Colleges Don’t Teach Much, but College Students Don’t Know It

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The Collegiate Learning Assessment is just what it sounds like: a test that measures critical thinking, analytic reasoning, and communications skills in college students. Several years ago, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa reported that most students didn’t improve much on this test after four years of college, and a full third didn’t improve at all. Now they’ve written a follow-up, which concludes, unsurprisingly, that students with high CLA scores do better in the job market than students with low scores. Kevin Carey provides the highlights of the rest of the study:

Remarkably, the students had almost no awareness of this dynamic. When asked during their senior year in 2009, three-quarters reported gaining high levels of critical thinking skills in college, despite strong C.L.A. evidence to the contrary. When asked again two years later, nearly half reported even higher levels of learning in college. This was true across the spectrum of students, including those who had struggled to find and keep good jobs.

Through diplomas, increasingly inflated grades and the drumbeat of college self-promotion, these students had been told they had received a great education. The fact that the typical student spent three times as much time socializing and recreating in college as studying and going to class didn’t change that belief. Nor did unsteady employment outcomes and, for the large majority of those surveyed, continued financial dependence on their parents.

….Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa’s latest research suggests that within the large population of college graduates, those who were poorly taught are paying an economic price….Yet those same students continue to believe they got a great education, even after two years of struggle. This suggests a fundamental failure in the higher education market — while employers can tell the difference between those who learned in college and those who were left academically adrift, the students themselves cannot.

I suppose this is a specialized case of the Dunning-Kruger effect: incompetent people don’t realize they’re incompetent. There’s probably not much universities can do about that, but it’s disheartening that they’re motivated to actively encourage it.

On the other hand, I suppose you can argue that it doesn’t matter. After all, employers seem to figure out pretty quickly who’s good and who isn’t, so it doesn’t do them much harm. And the kids themselves are better off for having a degree, even if they didn’t learn much. So perhaps this is a Pareto-efficient situation after all.

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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