A new study provides disturbing answers to questions about how much students actually learn in college -- for many, not much -- and has inflamed a debate about the value of an American higher education.
The research of more than 2,300 undergraduates found that 45 percent of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore year.
One problem is that students just aren't asked to do much, according to findings in a new book, "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses." Half of students did not take a single course requiring 20 pages of writing during their prior semester, and one-third did not take a single course requiring even 40 pages of reading per week.
That kind of light load sounded familiar to University of Missouri freshman Julia Rheinecker, who said her first semester largely duplicated the work she completed back home in southern Illinois. "I'm not going to lie," she said. "Most of what I learned this year I already had in high school. It was almost easier my first semester."
Three of the five classes she took at Missouri were in massive lecture halls with several hundred students, she said. And Rheinecker said she was required to complete at least 20 pages of writing in only one of those classes.
"I love the environment; don't get me wrong," she said. "I just haven't found myself pushing as much as I expected."
The study, an unusually large-scale effort to track student learning over time, comes as the federal government, reformers and others argue that the United States must produce more college graduates to remain competitive globally. But if students aren't learning much that calls into question whether boosting graduation rates will provide that edge.
"It's not the case that giving out more credentials is going to make the U.S. more economically competitive," Richard Arum of New York University, who co-authored the book with Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia, said in an interview. "It requires academic rigor You can't just get it through osmosis at these institutions."
The book is based on information from 24 schools, meant to be a representative sample, which provided Collegiate Learning Assessment data on students who took the standardized test in their first semester in fall 2005 and at the end of their sophomore years in spring 2007. The schools took part on the condition that their institutions not be identified.
The Collegiate Learning Assessment has its share of critics who say it doesn't capture learning in specialized majors or isn't a reliable measure of performance by colleges because so many factors are beyond their control.
Arum and Roksa spread the blame, pointing to students who don't study much and seek easy courses and a culture at colleges and universities that values research over good teaching.
Yahya Fahimuddin, a sixth-year computer science student at UCLA, endorsed the latter finding, saying professors do seem more concerned with research. He said he cannot remember the last time he wrote a paper longer than three pages, double-spaced. He feels little connection to his professors and gets the sense that mastering material is not as important as the drudge work of meeting goals and getting through material on schedule.
"Honestly, you can get by with Wikipedia and pass just about anything," he said.
Lindsay McCluskey, president of the United States Student Association, said the larger problem is that universities are being run more like corporations, with students viewed as consumers who come for a degree and move on.