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What Will It Take to Improve Student Learning?


Gary Rhoades


For all its careful analysis, there is a sweeping tone of urgency that runs throughout the recently published and much-publicized Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. Although the tone plays well in policy circles, it could lead to drastic actions that are out of proportion to the problems associated with student learning and counterproductive to their resolution.
It is useful to put the basic findings of the book in perspective, in terms of delimiting what has been studied. What type of learning? Measured how? At what types of colleges? For what types of students? The learning being measured is in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing, during the first two years of enrollment in a four-year college. The assessment of such learning is based on an instrument (the Collegiate Learning Assessment) that has not been proven to correlate with success after college. Subject matter learning is not addressed. Also, in focusing on 2,362 traditional-age undergraduates in 24 four-year colleges, nontraditional and community college students are excluded.
Nevertheless, the book is an important piece of scholarship. It underscores the need for federally financed, large-scale, longitudinal databases to enable more extensive, policy-relevant work of this sort. Academically Adrift provides compelling findings for college and university presidents to consider. In their first two years at a four-year college, many students do realize limited gains in reasoning and writing. Although greater learning is often associated with more selective institutions, less selective institutions also have some high-performing students. In fact, there is much diversity within and among colleges.
A troubling trend is that the learning gaps between students of different ethnic backgrounds increase rather than decrease in college. In relating their findings, Arum and Roksa employ other data as well to tell a powerful story of declining effort, expectations, and outcomes over past decades. Yet is it a story that policy makers are attending to?
A Tale of Two Chancellors
The arguments of Arum and Roksa may perhaps be best understood in the context of developments in Ohio. The previous and current chancellors of the Ohio Board of Regents exemplify different courses that are being charted for higher education’s future. Eric Fingerhut, chancellor until this year, mapped out the future of Ohio higher education in a report titled The Condition of Higher Education. James Petro, appointed chancellor on March 14, 2011, by the new governor, promises a different course—expressed in the concept of “charter universities.”
For Fingerhut, the future promise of higher education lay in expanding the number of educated Ohioans. He believed this could be accomplished by providing affordable higher education and enhancing the ability of students to move from institution to institution in a system that shares academic schedules and has a well-defined programmatic and institutional division of labor. His plan depended heavily on the state’s commitment to maintaining its support of higher education, in exchange for colleges and universities agreeing not to dramatically increase tuition. The arrangement also emphasized cooperation among institutions and between the state legislature and the institutions. Although increased student learning was not a stated goal, the plan created conditions that could enhance learning.
By contrast, the current chancellor is offering a different course, one that is not yet fully fleshed out. Yet Petro has already offered a sense of what is to come with his proposal to turn public universities into charter universities. This proposal is supported by both the governor and the Inter-University Council, which speaks for Ohio college and university public sector presidents. The advantages of charter universities redound more to the individual institution than to the public good pursued by the state.
Charters do not augur well for affordable higher education, given the likely elimination of the compact between the state and institutions to calibrate tuition increases to indexes such as cost of living. Students would be required to work more and assume more debt, detracting from their already declining ability to focus on learning. Charters also do not provide for investment in the professionals who work with students to enhance learning, as they represent another mechanism for undermining faculty’s collective bargaining rights. Given that working conditions influence learning conditions, further disinvestment in the professionals working with students does not bode well for enriching learning. Finally, the charter university concept emphasizes competition among institutions at a time when cooperation in various programmatic areas would better benefit students, as many learners change institutions in the course of their college careers.
Despite the extensive differences between them, Fingerhut and Petro share one similarity. Neither of the two chancellors, who are former legislators from different political parties, offers a plan that focuses on student learning. Both prioritize the physical infrastructure of higher education over—and at the expense of—college and universities’ human capacity to accommodate and successfully educate students. Facilities are featured more than faculties. In the case of Fingerhut’s plan, there was an explicit call for greater investment in facilities to accommodate more students. In Petro’s charter university strategy, one key advantage is the greater ease and lower cost of campus construction.
Is brick and mortar construction of new facilities, those oriented to leisure and not academic work, the way to enhance student learning? Is greater investment in beautifying campuses with more attractive living, playing, and eating facilities really the way to reduce the learning gap between students of different backgrounds, particularly when most students do not live on campus? Arum and Roksa are critical of such a course of action. Student learning is improved not by engagement with and intensity of effort on treadmills in the student recreation center, but by engagement with professors and intensity of effort on academic work.
A Mandate for Whom and For What?
What, then, can college and university presidents do? In laying out a mandate for reform, Arum and Roksa offer several answers. I offer three counter-suggestions.
A key finding of Academically Adrift is that there are significant variations in student learning within institutions. The moral is clear. Despite “entrenched organizational interests and deeply ingrained institutional practices” working against a focus on undergraduate student learning, presidents can and must change their institutions.
Quoting George Kuh, the premise of Arum and Roksa’s reform proposal is, “It’s about the culture.” To effect cultural change, presidents should articulate a clear vision and greater sense of purpose, emphasizing the institution’s responsibility to foster learning. They should stress cognitive development in, versus consumptive enjoyment of, college. Presidents need to promote effective educational practices to transform the curricular experiences of students. And presidents must encourage a focus on learning, not just persistence, as well as on high expectations, not just engagement.
At the policy level, Arum and Roksa “are deeply skeptical … that externally imposed accountability systems will yield desirable changes in educational practice” (p.18). They call for “greater funding commitments tied to the improvement of undergraduate learning” (p.141), but for them the key lies in presidential leadership to re-chart the direction of institutions along “paths of purpose.” In their conclusion, Arum and Roksa invoke President Kennedy’s goal of reaching the moon, though they reject any federal role in this effort and suggest instead, “Although our higher education institutions currently are academically adrift, they can commit to a change of course that will reconnect them with their earlier design and functions” (p.144).
Rather than focusing on culture, I would suggest that presidents attend more to internal resource allocation and the extent to which it prioritizes education and learning. Budgets are texts, statements of what is valued. For the last several decades, in every sector of the academy, the educational share of expenditures has declined, relative to non-educational personnel, programs, and activities. Investment in facilities outpaces investment in faculty and other professionals who work with students to enhance learning. It is time to rebalance our priorities, and to get back to investing in the core academic mission.
A second counter-suggestion is that presidents cannot do it alone. Particularly in these times, there is a desperate need for joint efforts among presidents, faculty, and professionals, as well as students, staff, community groups, and business leaders. The professionals on campus who do the work of higher education should be involved in developing metrics and mechanisms for realizing gains in student learning. There is too great a focus on simplistic measures of throughput, such as credit hours and graduation rates, among policy makers. Those types of metrics detract from a quality focus on student learning. Accountability will trump learning unless presidents and faculty work together to develop learning enrichment activities and instruments attuned to the particularities of their campuses, fields, students, and communities. To channel accountability in productive directions, presidents must see themselves less as captains of the ship or as CE Os of the firm, and more as joint partners leading in a shared effort.
Thirdly, presidents should emphasize the need for new investment to foster innovation and improvement in learning. They must clarify for state and federal policy makers that slashing budgets is not a path to prosperity—selective investment is essential to fulfill our future promise as a country. For too long, the discourse of presidents has conveyed the view that colleges and universities can fund raise, grant raise, and tuition and fee raise their way out of fiscal challenges. That is a 30-year course of action, and as Arum and Roksa’s book demonstrates, it has not yielded greater student learning nor has it reduced the learning gap—indeed, quite the opposite. To continue charting such a course, in the form of charter universities, for example, is to pursue a path that will yield ongoing public disinvestment in the academy and even more limited learning. To be sure, creative partnerships with the private sector are needed, as are private monies. But just as surely, our greatest achievements as a nation and in higher education have required new public investment, whether in the case of railroads, automobiles, or the Internet—or community colleges, research universities, and financial aid to make higher education more affordable.
As Arum and Roksa note in their closing invocation, colleges should commit to a “path of purpose,” like that of President Kennedy’s race to the moon, not because it is easy, but because it is important. I would note that the President did not say to NASA, “Do far more with less.” He said it would be expensive, and he invested in the project—at a time of recession and high unemployment. Our current goals in higher education are that kind of leap, requiring that kind of innovation and investment.
If, as a nation, we are to educate far more of our population to the college level, if we are to ensure that far more of these students will experience extensive, not limited, learning, and if we are to close the learning gap, then we need our campus leaders to provide policy makers with a reality check. Facilitating student learning is labor intensive. It will be even more labor intensive with growing proportions of students with whom the academy has been relatively unsuccessful in the past. It will require a rich array of relationships with professionals on campus and in the community, partnerships focused on the distinctive forms and processes of student learning. It will require new forms of remediation, of working while at school, and of student learning and success.
We cannot get to far greater student learning for far greater numbers of students without new investment. We cannot get there from here. If we try to do so, we will be not so much adrift as sunk.

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses
Significant research has been done on student access and retention, the effect of student preparation prior to enrollment, and the effectiveness of services offered by institutions to improve graduation rates. But what about actual learning and academic rigor? Once students push past the financial and social barriers, are they receiving the sort of education that they, their parents, educators, and policy makers expect?
In their recently published book, Academically Adrift, authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa examined whether undergraduate students are improving their critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills while at college. Using survey responses, transcript data, and results of the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA)—a standardized test administered in students’ first semester and again at the end of their second year—from more than 2,300 undergraduates at 24 institutions, Arum and Roksa evaluated student academic experiences and learning gains. Their findings include:
  • Fifty percent of sophomores reported that they had not taken one course during the prior semester that required more than 20 pages of writing over the course of the semester; one-third had not taken a single course in the prior semester that required an average of more than 40 pages of reading per week.
  • Students reported studying for an average of only 12 hours per week during their sophomore year, one-third of which was spent studying with peers. Thirty-seven percent dedicated five or fewer hours per week to studying alone. These patterns persisted through the senior year. It is worth noting that seniors in the sample who reported studying five or fewer hours a week had a 3.16 GPA.
  • Nearly half of students showed little or no improvement on the CLA, gaining less than 8.5 points (0.04 standard deviations) on CLA scores, which range over 1,000 points. To compare this assessment to a traditional 100- point test, the improvement level required to indicate growth is less than one point on a test ranging from 0 to 100. Of the students in the sample, 45 percent did not attain even this modest level of growth on the CLA assessment of critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and writing during the first two years of college.
The authors argue that the incentive structures in higher education are misaligned with academic rigor. While faculty spend a sizable proportion of their time teaching and preparing for classes, research is increasingly the key requirement for promotion and tenure in four-year colleges and universities. Moreover, when teaching enters faculty evaluation protocols, it is generally in the form of student evaluations. However, student evaluations are often correlated with the grades students expect to receive in the course, and are not necessarily adequate measures of learning.

Arum and Roksa further note that full-time faculty members have been increasingly moved to the periphery of higher education. The percentage of part-time faculty is nearly half of all faculty and instructional staff in higher education. Staff outnumber faculty by far in many colleges and universities today. Using recently acquired data, the U.S. Department of Education estimated that public four-year institutions employ more than three times as many staff as faculty. Thus, in these institutions, the average full-time equivalent (FTE) student per FTE staff ratio is 4.3, while the average FTE student per FTE faculty ratio is 14.7. Similar patterns are also observed in private four-year institutions.

The authors point out that, while the average trends in their data indicate that many institutions place limited academic demands on their students and that limited learning occurs for many students, there is notable variation across students and institutions. Arum and Roksa found many high-performing students from all socio-economic backgrounds and racial/ethnic groups, as well as students with varied levels of academic preparation, who improved their critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills at impressive rates while enrolled in college. In virtually every college examined they found students who were devoting themselves to their studies and learning at impressive rates.
Gary Rhoades is the former general secretary of the American Association of University Professors.