Jonathan Zimmerman: Are College Students Learning?





Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory."

In his State of the Union address last Tuesday, President Obama proposed several measures to lower college tuition. University leaders responded cautiously, warning that cost-cutting reforms might also cut into instructional quality.

But here's the big open secret in American higher education: Most institutions have no meaningful way to measure the quality of their instruction. And the president didn't ask us to develop one, either....

At most institutions, including my own, we have no idea if [students] are [learning anything]. Sure, professors assign grades in their courses, and students are asked to evaluate the classes they take and the professors who teach them. But neither measure gives us any real answer to the $200,000 question: What knowledge or skills are students acquiring in exchange for the skyrocketing tuition they pay?

And we now have some alarming national data to suggest the answer: not nearly enough. My New York University colleague Richard Arum and the University of Virginia's Josipa Roksa recently tracked several thousand undergraduates as they moved through two dozen U.S. universities. They found that almost half of them didn't significantly improve their reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college. And after four years, subsequent research showed, more than one-third of students still showed no significant gains in these areas....




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