July 18, 2018 | ° F

Study finds lack in college educations

The mere mention of college may evoke images of fraternity parties, football games and new friends, but according to a recent study, an essential element of the university experience — education — is falling to the wayside.

According to the study of 2,300 undergraduate students at 24 universities across the country, 45 percent of students exhibit no major improvements in skills like critical thinking, reasoning and writing during the first two years of their college careers. More than one-third showed no significant improvement in these areas over the course of four years.

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, sociology professors at New York University and the University of Virginia, respectively, outlined study results in a new book entitled "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses."

In the book, Arum and Roksa suggest it is a lack of vigorous coursework and a lack of focus that detract from student progress.  

"[The fact that students are] drifting through college without a clear sense of purpose is readily apparent," according to the book.

In order to obtain data for the book, authors used results from students who completed the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), a test developed by the Council for Aid to Education that presents undergraduates with realistic problems that require an ability to analyze complex materials, according to the CLA website.

Evaluators then compare responses from students in their first years to their responses in later years to determine students' growth in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem-solving and communication skills.

Although an increasing number of students have the opportunity to attend college, the co-authors are concerned that their degrees may not reflect a preparedness to compete in the global job market.

"It's not the case that giving out more credentials is going to make the United States more economically competitive," Arum told The Associated Press. "It requires academic rigor ... you can't just get it through osmosis at these institutions."

Some underclassmen at the University, like School of Arts and Sciences sophomore Billy Gural, said they saw some validity in the study results but did not discredit the University's curriculum.

"I was a terrible writer at first," Gural said. "Between ["Expository Writing" and "Basic Composition"], I'm definitely better."

Others, like School of Arts and Sciences senior Esther Cha, said experiences they had during the first two years of college pale in comparison to the rigor of their high school courses.

"The high school I went to was a pretty good high school, and I feel I learned more in my last two years of high school than my first two years of college, especially in the writing courses," she said.

But Cha said she felt she learned more in the second half of college where she took more courses related to her major.

"Once you start figuring out what you actually want to study and you become more interested in course material, you're definitely going to get more out of it," she said.

Florence Hamrick, a professor at the Graduate School of Education, said regardless of the study's outcome, research in the area of higher learning is beneficial to improving the quality of education for students.

"Calls for [institutions] to offer high-quality educational experiences across the curriculum and co-curriculum … are not going to diminish," she said via e-mail correspondence. "The emergence of more studies that employ varieties of methodologies, definitions, and measures sustain the research and policy focus on student learning.  Collectively [they] will help identify more promising approaches for identifying and assessing learning outcomes."

But Barry V. Qualls, University vice president for Undergraduate Education, said there is much more to research on what students learn than can be measured by a set of questions on a test.

"My feeling is that what the first two years of college ought to do is make you very aware of how little you know and also how much you can get from Rutgers if you aggressively invest in your education," he said.

Over the course of the last two years, the University has been developing assessment tools for all courses to determine what students learn in their courses, including surveys on how well students feel the University is helping them move toward achieving academic and career goals, he said.

"I think students arrive at Rutgers with a lot of information and a lot of intelligence, and what I like to think is that universities are a place where, if you have any intellectual curiosity, you will be constantly challenged," Qualls said.

Ultimately, it is up to students to decide what they will make of their years in college, he said.

"I know so many students who work night and day here," Qualls said. "Certainly if someone cares enough about his or her education to get good advising and to follow a rigorous course of study, [they] will not be academically adrift."

Colleen Roache

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