Does college make you smarter?

Does college make you smarter? Not so much, say respondents on the New York Times’ Room for Debate.

First there was the news that students in American universities study a lot less than they used to. Now we hear, in a recent book titled Academically Adrift, that 45 percent of the nation’s undergraduates learn very little in their first two years of college.

After four years of college, 36 percent of students showed no improvement in reasoning or writing skills, according to sociologists Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia. Students majoring in humanities, social sciences, math and natural sciences learned more than students in pre-professional fields such as education, business and social work. In addition, students who took courses that required significant reading and writing were more likely to show learning gains.

Most college students want “a credential attesting to their employability, accompanied by as much fun as possible,” writes George Leef of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.  They didn’t work hard in high school and expect college to be just as easy.

Intellectually vapid courses and programs that will attract customers have proliferated. Professors who would rather devote their time to their own career-advancing research projects often strike an implicit deal with their students: don’t expect much of my time and I’ll keep the course easy and the grades high.

By making it easier for students to borrow money, the federal government is luring “more marginal students into college, further increasing the pressure to lower standards,” Leef adds.

It has been accurately said that college is the new high school; the way we are going, soon it will be the new middle school.

Students aren’t interested in learning, writes Gaye Tuchman, a sociology professor at the University of Connecticut. Nearly all want to know, “Will I be able to get a job?”

Today’s college students average 14 hours a week of study time compared to 24 hours a week for students in the 1960s, writes Philip Babcock, an economics professor at University of California at Santa Barbara.  Thinking requires more effort than most colleges require.

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  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    In many respects, I think college might actually make people dumber. There are some profoundly silly things that are taught only in higher education, and some very bad habits that the local mechanic with a high school degree hasn’t picked up.

    Still, ceteris paribus, it’s probably better to spend a few years reading great literature and honing your math skills.

  2. wahoofive says:

    You might be interested in this critique of the Babcock study:

    [T]here seems to be very little evidence to support Babcock’s conclusion that study time has decreased even at selective schools by 10 hours from the 1960s to modern day. That is, he has a survey from 1961 in which students studied 25 hrs/week, two surveys in the 1980s in which students studied 17 hours/week, and two surveys in the 2000s in which students studied 14-15 hrs/week, but these surveys are all based on different types of students at different schools, so it’s hard to make any strong conclusions. If I compared the weight of football [players] from Oberlin in 1930 and Ohio State in 2005, I’d find a great increase in weight, but in fact the weight of football players at Oberlin probably has not increased much over that time period.

  3. College taught me to go beyond the kind of rote memorization & regurgitation that was key to success at the K-12 schools I attended. To be successful in my college courses, I had to figure out how to apply what I had learned to solve unfamiliar problems. This kind of critical reasoning has been extremely helpful post-college even though much of the content I learned is now dated (I studied science).

  4. Mark Roulo says:

    Still, ceteris paribus, it’s probably better to spend a few years reading great literature and honing your math skills.

    I agree. And I think you can do this in almost *any* reasonable college (the top 1,000 or so in the US). But, how many kids in college are reading great literature and honing their math skills? I’d guess that the answer is “less than half.”

  5. 1) As I said to a friend:

    Yeah, the headline is that that 45% of students are not significantly improving critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skill. But that only means that if they are improving that the researchers were unable to measure it. That well could be an artifact of their assessments. But we can put that aside.

    *Those who majored in “the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics” did significantly better than those who did not. That means that those the kids who are focusing on career prep sorts of programs are NOT improving as much as those who are focusing on the traditional stuff.

    * The instrument used was designed to measure liberal arts college stuff, not professional track stuff. So, the fact that we have more and more students majoring in career focused areas — something that the right, the business community and the folks at Fox call for — explains these results quite well.

    * Those who majored in “business, education, social work and communications showed the least gains in learning.” Well, education should be a major. We’ve long since realized that. I mean, didn’t states start to require other majors for certification in the 1990’s? But business as a major? We gonna argue against that one? I’d be happy to.

    So, the results are an artifact of two things. First, the traditional liberal arts are better at teaching critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication than the more business and career focused majors. Second, the instrument wasn’t designed to capture/measure the learning that these other majors focus on, instead.

    2) If we are talking about Horace’s Compromise, but applied to higher ed, can we please give Ted Sizer appropriate credit?

  6. Mikey NTH says:

    Crimson Wife: You are correct. Before I can give any critical thought to new information, I have to have some base knowledge to start from. The pump has to be primed first; only then does the well begin to flow.

  7. Why do we continue education after a basic education say K-5? The Internet is a great resource. If a person wants to learn they don’t need school. If a person doesn’t want to learn they don’t need school.

  8. My experience is that the engineering students know more about literature than the literature students know about science.

    The liberal arts have lost touch with natural philosophy. Pity.

  9. The suggestion is that undergrads are unqualified, lazy, and just want fun and a I call B.S.

    The criticism is that that 35% of students are not significantly improving critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skill. That means that pver half, are.

    By the way, how does one teach critical thinking, complex reasoning, and the ability to communicate in writing? I bet it has something to do with the ablity of the instructors to think critically, reason through complex circumstances, and communicate clearly in writing. Sadly, I’ve come across more than a few examples of academic communication that fails splendidly on all three counts. And when it comes to the “demand” from students that they acquire the credentials to get a job, well, who the hell has been stressing academic degrees as qualifying credentials for the last forty years or so but the professoriat? And what’s the chances that a highly talented candidate for job teaching critical thinking, who lacked an advanced degree, would get the job? And for that matter, if the undergrads are entering college ill-prepared for the challenge of higher education, just where did their high-school teachers qet their preparation and qualifications to be high-school teachers, but at the universities?

    I bet that the proportion of university instructors who, at depth, are just lazy and looking for a good time is equal to the undergraduates, whatever the degrees they’ve collected.

  10. For those few, those lucky few, who at the end of their college carreer, with the mass of debt that goes with it, realize that along with the crap they learned in high school, they have just wasted 4 years on a degree that will only be a source of embarrassment, and that the all natural suppliment thay’ve been taking tastes just like sheep shit.
    “Now you’re gettin’ smart, tenderfoot.”

  11. Some are suggesting the study is misleading. On the contrary, I think it still overestimates the value of tertiary education, when you consider that a sizable percentage of those who don’t go to college are going to make gains in “reasoning and writing skills” between the ages of 18 and 22 (or, increasingly, 23 and 24), and that the better four-year results are self-selected by less motivated students dropping out.

    @ceolaf: “”the headline is that that 45% of students are not significantly improving critical thinking…But that only means that if they are improving that the researchers were unable to measure it.””

    Why does it mean that? It’s hypothetically possible, but there is no evidence or support for that. It’s not like students are learning about Zen or Queer Studies in their first two years at college. (And even if they were, I took an LGBT class and it was easily the most analytically rigorous, if absurdly self-referential, in my time at university, so that’s no excuse.) Surely we could expect students engaged with (and being engaged by) serious educational material at a level even vaguely commensurate with the money involved to show some sort of gains in skills related to problem analysis and critical thought.

  12. BunnyMomRocks says:

    @ ceolaf said, “Those who majored in “business, education, social work and communications showed the least gains in learning.” Well, education should be a major. We’ve long since realized that. I mean, didn’t states start to require other majors for certification in the 1990?s? But business as a major? We gonna argue against that one? I’d be happy to.”

    I’d be happy to argue against education being a major. In the California there is no such thing as an undergraduate major in education, only a minor. The point is that future teachers learn their subject matter in-depth. Want to teach math? be a math major and then get your credential after you graduate as an undergraduate. In Florida you can major in education as an undergraduate and spend 4 years taking survey courses, learning nothing in depth except educational theory. Having spent time with credential students in both states I would clearly say that the California students have a much better grasp of the content they are expected to teach. But even within California the teacher credentialing programs vary WILDLY in their quality, their experiences and how they prepare their students for the job ahead.
    Unfortunately both groups were filled with people not of the highest intellectual caliber. Education is attractive as a career if you are looking for something easy and a steady paycheck. If you are looking for individual acknowledgement, the opportunity to excel, to be paid your worth and to be taken seriously as a professional by your peers and your community – you do not choose to be an educator. What is that old saying, “Those who can’t teach?”

  13. pashley1411 says:

    At some point, pushing more money and more students into education is like pushing a noodle. People without the desire to learn won’t, and all the wishing and hoping won’t do it.

    In fact, by creating a ready supply of education, you also create an expectation that there will be a ready supply of jobs.

    For better or worse, this will be a very different country in 10 years.

  14. So education is a field that requires career-prep, but doesn’t require critical thinking? *Shudder.*

    I am a math teacher.

  15. Perhaps we ought to look at the “career-advancing research projects” of these lazy professors. If they don’t get tenure if they don’t publish, so we create a large group of people with no teaching skills and no incentive to learn to teach rigorously because their jobs don’t depend on it.

    I do have a business degree (though my concentration was information systems, so I was employable), and when I was an undergrad I had to spend two years taking fairly difficult humanities courses before I was allowed to take business classes. The idea was to wash out the dunderheads before they had a chance to embarrass the business school. Now kids are allowed to start in the business school as freshman. So I am not surprised to hear that business majors don’t improve much in several areas.

    Now I’m getting a master’s in education (I am doubly stupid, according to this article). I have worked with education undergrads in the past and not been impressed. But I sat through a middle school math curriculum class last semester and was surprised by the quality of about half the students. They will become great teachers if someone doesn’t convince them to be actuaries. They were mathematically competent, articulate, and passionate. Sadly, these wonderful kids probably came to school the way they are. I doubt their coursework as shaped them very much. I’m finding people in my own cohort who have trouble with basic language skills–and they will be teaching those skills to children in a few, short years.

  16. I would like to take a look at the study before I took it seroiusly.

    They call out students who went to business school for not learning, but were they measuring the things taught in business school? Sounds like they weren’t. Maybe those students are better prepared in areas like finance and economics. Did they ask if the history majors could read a balance sheet properly?

    And I don’t know about other business school’s, but the one I went to required a LOT of writing.

  17. Science Teacher says:

    M. Simon,

    Amen to that! Science people do tend to be broadly knowledgeable.