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


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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