NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Are College Students Learning?

March 8, 2011

The cost of college has skyrocketed and a four-year degree has become an ever more essential cornerstone to a middle-class standard of living.  But what are America's kids actually learning in college?  For an awful lot of students, the answer appears to be not much, according to the new book "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses."

The authors, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, cite empirical work showing that the average amount of time spent studying by college students has dropped by more than 50 percent since the early 1960s.  But a lack of academic focus has not had much of an effect on grade point averages or the ability of the undergraduates to obtain their degrees, says the New York Times.

  • Thirty-six percent of the students said they studied alone less than five hours a week.
  • Nevertheless, their transcripts showed a collective grade point average of 3.16.

Professor Arum says, "It's not the students, really -- they share some of the blame -- but the colleges and universities have set up a system so that there are ways to navigate through it without taking difficult courses and still get the credential."

The book is based on a study, led by Professor Arum, that followed more than 2,300 students at a broad range of schools from the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2009.  

  • The study showed that in their first two years of college, 45 percent of the students made no significant improvement in skills related to critical thinking, complex reasoning and communication.
  • After the full four years, 36 percent still had not substantially improved those skills.

Source: Bob Herbert, "College the Easy Way," New York Times, March 4, 2011.

For text:

For study:


Browse more articles on Education Issues