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Students aren't learning much in college

A new study raises more questions about the value of a degree.

By Teresa Mears Jan 20, 2011 3:04PM

With new graduates facing high rates of both debt and unemployment, the value of a college degree has come into question. Now, a new study raises even more doubts about whether that $25,000 a year you're spending to send Junior to college is worth it: He isn't learning much.

At least that's the conclusion of professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, who found that learning is taking a back seat on campus as instructors focus on research and students focus on their social lives. Their study of 2,300 students at 24 colleges and universities found that, after two years of college, 45% of the students showed little academic gain. Plus, 36% showed little gain after four years.


"These are really kind of shocking, disturbing numbers," Arum, a professor at New York University, told USA Today. "Students are able to navigate through the system quite well with little effort."


Here's how the authors summarized their conclusions in their new book, "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses":

Growing numbers of students are sent to college at increasingly higher costs, but for a large proportion of them the gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication are either exceedingly small or empirically nonexistent. …
More troubling still, the limited learning we have observed in terms of the absence of growth in CLA (Collegiate Learning Assessment) performance is largely consistent with the accounts of many students, who report that they spend increasing numbers of hours on nonacademic activities, including working, rather than on studying. 

Questions have been raised in recent months about the benefits of high-cost law school education, as well as whether students are getting their money's worth at for-profit colleges. Rising student debt and high levels of unemployment or underemployment for graduates have added to the consternation and caused more students and parents to look at the cost vs. benefit of a college degree. Post continues after video.

The study measured student achievement by scores on a standardized test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which measures critical thinking, analytic reasoning and writing. The study did not measure specialized training students received in their major fields of study, and it did find differences among colleges. The research found that the students were spending 50% less time studying than students did a decade ago, but they still managed to earn a 3.2 grade-point average.


And how have those students done since they graduated? This is what Arum told The New York Times:

  • 60% have full-time jobs.
  • 36% have moved back home to live with parents or relatives.
  • 10% are carrying more than $60,000 of debt.
  • 66% of those with jobs are earning less than $35,000 a year.
  • 45% of those with jobs are earning $15,000 a year or less.

Is college still worth it? What needs to change to make sure students get a tangible benefit from all the money they and their parents invest in education?


More from MSN Money:

Jan 21, 2011 8:58PM

Certain social groups on campus focus on partying. The academic requirements within these are merely in place to placate the deans and president of the universities.


I guess this is a means and seriousness test. Do you have the means to pay for a 4 year party for your child? Or do you wish to house a child who has been released from his/her employment because he/she could not perform the job duties with the competency specified by the degree he/she holds? Do you wish to pay for the kid's school loans because of this?


If you child was a partier in high school, waiting a couple of years for maturity to set in would be a better option for your wallet and the academic records of your child. A few years working for $7.50 an hour in a monotonous, going nowhere job creates some maturity to move onto college.

Jan 21, 2011 2:18PM
for a large proportion of them the gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication are either exceedingly small or empirically nonexistent.

Of course not.  That's because the largest gains are going to happen at an earlier stage of development.  I would expect to see the gains become smaller as the students get older, unless they're stunted in their intellectual growth in high school.


Take my profession, for instance (music): the largest gain occurs when a beginner goes from not being able to play at all, to holding an instrument and being able to play simple songs.  The next biggest is being able to go from imitating a teacher's interpretation to forming one's own interpretive opinion, which in my observation often coincides with other, across-the-board "coming of age" factors.  The more sohisticated they get, the smaller the gains are going to be -- objectively speaking, at least, since they may still feel like they have to work very hard to achieve a small but important gain.


College is where one goes to specialize in a field.  That's exactly the point, and yet exactly what this study apparently ignored.  Social skills are serious business when it's the difference between potential employers calling you back, or not; I would think with all the hullaballoo about texting and Facebook, that would be less of a gripe.  While it's true that there may be other, less expensive ways to be put in daily contact with the right people, it can be hard to break into the culture of an area without having gone through it that way.


To conclude, there's enough evidence of grade inflation.  This is a stretch. 

Jan 24, 2011 11:27PM
If kids aren't learning much in college, it's because they are not prepared to learn. They haven't learned HOW to learn yet.  They've spent too much time in front of computers, TV's, and i-Phones to learn anything about critical thinking, researching, and communicating.  Many professors were brought up in a time when people learned HOW to learn, and therefore assume that the students know this as well.  They don't. 

Students need to be taught in high school HOW to learn.  College is for improving the HOW to learn skills, and for focusing on the WHAT they want to learn to do in their lives (What it is, how it works, why it works, etc).  Obviously, they would have to think a little about WHAT in high school, but mostly they need to learn HOW first.  Otherwise, kids end up going from major to major to major and spend a ridiculous amount of time in college for no reason.

Jan 23, 2011 4:20PM
As a student at Iowa State University I find myself agreeing with every statement in this article. The higher up professors are so involved with research that they become intimidating and hostile if students attempt to continually seek help in their classes. As students it is our responsibility to do everything morally and reasonably within our power to achieve the best grades we can, but professors often don't see it that way. Most students simply depend on grading curves in order to succeed in their majors. What does that leave society? A student that has top grades in a class with an extreme curve is not an educated student, but a competitive one. As long as we can overcome the second best achiever in class we're considered educated. Is that what society wants? Instead of curving grades based on statistically acceptable numbers professors should get off their high horse $200,000+ salary research positions and do the job they were put in universities to do.
Jan 23, 2011 3:22PM
It all depends on the college. YEs, the for profit colleges are definetely not the way to go as they just push students through (been there, done that myself). There are however excellent academic on-line Universities such as California Lutheran University, they do not kid around. The classes are rigorous, and you better do the work or you fail.
Jan 21, 2011 11:56PM
I'd like to know what they consider "academic gain," because my "critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication" skills were developed in my college preparatory classes in high school. Although I better learned to distinguish between good and better sources of information while gaining my degree, none of those three things noticeably improved. 
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