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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Research on colleges flawed

For San Diego's North County Times

At a time of year when high school seniors and their parents are stressed out over whether they'll get into their first-choice college and whether they can afford it if they do, a story by Associated Press writer Eric Gorski about how little students learn in college is extraordinarily ill-timed and irresponsible.

It's especially unfortunate the article landed on the front page of the North County Times ("Study finds that students learn little in college," Jan. 19) with a 2008 file photo of Cal State San Marcos students, as if the story were about them.

Full disclosure: I spent the last seven years of my 30-year career in higher education as an admissions and records administrator at CSUSM.

The article reported findings of a research study, "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses" by Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia. It followed 2,300 undergraduates at 24 unnamed colleges and universities and found that 45 percent of them showed no significant improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their second year, 36 percent by the end of their fourth year.

That means half of undergraduates showed significant improvement after two years and nearly two-thirds after their senior year. Of course, the headline, "Most students learn a lot in college," wouldn't appear anywhere near the front page.

Among other findings the researchers found appalling were that half the students did not take a course requiring 20 pages of writing their prior semester and a third did not take a course requiring 40 pages of reading per week. Which means half took a course requiring at least 20 pages of writing and two-thirds a course requiring at least 40 pages of reading per week. At Cal State San Marcos every student must write at least 2,500 words in every course.

The researchers found that those attending more selective schools majoring in traditional arts and sciences majors posted the greatest learning gains. That finding should come as no surprise. The authors earned their undergraduate degrees at Tufts University and Mount Holyoke College.

They blame students who seek easy courses and don't study, as well as a college culture that values research over good teaching. Those were the same complaints I heard when I graduated from high school a half-century ago.

What high school graduates and their parents need to hear about is the research revealing college choice does not determine your success in life, and that the more education you have the more money you'll earn over a lifetime. College degrees are worth a million dollars more than a high school diploma.

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