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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A new study shows significant room for improvement at America's colleges and universities. Two researchers followed students for years, and they found high percentages of college students who do not get any better at writing or critical thinking.

We're going to apply some critical thinking to this study now. We've called one of the co-authors, Richard Arum, who is a professor of sociology at New York University.

Welcome to the program.

Professor RICHARD ARUM (Sociology, New York University): Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: So your question is: Are colleges teaching young people to think? What makes you conclude that, in many cases, they're not?

Prof. ARUM: We found 35 percent of students reporting that they studied five or fewer hours per week studying alone. And not only were they not learning and not applying themselves - although indeed their grade point averages were quite high - we found little was asked of them in terms of academic rigor.

Let me give you some examples of that. We asked students how many courses you took the prior semester that required 20 pages of writing over the course of the semester. Fifty percent of our sample said they did not have a single course that required 20 pages of writing.

INSKEEP: Now, you do have these disturbing numbers. You find that after four years, more than a third of the students have not shown much improvement in critical thinking skills. Although, of course, that implies that a lot of students are improving. Is there just inevitably going to be some wastage here? Should we not really worry about this too much?

Prof. ARUM: Well, it's possible that there's always been pockets like this. But let me tell you what's different. What's different is our country today is part of a global economic system, where we no longer have the luxury to put large numbers of kids through college and university and not demand of them that they are developing these higher-order skills that are necessary not just for them, but for our society as a whole.

INSKEEP: Let's stipulate that your study did not include your own university, New York University. But you still - there you are, teaching at an expensive, private university. Are your students getting their money's worth?

Prof. ARUM: Well, you know, I'm going to pass on the NYU question in particular. If I said yes, you would say I'm shilling for the university. And if I said no, you would say I had an axe to grind. But let me answer...

INSKEEP: Okay, that's an honest avoidance of the answer. Thank you.

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Prof. ARUM: So let me answer the question more broadly.

INSKEEP: Okay.

Prof. ARUM: We find in our study that at more selective colleges and universities, students are exposed to slightly more academic rigor. They apply themselves slightly more, and they learn slightly more.

INSKEEP: Do your fellow college professors think there is a problem here?

Prof. ARUM: The faculty are not surprised by these findings. They're hardworking folks, but they've been asked to focus on everything but undergraduate learning, by and large. And...

INSKEEP: What are they supposed to focus instead?

Prof. ARUM: Well, if the incentives are set up that the principal measure of whether or not a faculty is doing a good job teaching is a course evaluation that comes at the end of the semester...

INSKEEP: You mean the students' course evaluation. OK.

Prof. ARUM: Yes. And those course evaluations, we know track with the expected grade that the student thinks they will receive. Then there's a huge incentive set up in the system asking students very little, grading them easily, entertaining them, and your course evaluations will be high.

INSKEEP: Could I just say one thing, though? I think about my own college experience. I went to a university that - you didn't have to do a lot to graduate from that university. It served a very poor part of the country. They had a very wide range of students with a very wide range of high school educations on their way into college, and so the standards are perhaps not what you would demand. But I learned an awful lot there, just a ton.

Prof. ARUM: Absolutely. And so, again, we've found in every college and university we studied, we found students that were applying themselves, that were seeking out rigorous academic course work. But there has been a 50 percent decline in the number of hours an average student spends studying and preparing for class from several decades ago.

Now, if you go out and talk to a college freshman today, they tell you something very interesting. Many of them will say the following: I thought college and university was going to be harder than high school. And, my gosh, it turned out it's easier.

INSKEEP: Richard Arum is a professor of sociology at New York University and co-author of the new book "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.

Thanks very much.

Prof. ARUM: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Questions about the quality of college education do not deter many people from seeking it. Enrollments at community colleges are expanding and, as a result, students are finding crowded classrooms and even crowded waiting lists. That's according to a survey by the nonprofit Pearson Foundation.

The survey of community college students finds significant percentages could not get into the classes they wanted or needed. The classes were full and, as a result, the average student took fewer classes per semester, slowing down their education.

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