Judging today’s college students by yesterday’s standards

Today’s college students are reading less and partying more. So says New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, based on a new book entitled “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.”

Authors Richard Arum of New York University and Joseph Roksa of the University of Virginia surveyed 2300 students at 24 colleges over a two-year period and found that students are not improving their skills in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing. In fact, more than a third of the students hadn’t improved in those areas even after four years of college. According to the authors, students are spending just half as much time studying as students did in the 1960’s. This, after spending – in some cases – close to $200,000 on their education.

Most insulting of all perhaps is that their lack of academic focus doesn’t show up in their performance assessments. Thanks to grade inflation – after all, colleges and universities need to keep as many “customers” as possible enrolled and professors are afraid of poor student evaluations – they all have decent GPA’s and can assume, wrongly it turns out, that they’re doing just fine.

Okay, I admit that, after a freshman year of partying more than I should have, I settled down to become something of a grind. I got into it. And I was surrounded by students who were serious, for the most part, about their studies. And I do tend to be judgmental about the loosey-goosey attitudes of some college students I have observed.

I despair of the communication skills – or lack thereof – of some college students who interned with or near me, who don’t know what a semi-colon or a compound sentence is, who are swayed by glitz and propaganda, who are living in the moment and don’t “get it” about informed citizenship.

I find myself wondering if those who are indeed “academically adrift” are not in some arrested state of adolescence. They’ve been motivated in secondary school not by learning for its own sake but by the need to get into college. Once there, it’s time to reward themselves. The joke at Harvard used to be it was hard to get in, but even harder to flunk out.

But I also see students who are supremely committed, working 20 to even 40 hours a week to earn the money to go to college, who may already be supporting families, who are intensely focused on shaping a career path and who, I know, are going to make an impact on their communities and perhaps even on the world.

College education may not be for everyone. And four year colleges right out of high school may not be the appropriate model. Maybe lifelong learning in which after a two year boot camp, students join and leave higher education communities for varying lengths of time to further and refine skills and career choices and then return later to put their life experiences in new contexts. Perhaps we need a European approach to tracking, and identifying those who are better suited to technical/vocational education. Clearly we need a more thoughtful, non-ideologically driven, national discussion.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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