Why Too Many College Students Aren’t Learning

Earlier this year, I wrote a couple of posts about this reality:  many students are graduating from college without absorbing much of an education.
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 the two posts:

Do Undergrads Learn Much in College?

Expecting More Out of College Students

Today I want to share with you a thoughtful column in The Chronicle of Higher Education that attempts to explain, from a professor’s perspective, why so many college students seem impervious to learning. While professors should certainly be taking 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. (Maybe he will discuss that in the future.) I wrote about this reality for my college blog for CBS MoneyWatch in December:

Why Don’t Professors Like To Teach?

Bottom Line:

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. Sadly families focus way too much on getting into colleges rather than on being prepared to succeed in college.
Look for colleges that will challenge your child and provide a more personalized education. Of course, my favorite are liberal arts colleges that fare much better in educating undergrads.
Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of a workBook, Shrinking the Cost of College: 152 Ways to Cut the Cost of a Bachelor’s Degree. She also writes a college blog for CBSMoneyWatch. Follow her on Twitter.

Join My Newsletter
Get your free guide to finding the most generous colleges
Practical, actionable information for Students, Parents, Counselors & Financial Advisors.

Let's Connect

Leave a Reply

  1. My husband is a professor and he would agree that many students are unprepared. By the time they get to 300 level classes they still just want to memorize (and have their hand held). He gets slams on student evaluations by all but the good students. It makes him work even harder to get the material across but he will not dumb down his expectations.

    1. Hi Kate,
      Thanks for sharing your husband’s experiences. It’s very sad that so many students want to float through college. Unlike your husband, many profs — fearful of bad evaluations — are letting them.

  2. This concerns me since some of the financial safety schools we are considering are state flagships that offer financial aid to out of state students. So is there a way to tease out of all the information out there how much emphasis a University or College puts on undergraduate teaching? It’s easy to find for small Liberal Arts Colleges, but what about larger institutions?

    1. This is a more complex issue than the items above. We have students who are so distracted by technology that attending to the material and really engaging are becoming more and more of a problem. We have untenured folks who are afraid to do what they know is right and that alone could be an issue to solve. If you know something and are passionate, it shows when you teach. I am not convinced enough is being shared in the teaching profession so that those who are new have some of the teaching tools they need to make learning happen. I see a tendency to jump to a solution, especially a “pop” one instead of doing the query and research needed to solve the right problem with the right tool. Even delivery of curriculum can be an issue as some people do not know how to state a limit that gets the group moving toward the goal of learning. Dweck is pointing out how much the over praising of kids has created problems. Brooks has a new book out on the The Social Animal that speak the neuro science new frontiers of understanding that is a must read. After ADmission is another good book to better understand what helps first generation kids do college and launch.