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Shocking Truth: Students Aren’t Learning Much in College

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A bachelor’s degree has become the bare minimum requirement in many professions, and some parents begin saving for college as soon as their children are born. President Barack Obama is urging Americans of all ages to go or return to college, wanting the United States to lead the world in college graduates by 2020.

A disturbing new study suggests that college isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, though— nearly half of the nation’s undergraduates show almost no gains in learning in their first two years of college.

Students Spend More Time Sleeping than Studying

Called a “crushing expose into the secret society known as college” by Vanity Fair online, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses reports that college students spend nearly five times as much of their day in bed, playing Frisbee golf, and updating their Facebook statuses as they do attending class and studying.

According to USA Today, college students spend:

  • 51% of their time on recreational activities and socializing
  • 24% of their time sleeping
  • 9% of their time working, volunteering and participating in student clubs
  • 9% of their time attending classes
  • 7% of the time studying

Findings are based on extensive research conducted by New York University professor Richard Arum and the University of Virginia’s Josipa Roksa. The pair pulled data from transcripts and surveys of more than 3,000 full-time traditional-age students on 29 campuses nationwide, along with their results on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test that gauges students’ critical thinking, analytic reasoning and writing skills.

The study was an unusually large-scale effort to track student learning over time, and it comes as the federal government, reformers and others argue that the U.S. must produce more college graduates to remain competitive globally.

Students Lack Improvement in Learning

Inside Higher Ed also features the study’s not-very-encouraging results:

  • 45% of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college.
  • 36% of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over four years of college.
  • Those students who do show improvements tend to show only modest improvements. Students improved on average only 0.18 standard deviations over the first two years of college and 0.47 over four years. What this means is that a student who entered college in the 50th percentile of students in his or her cohort would move up to the 68th percentile four years later — but that’s the 68th percentile of a new group of freshmen who haven’t experienced any college learning.

College Students Lack Rigor

According to Arum and Roska, the main reason so many college students lack academic progress is a lack of rigor. Student surveys show that 32% of students each semester do not take any courses with more than 40 pages of reading assigned a week, and half do not take a single course in which they must write more than 20 pages over the course of a semester. College students spend an average of about 12 to 14 hours a week studying—50% less time than students studied a few decades ago.

Thirty-five percent of college students report spending five or fewer hours per week studying alone, and students who study in groups tend to have lower gains in learning despite most schools’ growing emphasis on study groups and group projects.

Students Maintain Decent GPAs Without Learning

Arum noted that students in the study, on average, earned a 3.2 grade-point average—not bad despite not learning much. “Students are able to navigate through the system quite well with little effort,” he said.

“It’s not the case that giving out more credentials is going to make the U.S. more economically competitive. It requires academic rigor … You can’t just get it through osmosis at these institutions,” Arum said in an interview, reports CBS News.

University of Missouri freshman Julia Rheinecker told the Huffington Post that her first semester of college largely duplicated the work she completed back home in southern Illinois. “I’m not going to lie,” she said. She described her first semester of college as: “Most of what I learned this year I already had in high school. It was almost easier my first semester.”

Colleges Must Focus on Academics

Arum suggests that colleges need to shift attention away from measures of "social engagement,” or everything that’s not academic, and toward academic engagement, even if some of those measures of non-academic engagement help keep students engaged and enrolled.

How do educators feel about the study’s results?

“We can hope that the new research encourages rather than discourages college faculty to learn more about what works in terms of fostering higher levels of student learning,” said George Kuh of the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University.


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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