More Bad News about College

What was the most noteworthy finding of the recent Gallup survey of people who have attended college? Half of the 90,000 respondents regretted one significant decision made as an undergrad, such as picking the wrong major. In journalistic terms, this is known as burying the lede — downplaying the major point of a story while elevating some minor point.

The major finding—stunning really–appears under the heading, “Most U.S. Adults Say They Had a High-Quality Postsecondary Education.” Gallup asked respondents whether they received a “high-quality” education, and they answered overwhelmingly in the positive.

Fifty-eight percent of those who earned a bachelor’s degree assigned their school a 5, the highest testimony, while another 31 percent graded them a 4.  Even those who never earned a degree came out at 40 percent a 5 and 30 percent a 4.

But most college students in America today do not receive a high-quality education. Academically Adrift, the 2010 book that struck the world of higher education like a bombshell, proved that only a small number of students make significant gains in critical thinking and problem-solving from freshman to senior year. Every survey of employers, too, shows them complaining about poor reading and writing skills.

Related: College Students Now, the Good and the Bad

One poll is particularly relevant here. When the Association of American Colleges & Universities commissioned a poll of college students and employers that focused on the latter’s workplace readiness, an astonishing gap was revealed. While 65 percent of students said that they were “well prepared” in written communication, only 27 percent of employers agreed. Similarly, wide discrepancies showed up in areas of critical thinking, problem-solving, and critical thinking.

Coincidentally, a week after the Gallup poll was published, The Wall Street Journal published an investigative report from Collegiate Learning Assessment on the scores of dozens of colleges and universities dating back to 2013 titled, “Many Colleges Fail in Teaching How To Think.”  The results are embarrassing, and they reinforce the judgments of Academically Adrift authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa.

The Journal reported that at more than half of 200 schools tested, at least a third of seniors were unable to make cohesive arguments, assess the quality of evidence in a document or interpret data in a table. This is a devastating finding. International rankings show U.S. college grads in the middle of the pack on numeracy and literacy and near the bottom when it comes to problem-solving.

The gist paragraph reads, “At some of the most prestigious flagship universities, test results indicate the average graduate shows little or no improvement in critical thinking over four years.”

Related: How to Make College as Bad as High School

The data comes from public records requests, and so the Journal’s findings apply to public institutions, not private ones. The biggest point gain didn’t come from top research universities. Plymouth State University in New Hampshire led the list.  The University of Kentucky and University of Texas-Austin students didn’t show much improvement at all. Those schools no longer use the test.  University of Louisiana—Lafayette scored low as well, and it, too, has dropped the test.

The Journal quotes a 2011 Lafayette graduate who recalls, “I wasn’t as focused as I should have been, but in a lot of classes, we just watched videos and documentaries, then we would talk about them. It wasn’t all that challenging.”  He now works in a local coffee shop.

I have no doubt that any other objective measure of actual learning that takes place from matriculation to graduation—except for the competitive areas of pre-med and STEM fields—will replicate these disappointments. Even if super-selective institutions point to the strong scores that their graduates earn on the CLA, they will not be able to show much value-added impact. That is, their students came in with sound critical thinking skill, and they left with, oh, a bit more of it.

Those data points force another interpretation of the high ratings people give to the quality of higher education. Instead of proving the actual rigor and excellence of undergraduate instruction in the United States, the sanguine estimates evince the low educational standards of American millennials. They just don’t know what actual excellence is. How could they when grade inflation in high school and college has reached such an absurd level that nearly half of all college grades are in the A range. If their teachers awarded them the top mark, well, then, they learned a lot in the course.  If the work that was required of them during the semester seemed suspiciously light, well, that may be due to the sparkling intelligence of the student, not to a cushy workload.

Or, perhaps, the faith that they received a high-quality education only proves their high gullibility. Every college has abundant marketing materials that proclaim the wonderful education they provide, and the students trust those pledges of superiority. It soothes their vanity. After all, the more superb the education they received, the more educated they are. The respondents in the Gallup poll are early in their adult lives, searching for jobs and for spouses, they want to believe in their own special condition.  Acknowledging a crummy education hampers their self-confidence. They need the power of positive thinking.

Millennials have been encouraged ever since kindergarten to overestimate their own abilities. They aren’t going to stop once they graduate. It takes several years of the realities of the American workplace to contain their judgment.

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

6 thoughts on “More Bad News about College

  1. Very similar to a study years ago about daycare. Large number of parents surveyed said their daycare was excellent but a much smaller number deemed excellent by researchers, child development experts etc.. Who wants to acknowledge to the world or even to themselves that they send their kid to a third rate daycare? Likewise, who wants to admit they learned little in college or didn’t bother to actually read their assignments and study? Of course lots of college students learn nothing. Too many students in college and too many with zero curiosity.

  2. Welcome to the Idiocracy.

    And in a strange inversion of Groucho’s logic, “Of course a University that would give me a Degree is Top Notch! How could it not be; it graduated me and I am super Top Notch!!”

    Of course in real life we all get wake-up calls. We may think we’re really in shape, until we meet someone who actually is. We may think we’re really fast, until we actually run a race. We may thing we’re super-skilled until the thing we’re responsible for doing simply crashes & burns. But if we’re only surrounded by peers who graduated in our same ‘class’ — well, by gosh, we’ve ALL got electrolytes!!

  3. I have a BA and a JD, and I wish I hadn’t bothered with postsecondary education at all…. or chosen a technical option.

  4. “Gallup asked respondents whether they received a “high-quality” education, and they answered overwhelmingly in the positive….. They just don’t know what actual excellence is.”

    Very true, and very simple to understand. This is like asking drug addicted Citizens to vote on the legalization of their drug. The response is predictable in both cases.

  5. This hits the nail right on the head: most young Americans have been badly served by educators who keep telling them that they’re doing wonderfully. That boosts the kids’ egos and makes the teachers popular. I used to have students who couldn’t write as well as most fourth graders used to, but after getting back an essay with lots of corrections (such as mistaking there and their), I’d hear them complain, “But my teachers always said I was a really good writer.” And because they’ve been conditioned to expect high grades for poor work in their K-12 years, naturally they demand that college treat them similarly. Most schools are happy to oblige.

  6. They are very good at politely believing whatever those in authority tell them to believe, they are very good at being members of the herd.

    That is what they have been graded on, and that is what they learned to do.

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