Are college students learning?

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In his State of the Union address last Tuesday, President Obama proposed several measures to lower college tuition. University leaders responded cautiously, warning that cost-cutting reforms might also cut into instructional quality.

But here’s the big open secret in American higher education: Most institutions have no meaningful way to measure the quality of their instruction. And the president didn’t ask us to develop one, either.

Instead, he suggested that the federal government tie student aid to colleges’ success in reducing tuition and in helping students move forward. In a follow-up speech at the University of Michigan on Friday, he called for a “college score card” that would rank institutions according to cost, graduation rates and future earnings.


“If you can’t stop tuition from going up, your funding from taxpayers will go down,” Obama warned. “We should push colleges to do better; we should hold them accountable if they don’t.”

Fair enough. But look again at Obama’s criteria for “better”: holding down costs, graduating students and helping them get jobs. There’s no mention of whether the students are actually learning anything.

At most institutions, including my own, we have no idea if they are. Sure, professors assign grades in their courses, and students are asked to evaluate the classes they take and the professors who teach them. But neither measure gives us any real answer to the $200,000 question: What knowledge or skills are students acquiring in exchange for the skyrocketing tuition they pay?

And we now have some alarming national data to suggest the answer: not nearly enough. My New York University colleague Richard Arum and the University of Virginia’s Josipa Roksa recently tracked several thousand undergraduates as they moved through two dozen U.S. universities. They found that almost half of them didn’t significantly improve their reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college. And after four years, subsequent research showed, more than one-third of students still showed no significant gains in these areas.

Arum and Roksa based their conclusions on results from the College Learning Assessment, or CLA, an essay test that tries to measure the things universities say they want students to learn: critical thinking, complex reasoning and written expression. One sample question provides several documents about an airplane that crashed, then asks students to advise an executive about whether his company should purchase that type of plane. Another test item presents crime data from a city and asks students to counsel its mayor about how to respond to criticisms of his policing policies.

The CLA was administered to more than 2,300 students at 24 institutions, ranging from big state universities and selective liberal arts schools to historically black and Latino institutions. Forty-five percent of the students showed no significant gains on the CLA between their freshman and sophomore years, and 36% didn’t improve significantly between their freshman and senior years.


And why should they? College students spend about 12 hours a week studying, on average, and one-third of them report studying less than five hours per week. More than half the students in Arum and Roksa’s sample said they had not taken a single class in the semester before they were surveyed that required a total of 20 pages of writing.

So I have a modest proposal for Obama: In addition to asking universities to lower tuition, ask them also to figure out what their students are learning. Some schools are already doing that. At Carleton College in Minnesota, for example, students are required to submit a set of papers that they wrote during their first two years at the school. Carleton then assesses each student according to a set of faculty-developed standards, and also provides assistance to the students who do not meet them.

And in 2010, more than 70 college and university presidents signed an agreement to expand their efforts to assess student learning. They also pledged to use these assessments “when making decisions about educational improvement,” which is exactly as it should be.

Too often, though, student learning is the last thing on our minds. We speak instead of inputs and outputs: what college costs, how many people make it through and what happens to them afterward. Should we be surprised, then, when many students don’t take learning seriously either?

As the parent of a daughter at an expensive liberal arts college, I’m obviously concerned about the escalating cost of higher education. College tuition and fees rose more than 400% between 1982 and 2007. That was due to a host of factors, including declining support from state legislatures, increased professor salaries, eye-popping new facilities and heavy administrative bloat. We need to do everything we can to make college more affordable, so long as students’ education doesn’t suffer.

And there’s the rub. Which reforms will actually hurt student learning, and which won’t? Nobody really knows. The biggest scandal in higher education is not the rising sticker price; it’s the failure of our institutions to figure out what sticks, educationally speaking. Millions of American students and their families are mortgaging their futures to pay for a college education. We owe them an honest account of what they’re getting in return: not just what it costs, or where it will take them, but what it means.


Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”