For the past two decade or so, government officials, business executives and many education “thought leaders” have publicly lamented the deteriorating quality of the American educational system. While K-12 educators and administrators have unduly taken much of the heat for our educational shortcomings, the real problem may lie with the quality of undergraduate education in America. To wit, while a growing percentage of American high school students are attending college, many of today’s college graduates today are noticeable deficient in communication skills and, perhaps more importantly, in their problem solving abilities. And, unfortunately, this troubling trend is beginning to takes its toll in life sciences graduate programs where a growing number of life sciences PhDs are great technicians but fail miserably as independent science investigators. This is because colleges and university administrators and faculty members are driven more by financial considerations as compared with their obligations as teachers, educators and mentors. Put simply, despite their non-profit status, many colleges and universities act like “for profit” companies where, in many cases, financial gains are more important than the products that they produce!
With this in mind, Richard Arum, a professor of sociology and education at New York University and Josipa Roksa an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia detail the decline of the American undergraduate education experience in a book entitled “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.” While I have read the book, I did read an extremely revealing and troubling article that the authors penned in this past Sunday’s New Times Opinion section entitled “Your So-Called Education.”
In the articles, Arum and Roksa describe their findings from a four-year long study in which they followed the progress of several thousand students in more than two dozen diverse colleges and universities. Students were evaluated by taking the Collegiate Learning Assessment test (an officially recognized academic assessment tool). Based on their research a whopping 45 percent of students after two years and 36 percent after four years showed no improvement in learning. Their conclusions:
“Large numbers of the students were making their way through college with minimal exposure to rigorous coursework, only a modest investment of effort and little or no meaningful improvement in skills like writing and reasoning.”
In the past, high school teachers and even the students themselves would have been blamed for their pitiful lack of academic progress. However, Arum and Roksa contend that the problems do not lie not with the students but with college presidents, administrators and in many cases faculty members. For example, the authors note that:
“While some colleges are starved for resources, for many others it’s not for lack of money. Even at those colleges where for the past several decades tuition has far outpaced the rate of inflation, students are taught by fewer full-time tenured faculty members while being looked after by a greatly expanded number of counselors who serve an array of social and personal needs. At the same time, many schools are investing in deluxe dormitory rooms, elaborate student centers and expensive gyms. Simply put: academic investments are a lower priority.”
Perhaps even more troubling the authors contend that:
“The authority of educators has diminished, and students are increasingly thought of, by themselves and their colleges, as “clients” or “consumers.” When 18-year-olds are emboldened to see themselves in this manner, many look for ways to attain an educational credential effortlessly and comfortably. And they are catered to accordingly. The customer is always right.”
Finally, a change in federal student loan legislation has contributed to the problem:
“The funds from Pell Grants and subsidized loans, by being assigned to students to spend on academic institutions they have chosen rather than being packaged as institutional grants for colleges to dispense, have empowered students — for good but also for ill. And expanded privacy protections have created obstacles for colleges in providing information on student performance to parents, undercutting a traditional check on student lassitude.”
Although the authors provide a couple of “self help” ideas to begin to address the problem, in my opinion, the only effective solution is to place higher academic standards and demands on undergraduate students and a greater premium on learning as compared with student convenience and satisfaction. Like it or not, the notion that the “customer is always right” should have no place at institutions of higher learning. Finally, college and university administrators must seriously reconsider what the REAL mission of their institutions is: to place learning ahead of financial gain.
Until next time…
Good Luck and Good Job Hunting!!!!!!!!!!