Study Shows College Education Often Worthless

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

According to a New York Times article (“The Economic Price of Colleges’ Failures,” 2 Sep. 2014), our colleges and universities are doing a terrible job of educating our youth. The conclusions are academic dynamite.

The article, by Kevin Carey, depends on two books by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa: Academically Adrift (Jan. 2011) and Aspiring Adults Adrift (Sep. 2014). According to Carey, Arum and Roksa lean heavily on a test of critical thinking and other skills known as the “Collegiate Learning Assessment” (CLA). For this reason, conclusions depend on the value of this particular test instrument, which some have called into question.

Even if the CLA is flawed, it cannot be totally inaccurate, and the findings should indicate a general direction. According to the article, students who graduated from college “improved less than half of one standard deviation” in the test.

All of that time and all of that money resulted in little benefit to the students. Interestingly, the students themselves did not see it that way. They thought they received a good education. The problem, as the second book pointed out, is that the job market does not agree with their self-assessment. According to Carey, “Because they didn’t acquire vital critical thinking skills, they’re less likely to get a job and more likely to lose the jobs they get than students who received a good education.”

Reading between the lines, some colleges still provide a good education, but a great number do not. Note the emphasis on critical thinking skills that stand in strong contrast to the memory skills that so many courses support. The CLA claims to test critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and communications. 

My personal bias leans heavily in that direction. I would put communications first in line because you can do much if you can just communicate even if your critical thinking and analytical skills are not so great. The reverse generally is not true.

What exactly are critical thinking skills? Carl Sagan has encapsulated them as a “baloney detection kit.” Basically, it means that you question authority whether it comes from our leaders, our televisions, or the Internet. Questioning authority does not mean automatically assuming the authority is wrong. Rather, it means that you reflect on what you’re being told and use your critical thinking tools to decide whether to accept or reject — or hold in abeyance — the pronouncements of the authority.

If you’re in college and you find that you can cram for your final exams successfully, then you’re probably in a course that emphasizes memory over thinking.

Other parts of the article were also very revealing. For example, “Students who spent more time studying alone learned more…. So did students whose teachers enforced high academic expectations.”

What does this say about study groups? What does it say about instructors known for giving high marks to students? In both instances, the suggestion is that you should avoid both. However, typical students flock to these groups and teachers like buzzards to road kill. There’s value to attacking a workplace problem as a group, but, if the article is to be trusted, this value does not translate into your schools. Instructors who are lenient toward students are not doing them a favor. The students have “learned from the experts that they can do well with little effort … so they’re optimistic.” The lack of failure in school, in these instances, translates directly into failure in the workplace.

This conclusion is anathema to many teachers who are now working hard to rewrite lesson plans to include collaboration. While some sorts of collaboration must have benefits, the collaborative study group would seem not to.

Teachers also take great pains to avoid having their students fail. They go so far as to publish questions on exams before the exams and to give passing grades for showing up every day. The books would have us believe that avoidance of challenging students harms them, that it’s not a neutral action and certainly does not help them at all by relieving potential pain. Failure is a great educator, after all.

When it comes to selecting a major, the article tells us that it makes a difference. “People who studied the traditional liberal arts and sciences learned more than business, education and communications majors.” Recent years have seen quite a shift to these other majors from liberal arts and sciences. Business and communications have especially been viewed as roads to career success. If the CLA and the books are accurate, then they are just the opposite.

There’s yet one more gem in this article that may really hit your notions of what schools are about. “Students who were interviewed in depth by Arum and Roksa put great stock in collegiate social experiences that often came at the expense of academic work, emphasizing the value of the personal relationships they built. But only 20 percent found their most recent job through personal contacts, and of those, less than half came from college friends.”

In more ordinary terms, students who shirk the work of college in favor of cultivating “relationships” are sinking their own ships by partying too much and working too little. It’s certainly tempting, especially these days when the “gut” courses are easy to find, and there are just so many fun things to do on campus and nearby.

The primary problem with this article, and by implication the books, is that it offers no solution. It’s easier to throw stones than to repair broken windows. How can we raise course standards and challenge students to think? How can we convince them that memorizing is not the same as thinking? How can we illustrate that a degree is worth the paper on which it is printed but that knowledge and skills are priceless? How can we stop sending our youth through what should be a boot camp for life only to have them breeze through a dumbed-down college experience expecting life to match that experience?

Comments on the article were enlightening too. One commenter suggested improving high school and community college experience so that four-year colleges might become unnecessary for most people. Having worked with a large number of high schools over the years, I don’t see this happening soon.

Another indicated that critical thinking, a skill (e.g., knowledge of a trade), and managerial skills will almost guarantee success in life. I’ll add communication skills to that mix. Yet, how well are any of these skills taught in most schools at any level? Making colleges more challenging will certainly cause pain. Some students will not adjust and will flunk out. Others will find the grind unpleasant and long for parties and social occasions. Some will point to Bill Gates not finishing college while not noticing that Gates had to be smart to get into Harvard in the first place and that he had a reasonably wealthy father to act as his entrepreneurial safety net.

Indeed, the Gates story could be considered as confirmation of the thrust of the article.

If you’re about to underwrite your child’s college experience, or if you’re a student about to work your way through college to attain a better life, think hard about the message of this article. Find the most challenging courses in your chosen school. Eschew long study sessions and partying all night. Get ready for life.

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