Are Students Learning Much in College?

With crazy amounts of psychic energy being spent on getting teenagers into college, too many students and their parents think getting admitted is the hard part of the college process.  Actually, it’s not. Squeezing as much value out of the college experience once you’re a student is far more important.

Unfortunately, however,  many students are graduating from college without learning much. From a parent’s perspective that’s a lot of wasted money. And, of course, there are serious ramifications for students who have spent their college years living in a Bud Lite commercial.

Here are a pair of  college blog posts that I’ve written in the past about this problem:

Do Undergrads Learn Much in College?

Expecting More Out of College Students

Today I’m  sharing with you a professor’s thoughtful column in The Chronicle of Higher Education that attempts to explain why so many college students seem impervious to learning. While professors should certainly take some of the blame for student underachievement, William Pannapacker, an associate English professor at Hope College in Michigan, explains the harsh realities of educating undergrads in the 21st century.  You can read his column here:

A Perfect Storm in Undergraduate Education, Part I

I am sharing just three of Pannapacker’s observations:

1. Many students are poorly prepared academically when they arrive in college. With rampant grade inflation, earning “A’s” in high school doesn’t guarantee success in college.

2. Untenured professors don’t want to grade too hard or challenge students too much because they might receive poor students evaluations which could hurt their prospects for tenure. Here is an excerpt of what Pannapacker said:

The common wisdom, for the untenured, at least—whether it is true or not—is to find ways to keep the students happy: Expect little, smile a lot, gesture freely, show movies, praise them constantly, give high marks, bring cookies on evaluation day.

3. Demoralized professors. Professors believe they are unappreciated by non-academics and they are discouraged that they make far less than Americans with comparable educations.

What I found curious is that Pannapacker didn’t blame higher ed’s obsession with research as part of this widespread problem.  I wrote about this reality for my college blog for CBS MoneyWatch a year ago:

Why Don’t Professors Like To Teach?

My Son’s Experience

Make sure that your high school students are truly prepared for college. I’d suggest that if your child’s GPA is far higher than his or her standardized tests, there is a problem. Consider tutoring or possibly community college classes  if the “A’s” your child are getting  are simply because the high school classes are too easy.

Our family followed that advice. My son’s high school — High Tech High — was philosophically opposed to AP classes, which was fine. The charter school, however, required all the students to take the same math courses. Students who were struggling with math along with those who hoped to eventually major in engineering and math all took the same classes, which had to be watered down. Ben was getting easy “A’s,” but under the circumstances the grades were meaningless.

My husband, son and I considered this arrangement a disaster so Ben trotted off in the evenings to take community college math classes for five semesters. My son could not have hacked advanced math in college without these extra classes. Ben, a college sophomore at Beloit College, recently declared himself to be a math and art major with a physics minor.

Read more:

25 Colleges With the Best Professors

25 Colleges With the Worst Professors

College Where Professors Are Easy Graders

Searching for the True Price of a University

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of a workBook, Shrinking the Cost of College.  Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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  1. It is indeed a pity that many students graduate without learning much in college, even if they graduate with lots of A’s. I agree with all three observations of professor Pannapacker. Actually, I tried to challenge students, I gave them the right grades, I did not praise them much (because there was no real reason to do it) etc. And it all ended badly (for me).