Do Colleges Provide Enough Value for the Money?

David Brooks writing in the New York Times questions whether colleges in America are providing enough value for money.

There’s an atmosphere of grand fragility hanging over America’s colleges. The grandeur comes from the surging application rates, the international renown, the fancy new dining and athletic facilities. The fragility comes from the fact that colleges are charging more money, but it’s not clear how much actual benefit they are providing.

Brooks references a study by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, ‘Academically Adrift’, which found that students on average experienced a mere 7% gain in skills during the first two years of college and a marginal gain after that. The study also found that nearly half of college students show no significant gain in reasoning, writing or critical thinking skills during their initial two years of college. This comes as no surprise when employers are critical of college graduates and claiming that a quarter of graduates don’t have the basic writing and thinking skills required to do their jobs.

Colleges today are certainly less demanding. In 1961, students spent an average of 24 hours a week studying. Today’s students spend a little more than half that time — a trend not explained by changing demographics.

This is an unstable situation. At some point, parents are going to decide that $160,000 is too high a price if all you get is an empty credential and a fancy car-window sticker

Richard P. Keeling and Richard H. Hersch explain the changes in their book, ‘We’re Losing Our Minds’. Universities increasingly see themselves as passive repositories of knowledge which the students are paying to access. If the student lacks the motivation to do so, the university believes this fault lies with the child and not the institution.

Brooks argues that there has to be a means with which to punish schools that don’t provide learning and reward those who do, but notes that there are concerns in academia about imposing a No Child Behind model on higher education. There is also no reason to suppose that it would succeed any better in higher education than it has earlier. Tying federal funding to results is also at odds with recent social engineering schemes designed to increase university access for students who are neither prepared for, nor necessarily capable of completing the experience.

Given how little we know about how to test college students, the voluntary approach is probably best for now. Foundations, academic conferences or even magazines could come up with assessment methods. Each assessment could represent a different vision of what college is for. Groups of similar schools could congregate around the assessment model that suits their vision. Then they could broadcast the results to prospective parents, saying, “We may not be prestigious or as expensive as X, but here students actually learn.”