Recent popular books and articles on the state of higher education today might lead a reader to conclude that no students are prepared for college-level work, nor are they learning or studying as much as they should, especially in their first two years in college. In the March 24 New York Review of Books, Peter Brooks, the distinguished scholar of comparative literature who spent many years at Yale and is now at Princeton, reviews several of the recently published critiques of American higher education. His view--that many recent books exaggerate the shortcomings of American higher education--offers a useful counterweight to the prevailing heated rhetoric.
Brooks reminds us that a missing dimension of the books by Mark C. Taylor, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, and Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa is their failure to recognize that the problems cited in these works are not new and many reforms have been attempted in American higher education over a long span of time. Some of these reforms have been successful, even dramatically successful, only to be stymied by new circumstances.
American higher education is, in many ways, stronger today than it was a century ago, but these books--like Margaret Spellings' previous calls for colleges and universities to be held accountable for the quality of their graduates--are written as if no one has tried to address problems in the past. American higher education today is criticized in these works without sufficient regard for context.
The lack of perspective is not confined to these authors. James Burnham, writing in the March 14 Pittsburgh Post Gazette, juxtaposes President Obama's 2010 challenge to the nation to produce 8 million more college graduates by 2020 and the U.S. Department of Education's 1999 report "College for All? Is There Too Much Emphasis on Getting a 4-Year College Degree?" In a mere 11 years, Burnham asks, how is it possible that federal officials in the same political party haven't maintained a consistent policy on even the basic question of whether more Americans should go to college?
The problems of higher education are real and they require urgent attention, but too many of the recent books argue that the quality of today's college education is dismal, while focusing only on the selected aspects of higher education that each author believes need to be fixed. These differences in perspective are understandable because, in the decentralized system of U.S. higher education, solutions are necessarily partial.
Low-performing colleges do persist, but an undergraduate who has graduated from a good high school today, for example, is likely already to have taken Calculus I. A generation ago, that subject would more typically have been a sophomore-level college course. An undergraduate today also would be likely to enroll in an introductory college course in biology that starts with a treatment of genetics that would have been offered only in advanced courses just 20 years ago. And undergraduates today routinely write term papers in history courses that require them to read and interpret vast quantities of source material, now readily available on paper and online, that would have been entirely inaccessible 10 years ago.
An especially instructive example of the difficulties caused when an overly generalized wake-up call is based on very limited empirical research is the recent Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press, 2011). Arum and Roksa analyze the results of students' performance on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) at 24 colleges and universities and conclude that students are not studying very hard, not learning very much, and not performing better academically than other students--even those who follow the "engaged" learning practices touted by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE).
The inferences drawn by Arum and Roksa are from a very small sample of institutions, but the bigger conceptual problem is their failure to disaggregate their data in ways that would shed light on pedagogical practices that, pioneered over the past 30 years, have proven to be highly successful.
An important point for small colleges never gets made by Arum and Roksa--namely, that there's a huge quantity of evidence, largely from NSSE, that makes the case that the features of most small colleges that highlight "engaged learning"--do in fact lead to substantial and consequential learning gains. You wouldn't know it from most of the media coverage of their book, but it turns out that 64 percent of all students in the Arum/Roksa study demonstrate gains in learning. Moreover, in their words, "students in traditional liberal arts fields ... demonstrated significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time." In the current frenzy to find fault with American education, it is easy to overlook such positive findings that have significant policy implications.
Because the Arum/Roksa analysis doesn't distinguish among types of colleges and universities, we are left to wonder about other studies that may have been ignored and that also make clear that students at smaller, liberal arts institutions show bigger gains in cognitive skills, on average, between freshman and senior years than students at other kinds of institutions.
Policy makers, please note: this pattern can be found at both highly selective and medium selective colleges. (CIC's Making the Case website displays recently updated charts based on NSSE results that document this perspective in rich detail.) It is also worth noting that long before Secretary Spellings and some of the most recent authors issued their dire warnings, CIC was urging its member colleges and universities to participate in both the CLA and NSSE as steps toward improved teaching and learning. In fact, most of the 47 colleges that participate in CIC's CLA Consortium have demonstrated value-added gains in student learning.
Not everyone is insensitive to an understanding of how change actually gains traction in higher education. For example, the newly formed New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability, a coalition of organizations that embraces the many voluntary efforts now underway to improve quality, attempts to highlight these efforts in the aggregate to inform colleges and universities about the many good practices that could be adopted and also to show government officials, accreditors, and journalists that plenty of good is being done with no need for mandated federal or state regulation. One size never fits all in American education. A uniform solution would paralyze the innovations that lead to many important improvements in educational quality. Taking the long view is almost always the prudent course of action.
Richard Ekman is president of the Council of Independent Colleges, www.cic.org.