basement (maybe), graduate school, law school, or maybe the Peace Corps or Teach for America. They’re definitely older than when they went off to college. They’re probably heavier. And with a bit of luck, they’re more mature than when they left high school.
But did these graduates actually learn anything in college to deserve that diploma?
There’s much debate these days about the return on investment of a college education. Much of that conversation is focused on what students spend on college compared to what they get in return in terms of a salary. But if the purpose of college is to get an education, why don’t we measure the return on investment in terms of what students learn in college? After all, it’s the learning that we’re actually paying for when we write tuition checks, not training for a job that might be obsolete in two years.
Here’s the problem: we don’t know for sure how much students learn in college. As much as we spend on college, no bottom-line evaluation method exists for measuring what actually happens in the classroom and how that eventually translates into the value of the degree. Sure, there are the U.S. News & World Report rankings, but they mostly measure the students on their way in the door (how many students a college rejected, SAT scores) or how much colleges spend on faculty or students.
As much as colleges say they dislike the U.S. News rankings, they prefer them to any alternative that might try to rank colleges on how much students learn. Many colleges would like to keep prospective students and parents in the dark when it comes to how much value they end up adding to a student’s life.
There are now ways to measure learning, chief among them the Collegiate Learning Assessment. Known as the CLA, the essay-only test gives students a set of materials and asks them to synthesize evidence and write a persuasive argument. More than five hundred colleges use the exam to measure their curriculum and teaching, although few release the results, or even averages, publicly.
There are reasons they don’t want the public to know the truth. A few years ago, two researchers tracked a representative sample of 2,300 students at 24 colleges and universities who took the CLA three times in their college careers: at the beginning of their freshman year, at the end of their sophomore year, and finally, before graduation.
The study’s bottom line: 45 percent of students in the study made no gains in their writing, complex reasoning, or critical-thinking skills during their first two years of college. After four years, the news wasn’t much better: 36 percent failed to show any improvement.
The main reason for this, the researchers found, was a lack of rigor. Through surveys they learned that students spent about 12 hours a week studying on average, much of that time in groups. Most didn’t take courses that required them to read more than 40 pages a week or write more than 20 pages over the course of an entire semester.
Students who studied alone did better, as did students whose teachers had high expectations or assigned a significant amount of reading or writing. Those who majored in the humanities, social sciences, hard sciences, and math did the best. And the majors that did the worst? Education, social work, and the most popular major on US college campuses: business.
To determine how these students fared after college, the authors later resurveyed more than nine hundred of them after graduation. Not surprisingly, the students who scored the lowest on the
also struggled in life after college. They were three times more likely than those scoring at the top to be unemployed, twice as likely to be living at home with parents, more likely to have run up credit card bills, and less likely to read the news or discuss politics.
Now, many students graduating this month might think it’s fine that they skated through college. But for students and parents who paid the tuition bills thinking they were getting a rigorous and life-changing experience, they deserved better. So do potential employers who will hire this month’s graduates. We need more authoritative and accurate ways of measuring the value that a college adds
to a student’s life than some arbitrary rankings system created by a magazine that doesn’t even publish anymore.