Columns / Discourse / February 16, 2011

Voice of Reason: Worth the cost?

“How much are students actually learning in contemporary higher education? The answer for many undergraduates, we have concluded, is not much.”

Richard Arum, who is quoted above and published a report based on new findings about what college actually does for students called “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” recently talked to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This came to mind when I first heard about Knox’s tuition hike. The rising cost of college is rapidly outpacing inflation for public and private schools across the country, and with states cutting funding for public schools and endowments hurting from the recession, it is not likely to go down anytime soon. Perhaps it’s time for parents and students to start asking what they’re getting to justify such runaway costs.

The statistics are there and they are, quite frankly, stunning. Forty-five percent of college students show no significant improvement in learning over the first two years, and 36 percent won’t even after four years. The ones who do show improvement move up exactly 18 percentile points over those four years. That means after four years, and as much as $200,000 dollars in tuition, an average freshman (50th percentile of incoming freshman) becomes the equivalent of a decent freshman (68th percentile of those same freshmen). Some 32 percent of students don’t have to read more than 40 pages a week for all of their classes combined, and about 50 percent will not write more than 20 pages over the course of an entire semester. Students average around 12 to 14 hours a week studying, which is about half of what professors recommend they spend in a week, and a fair chunk of that time is spent in inefficient group studying.

It seems that we just trust in the magic of a college degree, and just assume having one means one’s academic skills are complete. We need to change that. Not all degrees are equal and the same degree from the same institution might still be very different than another student’s.

Seventy-two percent of this year’s freshman classes agree that the main point of college is to increase one’s earning power. That would seem to imply that their main goal would thus be to obtain some skills that might help that. Yet a cursory glance around most colleges (including this one) makes one have some considerable doubt about that.

Touching sheepskin does not mystically confer writing or critical thinking skills. Only writing and thinking critically can do that. One wonders how graduates who have done nothing to improve their academic skills over their four years have done anything to justify what they or their parents spent on their “education.”

I think that higher education in this country has gotten too content to rest on its laurels. We are used to hearing (true) litanies about the failures of the nation’s elementary and high schools. Post-secondary education is supposed to be the part where America excels, and that is still true in many ways. Some 670,000 foreign students still come to the U.S. annually to study. Thirteen of the world’s top 20 universities are still in the U.S. But the rest of the world gains every year, and we don’t seem to be doing anything to keep up.

This sort of problem can’t be solved by government mandate or sweeping nation-wide reforms. There are too many colleges that are far too different from each other to be covered by such a thing. The only real solution is at the individual level, with each college or university individually adopting tougher academic standards to make sure its students aren’t wasting their four years and paying dearly for the privilege to do so. But take heart, Knox students. The study also found that liberal arts majors show far more significant gains in areas like critical thinking and writing. If you really take advantage of what there is to offer here, you should be getting your money’s worth, even with the tuition hike. The opportunities remain, you just have to work to find them.

Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.


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