Are students learning? Colleges don’t know

Many college students aren’t working very hard or learning very much, according to recent studies, writes New York Times columnist David Brooks, who suggests value-added assessments to show how much graduates have gained.

At some point, parents are going to decide that $160,000 is too high a price if all you get is an empty credential and a fancy car-window sticker.

. . . Colleges and universities have to be able to provide prospective parents with data that will give them some sense of how much their students learn.

In 2006, the Spellings commission recommended using the Collegiate Learning Assessment.  There are many other ideas out there, Brooks writes.

Some schools like Bowling Green and Portland State are doing portfolio assessments — which measure the quality of student papers and improvement over time. Some, like Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, use capstone assessment, creating a culminating project in which the students display their skills in a way that can be compared and measured.

Colleges could pick an assessment method that “suits their vision,” writes Brooks.

Then they could broadcast the results to prospective parents, saying, “We may not be prestigious or as expensive as X, but here students actually learn.”

. . . If you’ve got a student at or applying to college, ask the administrators these questions: “How much do students here learn? How do you know?”

With many different learning assessment schemes, it would be difficult to compare schools — or to add a do-they-learn metric to the all-powerful U.S. News college rankings.

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  1. The differences between colleges/universities are so huge in this country as to be laughable … if it weren’t so sad. It’s an abomination that people can graduate high school in this country and be unprepared for college or work. It’s an abomination that colleges grant acceptance and take the money of students who are clearly not ready for the tasks. For the US to be the premier university system in the world and still have discrepancies in what a college degree actually means is truly sad.

  2. Now that I’m a teacher in a public school, I can’t believe the lack of pedagogical skill implemented by some teachers at a top liberal arts college. It’d be very interesting to see what would happen with both teachers and learners if more accountability was implemented in institutions of higher learning.

  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    This is a stupid line of thinking. No one forces anyone to go to college. Behold my three-part plan for addressing this latest national crisis:

    If you don’t think you’ll learn something in college, don’t go.

    If you go and you’re not learning something, then quit.

    And if you’re too ignorant to tell whether or not you’re learning something, then you’re not ready for college and you shouldn’t go.

  4. Roger Sweeny says:


    That would be lovely if we didn’t have a whole set of laws that say a potential employer can’t ask an applicant (or use, if the information comes to hand) an applicant’s age, marital status, IQ or other test score, and a boatload of other things. However, one can ask how much schooling the person has, and use that to make a decision, whether the courses taken have anything to do with the position or not. So employers use schooling as a simple way to winnow down their applicant pool.

    Not surprisingly, anyone with any ambition feels that they really better go to college, no matter how little interested they are or how little they expect to learn.

    Which then gives employers a good reason to continue to discriminate against people with less schooling. Knowing that diplomas are required for lots of jobs, they couldn’t be bothered to get one? Given the choice, HR people go for the one with the piece of paper.

    So college becomes a paper chase for most people.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      … in which case what does whether the students are learning anything matter?

      Problem still solved.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        But the problem is then solved with very different answers than you gave:

        If you don’t think you’ll learn something in college, go anyway because you may be able to pass without learning much of anything (think high school) and that’s all that matters. If you don’t go, you may be leaving money on the table.

        If you go and you’re not learning something, so what, you still may be on track to get the all-important diploma.

        And if you’re too ignorant to tell whether or not you’re learning something, it doesn’t matter as long as you’re skillful enough to pass.

  5. I agree with Michael.

    I don’t like articles that raise an issue, but get stuck at a very superficial level of analysis.

    “…if all you get is an empty credential and a fancy car-window sticker.”

    What if that sticker is followed by “College of Pharmacy”? What “empty” are they talking about, learning or a good job?

    The question is whether students and employers have enough information about the product or whether the producers are trying to hide information about their product. This depends on whether the product is some sort of real learning or the skills and the piece of paper that makes you worth more on the job market. There is also the difference between departments.

    I would argue that a bigger problem is that K-12 educators are trying to push all kids into college. The lowest level at our high school (non-remedial) is College Prep. It was the highest level when I was growing up. I was at a (mandatory) parent-student substance abuse pep talk at the high school and the motivational speaker said in no uncertain terms that going to college was critical – in spite of the anecdote of his brother-in-law who had his life ruined by cocaine even though he had degrees from fancy colleges.

    Although supply and demand is forcing more kids to think about going to college, nobody is taking the cost for granted. Everyone knows that engineering is better than film studies. This is nothing new. Everyone knows that the job market is tough. I was on a recruiting team for a company once. We would just go to top schools and interview students with 3.75 grade points or higher.

    Go ahead and define more college evaluation formulas. Just don’t expect students or employers to pay attention or care.

    • Unfortunately, not everyone knows that your major mattersquite the contrary. The guy profiled in the newest post on this site apparently spent 4 years majoring in creative writing without realizing that finding a college-grad-level job was highly unlikely to impossible. There are also lots of various aggrieved-victim studies, anthropology, philosophy, fine arts and psychology/other humanities majors in the same boat. The daughter of friends graduated from a top private university with a psych major, in 08, did get a job, lost it within 6 months and hasn’t worked a job requiring a college degree or earning more than minimum wage since then.