Preparing for College

'Got Knowledge from College?

Parents, have you ever asked yourself what you learned in college? Speaking for myself, I would have to say that I learned how to learn. I suppose that I can recall certain facts and dates about various specific subjects, but overall, the main thrust of my college "education" was extracting strategies and methodologies about how to find out what I needed to know about the topic of the moment for me.

This raises another much broader question: Why did we go to college and why have we or will we send our children there? The main, if not exactly articulated answers seem to be: "So they can get a good job" or "So they can be happy and successful in life." Obviously, it's quite possible to get a good job without a college degree and there are many folks out there who are quite happy and successful in their lives without having graduated from an institution of higher learning. But, for those of us who have invested (or will invest) many thousands of dollars in our kids' educations, what should we expect?


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Well, according to a new report, you shouldn't expect them to learn a whole lot in their first two years. My theory about this finding is that the first two years of college are, in general, heavy in so-called distribution requirements at many schools.  These are the required courses that round out a major's curriculum, resulting in many students taking the shortest route between Day 1 of classes and mid-terms and finals, hoping merely to get through those courses without doing significant damage to their GPAs. In my own experience as an underclassman, I can recall my unbridled enthusiasm sitting in Anthropology 8: The History and Archeology of South-Central America. I suppose there are others who may experience a similar snooze factor with their required courses.

Anyway, here's what USA Today's Mary Beth Marklein says that report reports:

Report: First two years of college show small gains

Nearly half of the nation's undergraduates show almost no gains in learning in their first two years of college, in large part because colleges don't make academics a priority, a new report shows.

Instructors tend to be more focused on their own faculty research than teaching younger students, who in turn are more tuned in to their social lives, according to the report, based on a book titled Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Findings are based on transcripts and surveys of more than 3,000 full-time traditional-age students on 29 campuses nationwide, along with their results on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test that gauges students' critical thinking, analytic reasoning and writing skills.

After two years in college, 45% of students showed no significant gains in learning; after four years, 36% showed little change.

Students also spent 50% less time studying compared with students a few decades ago, the research shows.

"These are really kind of shocking, disturbing numbers," says New York University professor Richard Arum, lead author of the book, published by the University of Chicago Press.

He noted that students in the study, on average, earned a 3.2 grade-point average. "Students are able to navigate through the system quite well with little effort," Arum said.

The Department of Education and Congress in recent years have looked for ways to hold colleges and universities accountable for student learning, but researchers say that federal intervention would be counterproductive.

"We can hope that the (new research) encourages rather than discourages college faculty to learn more about what works in terms of fostering higher levels of student learning," said George Kuh of the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University.

Charles Blaich, director of the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium, used by 130 private colleges to improve education quality, said he thinks colleges are aware of the shortcomings but are trying to improve.

"I wouldn't want to create the impression that schools are blind to this," he said.

Other details in the research:

•35% of students report spending five or fewer hours per week studying alone. Yet, despite an "ever-growing emphasis" on study groups and collaborative projects, students who study in groups tend to have lower gains in learning.

•50% said they never took a class in a typical semester where they wrote more than 20 pages; 32% never took a course in a typical semester where they read more than 40 pages per week.

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Does this imply that perhaps higher education should be more precisely focused, the way some community colleges do with courses specifically tailored to occupational needs? Or, does it imply that perhaps frosh and sophs should spend more time reading, writing, and paying attention in class, rather than cruising Facebook or polishing their Freshman 15? You make the call.

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Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.