Students Respond to Study Criticizing College Education

Jan 21, 2011 2:26pm

ABC News on Campus reporter Lynne Guey blogs: They say college is the best time of your life.  But intellectually stimulating? Not necessarily. A new study designed by New York University sociologist Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, found that almost half of college students fail to learn critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skills by the end of their sophomore year.
From fall 2005 to spring 2009, Arum and Roksa followed more than 2,300 college students on a traditional undergraduate four-year track at 24 schools.  Based on transcripts, surveys, and results from the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test, Arum and Roksa discovered that 45 percent of those students showed no significant gains in critical thinking, reasoning and writing skills after two years in college.  Their new book, “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” also demonstrates that after four years in college, 36 percent of the students didn’t show significant improvement in learning.  In addition, the researchers found students spend less than a fifth of their time each week on academic pursuits, as compared to 51 percent of their time socializing or in extracurricular activities. Katie Koeheler, a junior at the University of Texas at Austin, says it is precisely this social aspect that enhances the collegiate experience.
“I think it’s finding that good balance between work and play.  These are the life lessons that you take outside of the classroom and into the real world that benefit you later on,” said Koehler. “One day you’re going to be in the work force and have to balance work and a social life and this is just the first case of that.”  Eric Gembarowski, a junior at Arizona State University, finds value in socializing.  “You learn so much more about yourself, about people and just interacting in the real world by just meeting people, talking to people, than just sitting in your dorm room studying all the time.”
But as a result, academics may take a backseat.
“I don’t feel like I learned as much as I should have,” said Jennifer Campbell, a sophomore at the University of Florida. “It’s a bigger negative impact on academics when you’re in all these clubs because you kind of lose track of what’s important.” The higher education community has been mostly receptive to these findings. Some say, however, that colleges alone cannot be blamed for the reduced focus on academics. Jeff Hurt, an education professor at the University of Florida, thinks this is also a cultural issue. “Our society has shifted very much more towards a more entertainment-oriented lifestyle. The biggest names are athletes, rock stars, and actors,” said Hurt.   Arum and Roksa’s study is the first of its kind to follow undergraduates over a period of four years to examine whether they are learning specific skills.  It raises a number of questions, including how intellectually engaged students are with their college curriculum and whether academic demands need to be raised.  The study proposes that colleges assess what students are being asked to do and whether they are demonstrating improvement on measurable outcomes. “Faculty need to work together to ensure that students are being asked to challenge themselves academically; administrators need to work to ensure that student learning is occurring,” Arum told  “This is something that administrators, faculty and students can do together.  It doesn’t take money.  It takes will, commitment and responsibility.” The study suggests college may not be serving its purpose. “I’ve learned more real world experiences than actual college stuff because it’s an ‘in your face, get used to the real world’ kind of thing,” said John Littler, a senior at the University of Texas-Austin. “Mom and Dad can’t shelter you anymore. I’ve learned more about real world situations and interacting with others.” Katie McInerney, a junior at Syracuse University, echoed that sentiment.  “I learned a lot more about social aspects of life than in classes,” she said. What do you think? Do colleges need to become more academically demanding?

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