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Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

  1. Oct 4, 2011 #1


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    This http://www.goacta.org/press/PressReleases/2011PressReleases/RichardArumLetter.pdf" below was sent Aug, 4, 2011. The authors take no prisoners and pull no punches.

    A small sample:
    and from the paper:
    They have a https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0...7145&creative=399369&creativeASIN=0226028569" published earlier this year by the same title.

    Rhody... :bugeye:
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 26, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 4, 2011 #2
    One problem I had with the paper is that they defined critical thinking in terms of a score on a test that purports to measure critical thinking and they define the purpose of college as getting a high score on that test. The irony for me was that making those assumptions seem to point to a lack of critical thinking.

    I looked at the test, and it wasn't obvious to me if you go in with a physics or math major, it's not obvious to me that you'll score higher on the test going out than coming in, but that doesn't mean that college was a waste of time.
  4. Oct 4, 2011 #3

    Vanadium 50

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    What do you expect when the average amount of studying per week is 12 to 14 hours?
  5. Oct 4, 2011 #4


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  6. Oct 4, 2011 #5
    Who is to blame for this? Should a college degree only require 12-14 hours of studying? Should one be able to graduate with this level of dedication?

    In addition, there is an implicit assumption in the article that the sole purpose of a college education is to train good employees. I personally feel anyone who doesn't consider the financial implications of higher education a fool (or possibly too wealthy), I don't buy that it is somehow the sole purpose of a degree.

    I think part of the solution is to let teachers teach, properly. No more of this student as a client of the business of school.

    If our graduates and universities are doing so horribly (and my understanding is that they are considering ALL graduates in this category - not just American citizens) then how does the US attract so many quality international students?
  7. Oct 4, 2011 #6


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    What do the universities require then?

    My undergrad school required: 2 sem. foreign language, 2 sem. English literature, 2 sem. U.S. history, 3 sem. philosophy, 2 sem. natural science, 2 sem. behavioral/social science, 2 sem. math, and then 2 sem. of "general non-major electives."

    Every student at the university, regardless of major, had to meet these requirements. Obviously, your major will help fill some of the requirements. (As a physics major, I did not have to worry about my natural science or math requirements.) Also, out of the above requirements, two of the courses must also be "writing intensive" courses, where we were evaluated on your writing ability in the context of your major or related fields. In the end, it took close to 145 credit hours to meet all the liberal arts requirements, a physics major, and a math minor.

    After going through this liberal arts gauntlet, I am heartily of the opinion that this is how education should be done, especially for scientists and engineers. I've met too many people in technical disciplines who knowledge is solely limited to their one field, and who have trouble discussing and writing about their work, even with others in their field.
    Last edited: Oct 4, 2011
  8. Oct 4, 2011 #7
    i definitely study more than 12-14 hrs a week:P sounds like this article applies to students that are majoring in something that isnt science related. like philosophy, art etc.
  9. Oct 4, 2011 #8
    My state school degree (physics) was similar:
    -2 sems of foreign language (waived if we took 2 years of high school foreign language)
    -1 sems of English/Literary (was able to test out of this)
    -1 sem of writing intensive class. (had to take this regardless of testing out of English).
    -4 sems of humanities.
    -4 sems of social studies
    -4 sems of natural science
    -Had to go through Math 106 (college algebra). (tested out of this - but this could take some people 2 years) (for a B.S. you needed to complete calc 2)
    -Formal Reasoning - needed one class in formal reasoning - either Math Logic or Philos Logic
    -3 sems international studies. (typically got this along with your humanities classes or you could do 3 sems of foreign language.)
    -1 sems art studies (anything from the fine art school satisfied this from music to theater to art history)
    -1 sems cultural studies (university wide requirement)

    (note I just checked back and the requirements have not changed in the last 10 years).

    One thing I would note, for most of the humanities/social science classes (and the art class) the grading was a joke. For instance, for my art class, I took introduction to Theater. The class was huge (200 students) and simply by being fairly clever on exams I could always get a B without much studying. I would typically read over my book an hour before the exam. Did I learn anything about theater from that class - No. Did I deserve the grade of B - compared to my fellow student - yes. In an absolute sense - probably not. I have no interest in the academic understanding of theater. But I had a really heavy load that semester (lots of diff eq, 2 upper level physics classes, + undergrad research) and I knew that if I chose a more difficult class that I might have had more interest in, something would suffer.

    One of the problems with these wide ranging, general elective style requirements is exactly what I illustrated. When you have to teach a large service class, the administration is not going to let you give 150 kids out of 200 a C or worse - which they probably deserve. And you have a forcing function of how to divide your time between major classes which you probably really care about and so called general requirement classes which are likely to be less important to you.
  10. Oct 4, 2011 #9


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    That's for only one class.
  11. Oct 4, 2011 #10

    Andy Resnick

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    The book (along with 5 other similar books) was reviewed in this month's "Academe", and perhaps coincidentally, the whole magazine issue centered on how academic institutions are not meeting the needs of students. In particular, there's a essay about the recent reforms within the British university system, and it's scary to read.

    The reality of academia now is much different than even 20 years ago- both within (reliance on part-time and non-tenure track faculty has created an institutionalized system of inequality) and without- students often pursue a college degree because of the (perceived) increase in job opportunities. The latter has resulted in for-profit institutions and degree programs tailored to specific job markets, at the expense of broader learning opportunities. Universities also now prefer faculty members who "face outward"- high profile research programs- rather than 'face inward'- take an active role in education.

    Add the consumer approach by students and parents, who value the fitness center and other amenities as much as the classroom, facile ranking systems that are tied to institutional reputation, and financial pressures created by politicians who in many cases are explicitly anti-intellectual.

    There should be a healthy debate about the quality and purpose of higher education. There should be a critical examination about what is required to obtain a degree, and there should be an honest examination of the dual functions of teaching and research in a University. What is not clear is the motivation to change- the academic institutions themselves and the system they participate in are doing quite well by any measure- enrollments are up, the quality of applicants continues to improve, and it's trivially easy to attract qualified teachers.
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  12. Oct 4, 2011 #11
    Andy you make a very important point about the motivation for change at the University level. Do you (or anyone else) see anything on the horizon that might signal that change might be coming?

    My thoughts on possible motivations are that the current rate of tuition increases are untenable and the increase in unemployment for the college age population might create some sort of demand by potential students.
  13. Oct 4, 2011 #12
    Which leads to a some rather nasty hidden curriculums. If the person teaching a humanities course is a graduate student with no job prospects, it's really, really hard to convince the student that the humanities is important. It's really hard (probably impossible) to convince a student, that they number one goal of life isn't to worry about their careers, when everyone in the university is worried about their careers.

    One then to remember when you are teaching is your students are looking at more than what's in the lesson plan. How you talk, how you think, and how you behave is going to have more influence on your students than the explicit lesson. If a university puts an overworked, underpaid graduate student in charge of basic classes, that tells people how important those classes really are.

    And this is bad, because tailored degree programs don't provide *general skills* which are necessary for adaptability. Also, it's something that universities are not good at. If you want to learn plumbing or investment banking, being in a university is a terrible place to do it, you want to put the student in a plumbing company or investment bank.

    Sure. But some of that anti-intellectualism comes from academia. It's a valid question whether the main purpose of an education should be to get a job. However, people that ask that question and conclude
    that a career isn't that important aren't going to end up with tenure. People that ask big questions aren't also going to end up with tenure. People that go to admission/search committees and say "this is crap" aren't going to end up with tenure.

    I don't think so. Debates are often a total waste of time, and in consensus based system, "having a debate" is often an explicit or implicit excuse to get nothing done. Time is the most precious commodity since you can't make more time, and before debating anything one thing that I always ask myself is "is this debate necessary?"

    One then that I figured out is that debates are often unnecessary. Why do I need to convince you, and why do you need to convince me? Trying to convince someone that they should change their mind is often such a painful, time consuming experience, that I try to avoid it if I can. Rather than try to convince a committee, it's a more efficient use of my time to volunteer for my son's Cub Scout troop.

    And debates often get nothing done. People that are in high positions in academia are masters at using the committee system to get nothing done, and if you want to get something done, you have to go around the system. Putting item X in committee Y, insures that nothing gets done. Setting things up so that people are voting with their feet in such a way that a university needs to change or die, will get something done.

    Karl Marx gives an answer. Something that happens in revolutions is that everything goes quiet for years and decades before a spark lights and everything blows up. What is going on in the quiet period is that people do what they have to do to survive, and they bottle up their anger and frustration because they can't do anything else. Then something happens, and the whole system goes up in smoke. You can probably use thermodynamics to model the process. If one TA gets fed up, then he gets fired. If every TA says "I can't take this anymore" then you have a revolution.

    There are two things that suggest to me that things can't go on forever.

    1) universities are part of a general economic system. The have/have-not division in universities is feeding into society and vice-versa, and this can last only so long before you have a revolution, peaceful or otherwise

    2) technology and globalization changes everything. It's only a matter of time before someone puts all of the pieces together. For example, I'm pretty sure someone at Microsoft, Google, or Apple is looking at the type of money that the Apollo Group is making and thinking, "why can't we do that?" Microsoft has
    $50 billion in the bank and if they wanted to create a new university they could.

    Globalization also changes things. Maybe universities in the US are strong enough to kill any competition in the US, but US universities can't do this in China or India.
  14. Oct 4, 2011 #13

    Andy Resnick

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    Those are certainly pressures on the consumers (!), but not on the suppliers: tuition may be skyrocketing, but again- enrollments are up. Enough people can pay, and are willing to pay, whatever is being charged. High unemployment rates are generally driving people to for-profit institutions, which explicitly claim that a degree increases the salary one can earn.

    Internal motivations to change may be driven more by the inequality between tenure-track faculty and everyone else. Adjuncts and part-timers don't get health insurance, no tuition benefit for their kids (or themselves), and in general are treated as disposable widgets. Non tenure-track faculty are slightly better off, and there is a small trend towards including them in the shared governance/faculty senate structure. However, there is a much larger pressure exerted by senior administration to treat the university like a business- not just profits and losses, but also performance metrics and enrollment targets. The goal is to decrease costs (teaching classes costs *a lot*) and increase revenues- tuition, extramural research funding, gifts/donation, etc.

    I'm also seeing more reliance on community colleges: students may take a bunch of gen-ed/intro classes cheaply and then transfer the credits to a four-year institution. There may be a trend to a feeder/pipeline system involving high schools, community colleges, universities, and professional schools (med school, but also law, dentistry, and nursing).

    But in the end, as long as enrollment continues to rise- and it will continue to rise for a long time as currently only a small fraction of the population has a college degree- there's very little motivation for institutional change.
  15. Oct 4, 2011 #14
    I really don't see how you can avoid it. Look at how technology and globalization has changed *everything*. Technology makes old ways of doing things obsolete, and forces people to do new things. We can get into an interesting discussion about what the university will look like in 2026, but the one thing that I'm sure of is that it won't look like it does in 2011. It might be a good change or a bad change, but Moore's law insures that that it will be different.

    Also, the financial crisis has killed their balance sheets. Private universities that were expecting 10% returns are getting nada, and public universities are getting their budgets slashed. Also, student debt is the next major financial bomb that is in the process of going off.

    Finally, people are just getting angry and fed-up. One thing that I've found about human emotion is that people can bottle things up for a very long time, but eventually it's going to come out. One way that I've found useful is to look at the historical events that influence a generation and figure out how that affects their world view. The generation that is coming out of college is going to have interesting attitudes, because they were promised "the end of history and unlimited prosperity (Dow 40,000!!!!)" but are looking at massive debt, unemployment and underemployment.

    I think it's more likely that you'll have a generation of people look at colleges and say "screw you, I hate what you did to me."

    Also one thing that I see that I don't like is that colleges are finding it profitable to go after the executive MBA/continuing education market. Lots of $$$$$, but it leads to class polarization.
  16. Oct 4, 2011 #15


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    Can you elaborate on this statement? I'm interested in your perspective. I think that most people would consider college degrees marketed to continuing ed students would help alleviate class polarization, as it helps give college degrees to a group that did not have much access to them. In what ways do you think marketing to continuing ed makes matters worse?
  17. Oct 4, 2011 #16
    University of Phoenix is reporting a massive drop off in enrollment in 2011. When the financial crisis started, I think that people figured that it would be over in two to three years, and so this would be a good time to brush up on skills.

    What is happening now is that people are starting to figure out that it's not going to be going back to normal in a few years. At that point, things radically change.

    And then you need to follow the money. Where is the money to pay for the tuition coming from? It's coming from loans, and that well is going to run dry.

    And they can say this for about four or five years before they have to put up or shut up.

    The other thing is that the students that go to University of Phoenix are generally working professionals that want a degree to make more money. In some fields, an MBA is something of a "union card" so a McDonald's type MBA is just what people need. Also in boom times, corporate budgets for training were pretty large.

    Extended unemployment hurts UoP, because unemployed people are just not the target market for UoP.

    And that pressure at least in Texas is coming in from the governors office and the state legislature. It's an interesting political situation in which you have different interest groups, and what is going to eventually happen is that you have deals between interest groups. You could have adjuncts side with the senior faculty against the legislature. Or you could have adjuncts side with the legislature against the senior faculty. Right now, I think that the situation is closer to 1) since graduate students figure that as much as they are getting screwed by the administration, the legislature is worse.

    There's also a lot of public annoyance at senior faculty. One bit of interesting history is that the sort of job protections that professors have are unusual in the US in 2011, but they were quite standard in most industrial jobs in the 1950's. What ended up happening was that job environment for unionized workers were eroded until academia is the only place where you have union protections that were standard in 1950. This puts senior faculty at a dilemma, because I think the only way you can protect tenure in the long run is to say essentially "unions are good, job security is good" but that's hard to do if you keep screwing graduate students.

    The problem is that kills cross-subsidization. The reason that research universities charge more for intro classes than community colleges is that you can use some of that surplus to pay for research and upper division courses. If you push that into community colleges, that kills research funding.

    I can't see enrollments rising for very long before you have financial collapse. You have to ask where the money is coming from, and if it's coming from student loans that aren't being repaid, then it's only a matter of time before things come crashing down.

    In the end there is an "engine" which looks like

    money -> education -> more productivity -> more money -> repeat step one

    That engine is broke. What's worse is that it's going in the opposite direction

    less money -> education -> more debt -> less productivity -> less money -> repeat step one

    What worries me even more is the other engine

    money -> research -> more productivity -> more money -> repeat step one

    is also broke, and going in t'he opposite direction

    less money -> less research -> less productivity -> less money -> repeat step one

    Short term we are screwed. I've given up hoping that the financial crisis will end this year or the next or the next. It's just not going to happen.

    What I'm worried about is the middle and long term. The thing that has got me worried is that the financial crisis will damage US research to the point where you not only have an economic mess that lasts for five to ten years, but it will turn the US into Japan such that the US *never* gets out.
  18. Oct 4, 2011 #17
    It's not college degrees but short courses given to executives. If you go to the UT campus, you'll find UT running a nice fancy conference center and hotel. It's so that business executives can take courses that are given by McCombs.


    Food is great. Too bad most graduate students can't afford it



    Also from time to time, I get brochures from MIT for alumni-only courses. Pay a few thousand dollars, and I can the top professors at MIT give me a small group course on whatever.

    The reason universities were doing this was that they were vast money makers. Most companies had a policy of paying for the education expenses for employees and when times were good they didn't look too closely at the bills, and if you can squeeze a vacation out of it, so much the better.

    The problem is that running a four star restaurant so that rich corporate executives choose your university over the Ohio State University (http://www.theblackwell.com/) because of the buffet, it doesn 't seem like it would reduce class divisions.

    When a university advertises a four star restaurant that it's graduate students can't afford, I'd say we have a problem.
  19. Oct 5, 2011 #18
    Here's some additional thoughts on the report/book which I remember reading a few months ago and found interesting.

    The big hole I see in the study is the lack of a 'baseline' - has college education always been like this? It would be more interesting to see another study done in 20 years for comparison's sake (or to have one from 20 years ago).
  20. Oct 5, 2011 #19

    Andy Resnick

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    The humanities have a 20-year head start on the sciences in terms of dealing with relevance. We would do well to learn how they have (or more distressingly) have not coped with the changing academic landscape. Ironically, the humanities have tried to move toward the sciences- greater emphasis on hyperspecialized research, less emphasis on basic skills.

    Most things are not up for debate or discussion- allocation of resources trickles down from the Provost to the Deans to the Chairs. As the instructor of record for a course, I have the authority to pick a textbook, set the syllabus, and assign grades based on my own criteria. Departments decide what classes the majors have to take, may have their own graduate admissions, and control the qualifier/comprehensive exams.

    I agree building consensus is incredibly difficult. Unfortunately, this is reflected in the profound lack of leadership at all levels- and not just in academic institutions, but in most large institutions (I'll restrict this claim to American institutions).

    You do realize that Apollo group amassed it's fortunes by stealing Pell grants, right? And that they have been found liable for misleading investors? I would not hold them up as an ethical model of innovation.
  21. Oct 5, 2011 #20
    From what I've seen, the situation in the humanities is ten times more depressing than it is in the sciences, and the humanities have given up on any sort of direct relevance. Also, physics gets funded for economic reasons. Physics lets you make atomic bombs and iPhones. This isn't obviously true for the humanities.

    There is a pecking order as far as funding in universities, and it's all about money. Business/finance beats science, and athletics beats business/finance.

    So it's a bad idea to do it, if you don't have to.

    In most large institutions, you have entrenched interests with veto power, making any sort of personal leadership difficult to impossible. People like strong leadership, until it turns out that the leader wants to do something they don't like, and unless you are careful, pretty soon you'll annoy everyone (Hi Larry Summers!!!!)

    You could argue the same for Harvard or NYU. I don't see how the Apollo Group is worse than any non-profit university in making lots of money from the government, and unlike UT Austin, the University of Phoenix is not operating a four star restaurant or building massive stadiums.

    There's a lot of noise about how for-profits are scams, but frankly, I think that a lot of it is non-profits not likely people that do education better than they do.

    And it's dangerous. After some screaming, you have something called the "gainful employment rule" by which for-profits have to track how well their students are doing in the workplace. But I'd like to see graduate schools do that.

    And that's because the securities laws are seriously broken here.

    If you are involved in any sort of major business in the United States you *will* be sued for securities fraud. There are major law firms that make their money just suing people for securities fraud, but "fraud" usually just means that the stock went down. If you are in a high tech company, then any time your stock goes down, you *will* have a dozen law firms threatening to sue you for fraud, and the fact that UoP decided to fight some of them in court rather than just giving in quietly to blackmail gives me some respect for them.

    One reason the system is really broken is it's a tax off people that are doing something useful, and it does nothing to protect people from the real crooks. The problem is that real crooks spend their money as quickly as they can, they leave deep debts, and so there is nothing to sue over. It's a real mess, but people have been trying to fix it for 30 years, and pretty much given up.

    It also makes no sense if you think about it. If the UoP was doing something really crooked, then let's not talk about a fine, they should be shut down and people should go to jail. If the UoP was in fact misleading investors, then what the hell are they doing in business? The problem is that if you shut down companies, then the law firms that run these securities fraud suits won't get paid, so the last thing that a plantiff wants to do is to kill the company.

    I've worked in enough high tech and financial companies so the fact someone is being sued for securities fraud really tells me nothing about how moral or ethical they really are. I've seen good people/companies get bushwacked by securities laws, and I've seen bad people/companies get off scot-free or make a killing by doing things I don't think are socially useful.

    I would.

    One thing about ethics is that it's not black and white. There are a lot of shades of grey, and what UoP does is no worse than what I've seen at MIT or any other non-profit university. (Just to name one, UoP is less involved than MIT in making machines designed to kill people.) Every human being and every institution is a mix of good and bad, and there is much, much more good with UoP than bad.

    What I care about is whether people in the end get educated or not, and having been on the inside, I think it's a good deal for students for the type of education that they are looking for. If it didn't work or was a scam, I wouldn't be worried about it as much as I am.

    The problem with UoP is that it turns teachers into short order burger flippers, and that's *NOT* my ideal for what teachers should be or how a university should work. *I* don't want to be a burger-flipper, but unless/until someone points to something better, that is the future of academia.

    The thing that troubles me, is that I know the University of Phoenix can exist because it does. I have no real clue whether my ideal of how higher education would work would really in fact work.
    Last edited: Oct 5, 2011
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