The truth about college

Tell the Truth About Colleges, writes Thomas Toch of Education Sector in The Atlantic.  The truth is that some college students aren’t getting much of an education.

Only about half of all college entrants earn degrees within six years. And many who do aren’t learning much: one study indicates, for instance, that only 38 percent of graduating college students can successfully compare the viewpoints of two newspaper editorials.

Tuition keeps going up, but there’s no evidence students are learning more.

We need to shed more light on how well colleges are educating their students—to help prospective students make better decisions, and to exert pressure on the whole system to provide better value for money.

Toch wants the Obama administration to offer stimulus dollars in exchange for colleges agreeing to release results of surveys of student learning.

For many non-technical students, the first two years in college repeat the last two years of a good high school, writes Abraham Miller, a retired political science professor, on Pajamas Media.  Well-prepared students could complete college in a year or two, he estimates.

Early in my teaching career, I had a student from one of the state’s best high schools. She was bright, but hardly exceptional. I found she was taking more than a full class load and holding down a full-time job. I was amazed. She told me that her classes at a suburban high school were more demanding than their repetition at the university. She chose classes where attendance wasn’t mandatory. Was she recycling her high school term papers? Of course; so was everyone else from her class.

Engineering programs require hard work, he writes. Talented and motivated students will get a real education.

But if your kid is rather average, had trouble in high school, has no real interests, and is touring schools because “they’re scenic,” maybe you should consider what you really are buying for that tuition money.

. . . I would suggest that you keep your child at home and send her to a good community college, where she will spend the two years of high school repetition acquiring the skills she needs. And if she doesn’t, the financial burden will not keep you in a permanent state of indentured servitude.

Miller wants national examinations that would let self-educated people qualify for a degree — or show whether college attendees actually have a college education. Not going to happen, of course.

About Joanne


  1. Parent2 says:

    “Toch wants the Obama administration to offer stimulus dollars in exchange for colleges agreeing to release results of surveys of student learning.”

    Colleges don’t need more money.

    Whenever someone opines in print about the worth of college degrees, I wish they’d reveal their own decisions. Did their children attend college? If so, which college, and what degree did they complete?

    If their children are happy housekeepers and construction workers, then perhaps they have the “street cred” to advise others to avoid a college degree. If their children are lawyers and endocrinologists, it’s a case of, “do as I say, not as I do,” or, “well, of course, my children are exceptional.”

  2. Homeschooling Granny says:

    I’ve encountered some homeschool families in which the youngsters finish high school work at about 16 and spend a year or two doing AP or CLEP work. They may enter college as sophomores. Some parents who advocate the classic liberal arts approach are seeking to avoid the one-sided PC humanities courses for their children.

    One of the many reasons this family is homeschooling is to avoid schooling as preparation for college. My grandchildren may not go to college. We are seeking to prepare them for life-long learning.

  3. Most reasonably motivated and bright students can complete college by 20 IF they take a full load, study during summers, and avoid repeating the last two years of high school during their first two years of college. Dual enrollment programs allow students to double up in high school and get college credits and AP/CLEP makes this possible as well.

    The real issue is that students expect college to last four or five or six years, and they pace themselves accordingly. Those who graduate at 19 or 20 do so not because they are geniuses but because they are motivated self-advocates who ask the right questions in order to take the courses they need in a timely way.

    These students are also likely to learn more because they are actively engaged in choosing their courses based on what excites them. They are in college to get educated rather than simply get “the college experience.” It doesn’t help when parents tell their kids that college will be the best time of their lives–they have no incentive to finish early if all they have to look forward to is decades of indentured servitude!

    Teaching kids how to get the education they want in a timely and affordable way will not only ensure that they graduate but that they do so without debt and with strong skills in planning and a developed sense of value. Those who graduate at 19 or 20 are snapped up my employers who recognize the strategy and commitment it takes to do so.

    Learn more about how students are gliding into the global economy with sizzling 21st-century skills AND a great education by visiting

  4. Charles R. Williams says:

    The college industry would collapse if employers had to justify requiring a BA for a job by the same standards applied to standardized tests of cognitive skills.

  5. There is glaring inefficiency in the system – and colleges are reluctant to give up the revenue stream that comes from the two years of general education requirements. Many students could easily afford to shave one year off high school and one to two years of college and graduate with the same skills, knowledge base, and credential.

    Too many are arguing that every student will benefit and should pursue at least one year of post-high school education. However, that reveals a monstrous inefficiency if thirteen years and more than a hundred thousand dollars does not prepare many kids for adulthood and the workplace.

    However, nothing will change unless the country breaks from its prejudice about bachelor degrees.

  6. Even in engineering, there is a lot of slop space. I could have skipped most of my freshman science courses. I did AP Physics and Chemistry in HS, but those exams only exempted me from the standard courses not the Science and Engineering versions. That’s 16 credits I had to retake. English 101 added another 3 credits. I’m sure there’s more I could find if I had a transcript. The majority of my freshman year was still a waste.

  7. Charles said, “The college industry would collapse if employers had to justify requiring a BA for a job by the same standards applied to standardized tests of cognitive skills.”

    Well said. This is why colleges fight so hard against any attempt to measure students’ learning and the employers use a college degree as no more than a screening tool. But, many employers know that a college degree is an increasingly poor screener.

  8. Most of my AP English students are planning to go into engineering; they use my course to get the comp requirement out of the way. It’s a good strategy.

  9. tim-10-ber says:

    I wish all high schools were required to offer dual enrollemnt classes — even academic magnets. These classes are just coming to the default er zoned high schools in my city…bummer

  10. The reason college is a poor screener, and the reason why the best kids are bored in the first two years of college, go back to the same reason: we are sending too many kids to college.

    And the reason we are sending too many kids to college has to do with the performance gap. Back in the 60s and 70s, the push to convince black and Hispanic kids to college, even though they were less qualified (by test scores) had an unintended consequence when coupled with the Griggs Supreme Court decision banning employment tests.

    In order to compete with their equals (that is, minorities with equivalent abilities), white kids (and then Asian kids) who otherwise wouldn’t have had to go to college in order to get secretarial or bank teller jobs now have to go to college, since employers can’t test for relevant skills.

    That wasn’t really part of the original plan by the well-meaning elites that wanted to convince URMs to go to college. They anticipated a world in which the elite whites would go to college, but not all whites.

    In any event, we are busy downgrading college to become the new high school: a credential with little worth.

  11. Maybe we should be thinking less about how to cut down the years students spend in high school and college and think about the ways we can better the college classes in order to push students towards achieving greater goals.

    Colleges can ask students to be well rounded without making them take stock 101 courses that replicate high school. But are students willing to go that extra step? That’s the real question. Students need to be motivated to learn as opposed to simply getting through courses. Sleeping through large classes where the professor is a speck at the front of a large auditorium is no way to breed passion in students.

  12. “Most of my AP English students are planning to go into engineering; they use my course to get the comp requirement out of the way. It’s a good strategy.”

    Only if AP English actually lets them test out of Freshman Comp. Mine didn’t. I received an almost worthless elective English credit.

  13. That’s true, Jeff. Our state universities and colleges all accept AP credit for freshman comp, and that’s where most kids go. It’s dicier if they end up going out of state or to private colleges. This year a lot of my kids applied to and were accepted at big name schools, but when reality hit in the spring, opted for the the state university.

  14. As long as people are buying what they’re selling what is their incentive to improve/change? I drive thru the Boston College campus a couple of times a week and know a number of people who work there. They’re turning away kids in droves. Who knew 4 years at an overpriced Catholic country club could be so appealing?

  15. It’s hard to see what the incentives would be for colleges to allow students to spend less time in school, and thus, spend less money, for the same degree.

    Parents also collude with the four-year plan. Many parents see college as the time and place to gain social polish, and to network. Fraternities and sororities are, apparently, very popular–and they’re not primarily academic institutions.