A fair amount of schadenfreude greeted the release last week of a study showing that the kids of parents who pay for college return their families’ largesse by achieving lower grades. The study, conducted by University of California at Merced professor Laura Hamilton and published in the American Sociological Review, offered those of us who worked our way through college — or took out burdensome student loans — a rare opportunity to gloat. But our self-congratulation is mistaken, or at least beside the point. Hamilton’s work, and that of other researchers, demonstrates that we should all be concerned about the state of higher education in the U.S. today and that college students enjoying a four-year paid vacation courtesy of their parents are merely a symptom of a larger problem.
That problem is this: across the board, American colleges and universities are not doing a very good job of preparing their students for the workplace or their postgraduation lives. This was made clear by the work of two sociologists, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. In 2011 they released a landmark study titled “Academically Adrift,” which documented the lack of intellectual growth experienced by many people enrolled in college. The authors examined the results of tests taken at the beginning, middle and end of students’ undergraduate careers and concluded that 45% of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during their first two years of college, while 36% failed to demonstrate improved learning across all four years. In particular, Arum and Roksa found, college students were not developing the critical thinking, analytic reasoning and other higher-level skills that are necessary to thrive in today’s knowledge-based economy and to lead our nation in a time of complex challenges and dynamic change.
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Arum and Roksa placed the blame for students’ lack of learning on a watered-down college curriculum and lax undergraduate work ethic. Although going to college is supposed to be a full-time job, the authors reported that students spent, on average, only 12 to 14 hours a week studying and that many were skating through their semesters without doing a significant amount of reading and writing. Students who take more challenging classes and spend more time studying do learn more. But the priorities of many undergrads are with extracurricular clubs and activities, fraternities and sororities, practicing and playing sports, and partying and socializing — and let’s not forget sleeping. The results are clear, wrote Arum and Roksa: “Educational practices associated with academic rigor improved student performance, while collegiate experiences associated with social engagement did not.”
If students’ priorities are off, perhaps they’re taking cues from the top. Another study released last week — this one by the Delta Cost Project, a branch of the American Institutes for Research — found that universities and colleges that belong to Division I, the top tier of college sports, spend about three to six times as much on athletics per athlete as they spend on academics per student. In the Southeastern Conference, which produced the last seven NCAA national champions in football, the ratio is more like 12 times as much spending on athletes as on students. “Not only does athletic spending per athlete far exceed academic spending per student, it is also growing about twice as fast,” the report noted, with much of the spending going to multimillion-dollar coaching contracts, more athletic staff and better facilities.
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Hamilton, the author of the study on parents who pay for college, will argue in a forthcoming book that college administrations are overly concerned with the social and athletic activities of their students. In Paying for the Party, a book she co-authored with sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong that will be published this spring, Hamilton describes what she calls the “party pathway,” which eases many students through college, helped along by a powerful Greek system, residence halls that funnel students into the party scene and a host of easier majors. By sanctioning this version of college lite, Hamilton and Armstrong write, universities are “catering to the social and educational needs of affluent, full-freight students at the expense of others” who won’t enjoy the financial backing or social connections of richer students once they graduate.
These students need to build skills and knowledge during college if they are to use their degrees as a stepping-stone to middle-class mobility. But more-privileged students must not waste this opportunity either. As recent graduates can attest, the job market isn’t kind to candidates who can’t demonstrate genuine competence, along with a well-honed willingness to work hard. Nor is the global economy forgiving of an American workforce with increasingly weak literacy, math and science abilities. College graduates will still fare better than those with only a high school education, of course. But a university degree unaccompanied by a gain in knowledge or skills is an empty achievement indeed. For students (parentally funded or not) who have been coasting through college — and for American universities that have been demanding less work, offering more goodies and charging higher tuition — the party may soon be over.