How many of us have heard adults sigh wistfully and say, Wow, I wish I could go to college now? They’ll mention beautifully appointed dorms. Rock climbing walls. Sushi bars at the cafeteria. These are caricatures, of course, and we know that. But there’s an interesting angle to this perception.

Colleges are proud of their amenities and use them to attract top-flight students. But below these shiny offerings, what’s college actually doing for students? And what’s really happening at universities in terms of the real point of advanced education, which is, of course, learning in addition to preparing for the rigors of a career.

Some of what’s going on may be a cause for concern. In their book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa present compelling evidence that many students (and by extension, parents) are not getting their money’s worth from their time in college, especially given the expense and the ensuing debt many students assume.

Analyzing data collected from more than 2,000 students enrolled in 29 colleges and universities nationwide, the writers examined survey responses, transcripts, results from an assessment specifically geared to an open-ended performance task and two analytical writing assignments.

Forty-five percent of the students in this study experienced no significant gains in the development of critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing during their first three semesters in college. This result is particularly alarming given that the skills they focused on are widely considered to serve as the anchor for a college education.

Arum and Roksa assert that many colleges will likely face serious challenges when graduates confront the gap between the skills they were expected to master at school and those that they’ll need to pursue their working lives.

The problem snowballs when you place it within the context of the culture’s current emphasis on creativity and critical thinking skills. More and more, leaders and employers across the country mention the value they place on these aptitudes when recruiting employees. Students should be seeking to develop skills during college that will serve them best in their careers and in their personal lives as they mature.

Arum and Roksa point to several factors that might lead to the results they gathered. Students’ lack of effort in their classes and professors who have lowered academic standards are some of them.

Their study also showed that typical college students dedicate only about 20 percent of their time each week to their studies. By contrast, students spend about half of their time socializing or participating in extracurricular activities.

Of the students in Arum’s and Roksa’s study, about a third took courses that required less than 40 pages of reading per week and half didn’t take a single course in which they wrote more than 20 pages over the semester.

Not surprisingly, when students completed courses that required heavier loads on both reading and writing, they were more likely to develop greater critical thinking skills.

Arum’s and Roksa’s study has fueled a call to action for ways to improve teaching and learning both in higher education as well as in the schools that prepare students for college. Educators need to give greater thought to setting the standards and developing the skills that will serve students throughout their lives, starting when they enter school.

So what can schools and colleges do to help reverse this trend and foster these essential skills?

For one, there has to be greater accountability. Daniel J. Bradley, the president of Indiana State University, stated, “We haven’t spent enough time making sure we are indeed teaching — and students are learning — these skills.”

We need to provide the clear standards and high expectations for academic achievement and then support the students to be successful in those environments. And to go along with it, we need to provide the daily structure so students create positive work habits that are intrinsically motivated.

Students need to know that the disciplined work habits and study skills they develop now are not only important for the passing grades they receive, but also for their ability to continue to learn and think critically throughout their lives.

And we educators have to take a long look in the mirror. The failure of many young people to take advantage of their school environment and develop their skills in complex problem solving and writing is our failure, too.

As administrators and educators use their summer months to reflect on the previous academic year and plan for a curriculum that will best serve students now and in the future, it is time to develop strategies that will best serve our students.

We need to strengthen our standards for instruction and refocus our time on developing the very skills that Arum and Roksa identified in their study. Only then can we provide students with the quality educational experience that will allow for their long-term success.

Brad Choyt of Yarmouth is head of school for North Yarmouth Academy.


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