Smarten up college students before adding more graduates

President Obama's goal of adding 5 million more college graduates by 2020 got a reality check this month. A study indicates that more than a third of students don't gain vital cognitive skills in higher education.

A critical ingredient in President Obama’s effort to create jobs is his plan for colleges to graduate an additional 5 million students by 2020. But a troubling new study should give pause to this otherwise noble national project.

The study indicates that nearly half of all college students do not show any progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication during their first two years. And after four years in college, more than a third of students do not show any significant improvement in these higher-order cognitive skills.

With data like this, is it wise to invest more taxpayer money in schools of higher education simply to raise graduation rates and give more people a college credential? Aren’t such skills essential for an advanced economy like America’s to remain globally competitive?

The study tracked more than 2,000 students at 24 four-year colleges of various types starting in 2005. It was conducted by two sociology professors, Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia, relying largely on a test known as Collegiate Learning Assessment.

Their work revealed just how little colleges demand of today’s students. A third of students, for example, are in courses that require reading of only 40 pages or less a week. And college students study less than high school students, putting in only 13 hours a week – down from more than 25 hours in decades past.

Both faculty and administrators have become more preoccupied with other interests – research or fundraising – while neglecting to make sure the quality of an undergraduate education remains high, the authors conclude. They predict that the value of a college degree for a person’s lifetime income will continue to decline, relative to the income of those without a degree.

In 2009, a third of students they tracked lived at their parent’s home a year after graduation. And a third never read the news online or in a newspaper, or do so only once a month.

This study is yet another bugle call for those demanding better measurements of success in higher education. The regional bodies that accredit colleges and universities need to have stricter, more accurate standards before putting their stamp of approval on schools. State legislatures and Congress need to ensure that taxpayers are getting the best rate of return on dollars spent on higher education.

And teachers, who often have incentives to dumb down courses and inflate grades, need to focus more on what their students are actually learning in cognitive skills, not just in subject knowledge.

Simply adding more graduates who can’t think, reason, and write for today’s economy and adult responsibilities should not be the nation’s priority. Real learning should be.

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