US university students are safely back behind the red-brick, ivy-covered walls of their campuses this autumn, but outside a storm is brewing over the question of whether they are learning anything.
Criticism of the quality of teaching in US higher education – as opposed to its widely acknowledged strength in research – has intensified, alongside rapidly rising tuition fees. Unrest has been fuelled by recent reports suggesting that students may not be getting their money’s worth.
In a survey of employers conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), only one in four respondents says that universities are adequately preparing students for the rigours of the global economy.
Meanwhile, the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AIP), a Washington DC think-tank, reported last month that the amount of time US university students spend on academic preparation has plummeted from 24 hours a week in 1961 to 14 today. At the same time, there is evidence that universities continue to reward them with ever-higher grades.
Another recent study by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges concludes that trustees spend far more time discussing business matters than educational quality.
Among other things, there is increasing anxiety about how this is affecting the US’ leadership in international higher education.
Young adults in Sweden, Norway, Belgium and the Czech Republic who have completed some university education now outperform Americans on assessment tests and other nations are catching up, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
The controversy has even spilled on to the cover of Academe, the journal of the largest faculty union in the US, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). In its July/August issue, the magazine provocatively asks: “What Do Faculty Owe Students?”
“While American universities garner top honors for research, teaching appears to be in a terrible state,” write Michael E. Gordon and Oded Palmon, professors of management and finance respectively at Rutgers University and authors of the Academe cover story, “Spare the Rigor, Spoil the Learning”.
“For a variety of reasons, including fear of poor student evaluations of their teaching and unwillingness to budget time for instruction at the expense of research, many faculty members have relaxed their standards with respect to both course substance and the evaluation of student work,” they state.
Chorus of criticism
The topic of undergraduate teaching standards has attracted what A. Lee Fritschler, former president of liberal-arts institution Dickinson College, has called a “growing chorus of criticism of US higher education focusing on quality”.
“There is a lot more conversation going on about this,” said Debra Humphreys, vice-president for communications and public affairs at the AACU, who worked on the organisation’s survey.
Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP, blamed the economy for putting higher education in the spotlight unfairly.
“Students who get years of education end up unemployed – and that has led to this subject being given much more attention,” Dr Nelson said.
In fact, he argued, notwithstanding what it says in his association’s journal, external factors have exaggerated the issue, with universities becoming easy scapegoats.
“The problem is that there aren’t jobs,” he said.
But when pressed, he admitted that there had been “compromises in educational quality” caused by budget cuts at public universities. Retrenchment had led to larger classes and a growing trend towards hiring contingent faculty who do not have security of tenure, he added.
The proportion of US faculty who are untenured has increased from one-third in 1975 to two-thirds today, and it is a particularly contentious issue for the union.
Academics report that they are increasingly cautious about challenging students because of fears that complaints will lead to them losing their jobs, Dr Nelson said.
Whatever the reason, the AIP has found that faculty are asking less and less of students.
The huge drop-off in the amount of time students spend preparing for their classes, it concluded, could not be explained away by developments such as technological improvements.
The likely explanation, the institute said, was that “achievement standards have fallen”.
Nor do other long-held arguments necessarily hold true. While advocates of university research say that it enhances pedagogical standards, the National Survey of Student Engagement found that the greater an institution’s focus on research, the less students reported having to work to meet their teachers’ expectations.
In all cases, according to Stuart Rojstaczer, a retired professor of geophysics at Duke University who tracks a cross-sample of institutions, grade inflation continues.
His research shows that across his sample of institutions, the grade-point average rose from 2.9 to 3.1 (out of a maximum of four) from 1991 to 2007.
“If they are working less, why are they still getting good or better grades?” the AACU’s Dr Humphreys asked.
“Are they smarter or are standards being lowered?”
Education and the masses
In some ways, US universities may be victims of their own success.
More students are entering higher education from the secondary- school level, and not all of them are well prepared. Universities are forced to spend valuable time on remedial instruction.
“It is a very recent phenomenon that we have decided to send so many high-school graduates to college, so it is not entirely crazy that we are not succeeding so well in getting everybody who goes to high school ready to go to college,” Dr Humphreys said.
As a result, academics find that students “don’t recognise the simplest allusions to anything of a bookish sort, other than popular culture”, said James Axtell, a retired professor of humanities at the College of William and Mary, who writes about educational quality and is working on a history of the US academy.
Students are increasingly likely to work part-time to pay for their tuition or are drawn to extra- curricular activities and other distractions – many of which universities provide for them.
“Their time is certainly split, and their concentration is bifurcated like crazy because of Twitter and all the stuff they have plugged into their ears,” Dr Axtell said.
“Faculty are up against serious competition. Just keeping people awake at certain times can be a challenge.”
Doctoral candidates considering careers in the classroom, meanwhile, do not always receive the training they need to teach.
Dr Nelson said that in some cases, universities were throwing them in at the deep end, “and if they don’t drown, they learn”.
After all this, the AACU found, when students finally emerge from university, employers largely find them unprepared.
“We try to put this in the context of the purpose of higher education, which is not solely to prepare students for work,” Dr Humphreys said. “That said, we certainly are convinced by this [AACU] study and others that the economy itself is raising the bar for the skills and the capacities that college graduates need, and there is increasing evidence that too many of them lack the full complement of skills that they will need for success.”
Dr Nelson bristles at the idea that universities should focus on preparing workers.
He said he deplored “that kind of exclusive emphasis on job training, which many American parents have bought into. There is a need for a large public conversation in the US about what the purpose of higher education is. We desperately need that conversation.”
But universities, stung by the criticism, are already developing tools to measure what their students are learning – much as US primary and secondary schools have been required to do through relentless testing.
Via an AACU programme called Value: Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education, hundreds of universities are trying to develop ways to measure their students’ skills in such areas as quantitative and ethical reasoning, writing and civic engagement.
Dr Humphreys said she expected the results to show that workplace demands are growing more complicated, not that students are becoming more stupid. For instance, employers report needing students with better communication, analytic reasoning and evidence-based research skills.
“There is a difference between saying colleges and universities aren’t serving students well or are graduating people who are not well educated, and saying the economy is changing and demanding more of graduates,” she said.