Is Our Students Learning?

IS OUR STUDENTS LEARNING?….In the current issue of the Monthly, education expert Kevin Carey describes the abysmal lack of information currently available about whether American colleges and universities actually succeed in educating anybody. The federal government joined in the chorus today with its own report on higher education, and Kevin was at the meeting yesterday where it was approved. His report:


From Kevin Carey: The New York Times reported today on the final recommendations of Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ “Commission on the Future of Higher Education.” Some of the recommendations ? like measuring how well colleges and universities actually educate their students and reporting that information to the public ? will be familiar to anyone who read the Monthly’s recent higher education issue. But the article fails to get across the bruising behind-the-scenes fighting that led up the final report, or the high stakes involved for future college students.

Higher education has a teflon reputation among policymakers and the general public. While K-12 schools are routinely criticized as substandard, our colleges and universities enjoy an unquestioned reputation as the best in the world. But that’s based almost entirely on the elite colleges and big research universities that only educate a small fraction of all students. When you look at the system as a whole, the numbers are disturbing ? only 37% of students who begin at four-year colleges nationwide actually graduate in four years.

Extending the timeframe to six years only brings the rate up to 63%. For black and Latino students, it’s less than 50%. A recent study found that the percent of graduating seniors at four-year universities who were proficient on a test of prose literacy dropped from 40% to 31% over the last ten years. It’s not a particularly hard test; the idea that anyone can get a bachelor’s degree without being able to pass it, much less 69% of college seniors, is disturbing to say the least. And all this lack of learning and graduating is taking place as colleges hike tuition by double digits every year.

To their credit, the commission’s leaders understood these problems and wanted to fix them. Their goal was to issue something akin to “A Nation at Risk,” the seminal 1983 report that warned of a “rising tide of mediocrity” in K-12 schools and galvanized decades of subsequent education reform. The first draft of the report contained a lot of similar strong language, resulting in various expressions of outrage and consternation from the defenders of the higher education status quo. Most people outside of education circles don’t realize that higher education has a huge lobbying apparatus here in DC, one that’s far more subtle and effective than their K-12 counterparts.

The result was a final report that contains a lot of good reccomendations but has been stripped of many of its most provocative ? and accurate ? criticisms. The lone dissenter on the panel was the president of the American Council on Education (the most powerful higher education advocacy group), who said he would be “more effective” if he remained “free to contest” some aspects of the report. Translation: the higher education establishment has more work to do to neutralize the remaining controversial elements of the report and ensure that no truly meaningful changes result.