Too Little Learning


Although people go to college for a multitude of reasons, learning is supposedly paramount among them. Graduating college seniors should know a good deal more about the world than entering freshmen. The dissemination of knowledge is professed to be Job One for almost all institutions of higher education. How good of a job are American colleges doing in meeting this goal?

Surprisingly, we cannot answer that question with much precision. Colleges are in the knowledge business but spend remarkably little effort measuring the “value added to human capital” on college campuses. Indeed, arguably colleges either don’t want to know or want to prevent the public from knowing that collegiate learning on average appears to be not very great. To be sure, generalizations here are dangerous: there are thousands of higher education institutions, and they teach a lot about thousands of different topics of human interest. There are huge variations in the amount students learn. Most fundamentally, there is no universal agreement as to what college graduates should know. Colleges constantly argue over “general education” requirements—core knowledge that all college graduates should have. All that said, there is a good deal of scattered evidence that suggests that embarrassingly little learning on average goes on.

Let me mention three snippets of evidence. First, until early in this century, the U.S. Department of Education about once a decade conducted an Adult Literacy Survey measuring how well people could read and deal with numbers (Memo to Betsy DeVos: Conduct a new survey). The last of these surveys showed a significant decline in literacy among college-educated persons, even those with graduate degrees. Second, for years the Intercollegiate Studies Institute conducted a test of civic literacy measuring knowledge about the evolution of our history, government and economy. The test was administered to both entering freshmen and graduating seniors. The seniors, in general, knew very little more than the freshmen, even at prestigious Ivy League colleges. Third, the most comprehensive study I know was conducted by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa (see Academically Adrift), where thousands of students took the Collegiate Learning Assessment both early and late in their college careers, and the evidence again showed little improvement in scores, with the test measuring both writing ability and critical reasoning skills.

Moreover, there is some circumstantial evidence that is rather compelling. Time Use Survey (U.S. Department of Labor) and other data suggest that the average college student today spends less than 30 hours weekly on academic work, reading, attending lectures, writing papers, studying for examinations, etc. The evidence from the middle of the last century, however, suggest that students then spent roughly 40 hours weekly on these activities. If one accepts the proposition that it takes time to learn, the rather sharp decline in time spent on studies makes it very likely that learning has declined. For that not to be true, today’s students have to be learning a lot more per hour of academic effort than their predecessors of 60 years ago, a dubious proposition given that a larger proportion of today’s students were less successful academically in their secondary schooling than those in the past (as colleges today are serving a larger proportion of high school graduates). The reality is that today’s typical college student apparently spends fewer hours on learning than the typical eighth-grader.

There are reasons why learning has languished. Within universities, the share of budgets going for instruction has declined, and power has moved towards administrators who are often indifferent or arguably even hostile to learning. Learning has been crowded out by bureaucracy. Grade inflation has lowered incentives for students to learn. At many campuses, the faculty is rewarded far less for teaching than research, and senior faculty members teach less than a generation or two ago and feel that they cannot spend much time with students since a paper for the Journal of Last Resort might not get written. Few incentives exist to improve learning outcomes using new technology. Federal student aid is rewarded not at all based on academic performance, and indeed arguably favors those doing poorly. Colleges need to change incentives, reallocate resources and worry more about Job One.


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