Yesterday’s post was long and meandering. I was thinking as I wrote about several different (but related) topics. I’m beginning to plan a speech that I’ll give in Texas in January, and yesterday’s post was preparatory. Anyway, I think I “buried the lead.” If anything I wrote was interesting, it was this paragraph:
College students score higher on tests of knowledge and critical thinking near the end of their undergraduate careers than at the beginning. The best estimates suggest that college exposure has a positive effect–between one quarter and one half of a standard deviation, depending on what outcomes we measure. However, there is remarkably little evidence that the type of college matters, even though colleges differ extraordinarily in size, selectivity, and mission. To me, this finding suggests that little of what a college does intentionally to educate students has an impact. Students grow, in part thanks to the college experience (which includes extracurricular activities and living arrangements); but they do not benefit to an impressive degree from college teaching.
As Hellmut Lotz noted in his comment yesterday, “course work provides valuable focus to the learning experience in dorms and friendship circles. If young adults went to … day care [for a year], they would probably learn less.” I agree. Students benefit from being congregated with other students in institutions supposedly dedicated to learning. Even the title of “student” probably has a positive effect. Nevertheless, the direct impact of the instruction that colleges offer seems remarkably small, given how much we charge for it. I blame large classes, unhelpful exercises, poorly prepared and motivated teachers, and inappropriate curricula–but the underlying problem is the incentive structure that I described yesterday. Neither colleges nor students have enough reason to care about the “value-added” from higher education.
The source, again, is Ernest T. Pascarella and Patrick T. Terenzini, How College Affects Students: Vol. 2, A Third Decade of Research (Jossey-Bass, 2005), p.145-6; 205-6.