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February 2, 2011 - Bill Ackerbauer
If, like me, you are concerned about the intellectual well-being of your community, you might want to check out an informative feature on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website, which shows a county-by-county breakdown of the average education level across the United States. I was not surprised to see that only 14.55 percent of adults living in Fulton County have bachelor’s degrees. But consider this: Every single county that borders us has a higher percentage of adults with four-year college degrees. Sure, affluent Saratoga County (34.1%) is a no-brainer, but did you know Hamilton County boasts 25 percent, one bachelor’s degree for every four adult residents? That’s Hamilton County, which is mostly forested wilderness: “There’s not a single stoplight in the entire county,” boasts its tourism website.
Even Montgomery County, our pastoral neighbor to the south, has a slightly higher average education level (15.57%).
This is especially disheartening when you consider Fulton County is smack-dab in the middle of a wealthy state whose overall average education level exceeds the national average. Now, I realize that having a bachelor’s degree does not necessarily make an individual more intelligent, productive or likely to contribute to society than another, less educated person. But I have no doubt that cultivating the mind is a worthwhile activity, and I must assume that on the whole, the average degree-holder has more potential to contribute than the average person with less education.
With such a small percentage of college graduates, Fulton County is pretty low on the national charts. Thank goodness we are not required to compete in a nationwide Trivial Pursuit competition. In the early rounds, we’d probably defeat Glasscock, Texas, and Yazoo, Mississippi, but eventually Beaverhead, Montana, would kick our butts.
Then again, there has been more and more news that has made people wonder whether college is worthwhile at all. For years, people have been saying that today’s young people (Generations X, Y and Z? (What comes after Z?)) cannot count on earning as much money as their parents’ generation, even with more education. I know about this from personal experience; some days I wonder if I should have become a plumber instead of burying myself in books and debt.
To make things further depressing, the following study started popping up in headlines about two weeks ago. All I can say in my own defense is that I am not one of those wishy-washy teachers who allow students to sail through courses without reading, writing or thinking. They learn or they leave. Read on:
Student tracking finds limited learning in college
By Eric Gorski, AP Education Writer
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 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 years.
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 of college 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 (in college)."
Three of the five classes she took at Missouri were in massive lecture halls with several hundred students. 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 U.S. 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 college performance because so many factors are beyond their control.
The research found an average-scoring student in fall 2005 scored seven percentage points higher in spring of 2007 on the assessment. In other words, those who entered college in the 50th percentile would rise to the equivalent of the 57th after their sophomore years.
Among the findings outlined in the book and report, which tracked students through four years of college:
- Overall, the picture doesn't brighten much over four years. After four years, 36 percent of students did not demonstrate significant improvement, compared to 45 percent after two.
- Students who studied alone, read and wrote more, attended more selective schools and majored in traditional arts and sciences majors posted greater learning gains.
- Social engagement generally does not help student performance. Students who spent more time studying with peers showed diminishing growth and students who spent more time in the Greek system had decreased rates of learning, while activities such as working off campus, participating in campus clubs and volunteering did not impact learning.
- Students from families with different levels of parental education enter college with different learning levels but learn at about the same rates while attending college. The racial gap between black and white students going in, however, widens: Black students improve their assessment scores at lower levels than whites.
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 the University of California, Los Angeles, endorsed the latter finding, saying professors do seem more concerned with research. He said he can't 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.
Phil Hampton, a UCLA spokesman, said the university offers a rigorous and well-rounded curriculum led by faculty committed to student learning, and pointed to a study that showed high student satisfaction with their experience.
So what to do? The report warns that federally mandated fixes similar to "No Child Left Behind" in K-12 education would be "counterproductive," in part because researchers are still learning how to measure learning. But it does make clear that accountability should be emphasized more at the institutional level, starting with college presidents.
Some colleges and universities are taking steps. The University of Charleston, in West Virginia, has beefed up writing assignments in disciplines such as nursing and biology to improve learning. President Edwin Welch is among more than 70 college and university presidents pledging to take steps to improve student learning, use evidence to improve instruction and publicize results.
"I think we do need more transparency," Welch said. "I think a student at a private institution who might go into debt for $40,000 or $50,000 has the right to know what he can learn at the institution."
Lindsay McCluskey, president of the United States Student Association, said the findings speak to a larger problem in U.S. higher education: universities being run more like corporations than educational institutions, with students viewed as consumers who come for a degree and move on.
"There is less personal attention in the classroom, fewer tenure-track positions, and more classes are being taught by teaching assistants and in some cases undergraduate students," said McCluskey, a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. "Obviously, that has an impact on our learning and the experience we get in college."
AP staff writer Alan Scher Zagier in Columbia, Mo., contributed information to this report. Gorski reported from Denver.
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