Compelling Proof of the College Bubble

In Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa paint a chilling portrait of what the university curriculum has become. The central evidence that the authors deploy comes from the performance of 2,322 students on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test administered to students in their first semester at university and again at the end of their second year: not a multiple-choice exam, but an ingenious exercise that requires students to read a set of documents on a fictional problem in business or politics and write a memo advising an official on how to respond to it. Data from the National Survey of Student Engagement, a self-assessment of student learning filled out by millions each year, and recent ethnographies of student life provide a rich background.

Their results are sobering. The Collegiate Learning Assessment reveals that some 45 percent of students in the sample had made effectively no progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing in their first two years. And a look at their academic experience helps to explain why. Students reported spending twelve hours a week, on average, studying—down from twenty-five hours per week in 1961 and twenty in 1981. Half the students in the sample had not taken a course that required more than twenty pages of writing in the previous semester, while a third had not even taken a course that required as much as forty pages a week of reading.

One of the subtle cultural shifts arising from the education bubble has been how people are inclined to view college. It used to be that people went to college for an education. Now people go to college in order to ensure having a good job later on.* In essence, the role of college has shifted from education to credentials.

As such, it should not be surprising that colleges dumb down both their admission requirements and their curriculum, for the goal is not education. Rather, the goal is giving students customers a piece of paper that says they are smart. This claim doesn’t have to reflect reality in any meaningful way because most students don’t bear the direct costs of their “education.” Therefore, students are considerably more willing to spend their parents’ money and their future income on degrees that become less and less valuable.

Basically, then, the dumbing down of academic standards is proof of the education bubble because the free and cheap money subsidizes marginal students who would otherwise have no business being in college. This subsidy is then seen in the dumbed-down curriculum, for students expect to have something to show for the time and money they’ve put into college, and it’s easier to satisfy customers by giving them a degree regardless of their actual accomplishments.

*One thing that always puzzles me is how parents think that four to six years of extended adolescence is better for their children’s future than having an actual full time job is. But that’s for another post.

1 comment to Compelling Proof of the College Bubble

  • I think that you are right, Simon, that the role of college has shifted from education to credentials. A college education has been devalued at the same time that its cost has skyrocketed. Students get burdened with debt for a degree that is worth less. Something has to change, something will change soon.

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