While it is always good to examine evidence for or against one’s views, I strongly suspect that most college faculty greeted the recent publication of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa with a high degree of “I could have told you so!” As reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Huffington Post, some 45% of students “did not demonstrate any statistically significant improvement in Collegiate Learning Assessment [CLA] performance during the first two years of college.” Moreover, 36% demonstrated no improvement after four years. After 30 years of teaching, none of this surprises me. In truth, my experience would have predicted more dismal results.
A Wider Cultural Problem
Rather than discuss the book (which I have yet to read), I want to draw attention to a wider cultural problem that has developed during the past 40 years or so. The simple fact is that a traditional, liberal arts education is no longer valued positively by many important stakeholders in society. In the absence of social scientific evidence confirming that assertion, consider the following:
- In recent decades, universities have continually reduced the number of liberal arts and science courses required for graduation.
- Similarly, students majoring in the humanities have declined in favor of more “practical” majors leading directly to employment.
- Most students avoid liberal arts courses as much as possible, considering them a waste of time and money in their quest for an employment credential.
- As Arum and Roksa report, fewer college courses require intensive reading or writing.
- Community colleges and four-year institutions are devoting more resources to providing remedial (“developmental”) instruction in basic writing and numeracy, reflecting the collapse of secondary schooling.
- Overwhelming anecdotal evidence suggests that students are pestering their instructors more frequently for higher grades, despite lack of achievement that would warrant such marks. (Because of administrative pressures, such pestering often succeeds.)
- For-profit institutions emphasize programs devoted to pre-employment training and exclude or heavily de-emphasize the liberal arts.
- The number of full-time permanent faculty continues to decline while the number of contingent faculty skyrockets.
- In a time of severe budget reductions, humanities programs suffer disproportionately in favor of STEM, employment-related, and athletic programs.
- Hiring officers for most businesses and other organizations focus on applicants’ sector-specific skills and experience, not on basic skills of communication, critical thinking, and judgment, despite their companies’ public proclamations to the contrary.
- Financial benefactors prefer to fund residence halls, technology centers, and athletic facilities (thereby raising overhead costs) rather than instructional costs which bring them no notoriety or public acclaim.
- Public officials, political candidates, and media pundits often denigrate “academics,” “intellectuals,” and the “educated elite.”
The above trends, among many others, indicate an ever deeper descent into an anti-intellectualistic, narcissistic culture in which students pursue pre-employment, technical training with single-minded purpose while, nevertheless, they expect to be rewarded with high grades and degrees apart from real achievement.
Who Will Pay for Education?
Make no mistake: the big squeeze is on. State legislatures are slashing education budgets across the country. The Federal government is unlikely to pick up the slack in any significant way, and might cut funding significantly. Private institutions scramble for increased enrollment (including more online offerings) while raising tuition and decreasing operating budgets. In this swirling confusion, students, officials, and the general public increasingly perceive education (really, “training”) to be a private benefit to individuals. The social benefits of higher learning are sinking from view.
Because of this individualization and commodification of education, government loan programs and other funding sources maximize individual student choice. That puts students in the position—for which, I would argue, they are generally unprepared—to decide for themselves which education programs are in their best interest. If they are highly concerned about career and employment prospects, they will choose programs that they perceive to be directly relevant to those goals, ignoring courses that might be more beneficial over the longer term or that might require them to acquire new communication and critical thinking skills.
This situation also compels institutions to “cater to the marketplace” in order to maintain adequate enrollment and the revenue that student tuition and loans produces. For-profit institutions provide an extreme example of such pandering, but “meeting student demand” has become a hallmark of program development and marketing for traditional institutions as well. This means that over the years faculty have increasingly relinquished control over what counts as “an education” worthy of a degree. Worse, faculty have been compelled to allow standards to slip so as not to drive “paying customers” away.
In my view, we have lost almost all vision of higher learning as a social benefit, as an activity that benefits not just individual students, but society as a whole. In previous posts, I have mentioned some aspects of the social benefit of higher learning. Without such a perception by officials, students, and the general public, there will be little motivation to fund the liberal arts programs that have traditionally comprised a college education. As others have already pointed out, such programs will be allowed to wither.
The way out of this mess will be difficult. As Kevin Carey noted in a recent article, “‘Trust Us’ Won’t Cut It Anymore,”
Deep down, everyone knows that learning has long been neglected. But they don’t want to know. Policy makers who have poured gigantic sums of money into financial-aid programs designed to get people into college don’t want to know that many of the graduates, leaving with degrees in hand, didn’t learn anything. College presidents don’t want to know, because fixing the problem means arguing with faculty. Faculty don’t want to know, because it would expose the weakness of their teaching and take time from research. Students don’t want to know, because they’d have to work harder, and it would undermine the value of their credentials.
In my next post, I will offer some suggestions on how we might turn toward some sort of safe harbor. Leaving large numbers of students adrift is not in anyone’s best interest.
- “45% Of Students Don’t Learn Much In College” and related posts (huffingtonpost.com)
- Report: College students not learning much (msnbc.msn.com)