College + Degree = Joke?

With the cost of college so daunting, families are understandably more interested than ever in finding schools where their children can grow academically and secure good jobs when they graduate.

That’s not an unreasonable request and yet quite a bit of evidence exists that millions of students have not been learning much in college. In fact, the diplomas that many students are earning are a j-o-k-e.

I wrote about this reality last year when a blockbuster book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, hit the press. The book dropped a big fat stink bomb on the higher-ed world and the stench shows no signs of dissipating.

While higher-ed reformers have been trying to guilt institutions into caring more about undergraduate education for a long time, it took this slim book, written by a pair of professors at the University of Virginia and New York University, to bring the crisis to center stage. Here are two of the academics’ most dramatic conclusions:

  • 45% of students in the study made no gains in learning during their first two years in college.
  • 36% of student managed to graduate without learning much of anything.

You can learn more about this research by reading this post that I wrote last year:

Do Undergraduates Learn Much in College?

Looking for Hard Data

Unfortunately, if you want to steer clear of schools where the learning is iffy at best and the job prospects are poor, it’s just about impossible to pinpoint them. While schools are becoming far more transparent financially with the advent of federally mandated net price calculators, colleges and universities can still hide their mediocre learning and job outcomes.

An excellent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education sums up the situation nicely:

An Age of Accountability

You might assume that schools are already providing return-on-investment data.

When families visit campuses, after all, they often ask about employment and grad school success rates. And schools will often provide those statistics. They might state, for instance, that 90% of the latest graduating class has found jobs or that 95% of their law school applicants got accepted. You might wonder, however, why so many schools can brag about their grad school and job placement rates when so many of them are doing a miserable job of preparing their charges for careers and further academic work?

When schools dish up statistics about the employment rate of their recent grads or the success admission rate for the grads heading to law, medical and grad schools, the statistics are dubious. These figures are self reported and don’t reflect what happened to all members of a graduating class.

Do you think , for instance, that grads who got rejected from law school are going to volunteer that advice to their alma mater? Meanwhile the self-reported job statistics that schools typically cite include part-time work. So if a grad is working the graveyard shift at 7-11, that’s considered employment.

Some Good News

There is no reason why families should continue to have to make a leap of faith when picking a school. Colleges and universities are under growing pressure to produce meaningful ROI figures to help families make smart decisions. The good news is that the technology is available to provide answers. You’ll learn more about this in my next post.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of the second edition of The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, which covers some of the issues discussed in today’s post.



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  1. The college solution ? Its called reading books. I work in the area of law (paralegal) and I have had many attorneys tell me that some of the most knowledgeable lawyers are not persons who have a J D from a University, rather it is the jailhouse lawyer. The jailhouse lawyer can legally represent other prisoners, yet they do not have a JD nor have they passed the Bar. Why are jailhouse lawyers so knowledgeable in many areas of law ? They have time to read, read, read and read more, they read all the law books.

  2. Yeah I’ve soon the schools that claim something like 90% of their premeds get into medical school. It may be factually correct, but many parents and high school students get the impression that 90% of freshmen premeds end up getting into medical school. They don’t realize that the majority of these students change tracks or don’t get letters of recommendation. It’s kind of disgusting how misleading these statistics are.