Perhaps you’re still in college, maybe you recently graduated, or maybe you’ve been gone for years, but for those done with that chapter of life, tell me, did that six-figure investment you and/or your parents made do much for you? Do you wish it had done more for you — or that you had done more with it? Are you already longing for graduate school because you feel you’re probably only using about two percent of your brain, or are you reading three books a week to try to cling to the words and grammatical rules and existential preoccupations of man you learned in school? (Note: this last works pretty well, if you can’t afford grad school.)
Not to fear: there’s a book-length study to back up your suspicions of premature noodle calcification. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses is a new book by Professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa that examines 2,300 students at 24 universities over the course of their four years of study. According to NPR, the study “measured both the amount that students improved in terms of critical thinking and writing skills, in addition to how much they studied and how many papers they wrote for their courses.”
The results are not very encouraging. The evidence suggests that “more than a third of students showed no improvement in critical thinking skills after four years at a university.” The first two years of college, which I remember as regrettably lazy and fun, were found to be particularly useless. Arum says a large part of the problem is that university professors have too much of an incentive to give students an easy time of it, both in terms of workload and grading, so that they’ll receive high marks on their teacher evaluations come the end of the semester. As a result, the typical workload of the college students the authors studied is laughably light: “35 percent of students reported studying five hours per week or less, and 50 percent said they didn’t have a single course that required 20 pages of writing in their previous semester.”
Isn’t it nice that you can pay $150,000 to help professors hold down their jobs? Of course, students can always make things more challenging than the status quo by taking more courses, transferring to a more rigorous school, or petitioning to skip ahead to higher-level courses. But more often what seems to be happening is that students are using their spare time to take internships and build up experience so that they’ll be that much farther ahead when they graduate. Their shepherd in all this: the Internet (and the professors sitting with their feet up on their desks when they should be finding some 500-page text for them to read). Sure, these young ones might not know how to write, but their present and future bosses can teach them that. And they won’t even charge them.