Study Shows College Might Be A Waste of Money. Here's Why.

by Clint Edwards
Originally Published: 
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My first two years of college were pretty stressful. Not only was I not all that ready for it, I was a 22-year-old married father during my freshman year. Life seemed pretty hectic, and I felt like all I did was study, and when I wasn’t studying, I was working to help support my family. I fell asleep on the bus and woke up in strange places. I wasn’t a traditional student, but I did build a strong foundation in learning, research, and study skills during those first two years.

I work at a university now, on the academic side of a Division I athletics program — and I’ll be honest, freshman and sophomores do not work nearly as hard as I did. I know, I’m sure this sounds like an “I had to walk to school up hill both ways” sort of a thing, but its true. In my freshman composition course, for example, I had to write a 25-page research paper. I’ve never seen a paper that long come through my study tables, and I’ve been working in higher education for 7 years. I have long suspected that college was getting easier, and a recent study is proving me correct.

In a new report in the book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, researchers looked at 3,000 full-time traditional-age students on 29 campuses nationwide. They paired their results with the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test that gauges students’ critical thinking, analytic reasoning, and writing skills. And what did they find? Well… it’s not pretty.

Let’s take a look at the first two years. 45% of students showed no significant gains in learning. I don’t want to come off as a math wiz, but that’s less than half. By years three and four? Only 36% showed little change. Better than before, but it can leave someone sending their child to college to ask, “What’s the point?”

As an educator and someone who has championed higher education for years, I will admit, these findings are pretty dismal. It gets more complicated when you take into account that students in the study, on average, earned a 3.2 grade-point average. Which means that they are doing just enough to navigate the system while gaining as few skills as possible.

This leaves me with a few questions, naturally. Are high schools better preparing students than colleges? Maybe. I suppose it depends on where you went to high school. I have students entering the university I work for with almost a full year of college credits under their belt. But on the flip side, I have students coming in with a junior high reading level.

Could it be that colleges are getting easier in hopes of bringing in and graduating more students? This is a very probable assumption. Most colleges in the U.S. have experienced a huge flux in new enrollment over the past two decades. More students, along with less funding, can create problems when it comes to available resources and the “people power” it takes to hold students accountable for learning.

According to USA Today, the issue is this: “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.” That could also very easily be true. In most classes I observe, close to half the class is looking at their phone in their lap, scolling through social media.

Most freshman classes are not instructed by tenured or full-time faculty, but are farmed out to adjunct staff, such as recent masters and doctoral graduates who snatch up classes, often through multiple universities in a local area, in an attempt to gain teaching experience. Most are not eligible for benefits, and most are not committed to any one university. By farming out beginner-level classes to adjuncts, the university can save money by limiting full-time staff, while also freeing up time for tenured faculty to perform research.

There is a lot of discussion right now in higher education about the abuse of adjunct labor, though most of it is directed at the employees and the administration, not the students. But after reviewing this study, it makes me wonder if it is also generating a lack of instructor engagement and student accountability.

Nevertheless, it seems obvious that college isn’t what it used to be. Particularly when you consider that 50% of students who participated in this study said they never took a class in a typical semester where they wrote more than 20 pages, and 32% never took a course in a typical semester where they read more than 40 pages per week.

One thing this study didn’t bring up, however, is the impact the Internet has had on a student’s ability to learn more efficiently. With apps and websites that share class notes, study materials and book summaries, the idea of rolling up your sleeves and cracking open a book doesn’t seem as necessary as it once was.

So does this mean that college is a huge waste of money? I don’t know if I want to go that far. I do think there are students who are pushed into college by parents and high school advisors who would be much happier and more engaged learning a trade. But I think there is still a place for higher education, and I think there are still benefits. However, there are obvious problems with the system that need to be addressed before college will be seen as the supreme benefit it once was.

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