That’s the only answer colleges ever provide when asked how much their students learn.
Sure, they acknowledge, it’s hard for students to find out what material individual courses will cover. So most students choose their courses based on a paragraph in the catalog and whatever secondhand information they can gather.
No, there’s isn’t an independent evaluation process. No standardized tests, no external audits, no publicly available learning evidence of any kind.
Yes, there’s been grade inflation. A-minus is the new C. Granted, faculty have every incentive to neglect their teaching duties while chasing tenure—if they’re lucky enough to be in the chase at all. Meanwhile the steady adjunctification of the professoriate proceeds.
Still, “trust us,” they say: Everyone who walks across our graduation stage has completed a rigorous course of study. We don’t need to systematically evaluate student learning. Indeed, that would violate the academic freedom of our highly trained faculty, each of whom embodies the proud scholarly traditions of this venerable institution.
Now we know that those are lies.
Richard Arum, a professor of sociology and education at New York University, and Josipa Roksa, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, recently completed a study of how much 2,300 statistically representative undergraduates—who enrolled as freshmen in a diverse group of 24 colleges and universities in 2005—had learned by the time they (in theory) were ready to graduate, in 2009. As a measuring tool, the researchers used the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a respected test of analytic reasoning, critical thinking, and written communication skills. Their findings were published this month in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press) and in an accompanying white paper. It is, remarkably, the first study of its kind.
Their finding? Forty-five percent of students made no gains on the CLA during their first two years in college. Thirty-six percent made no gains over the entire four years. They learned nothing. On average, students improved by less than half a standard deviation in four years. “American higher education,” the researchers found, “is characterized by limited or no learning for a large proportion of students.”