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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Is college useless?

Academically Adrift was published last month. The link takes you to the U of Chicago Press but you can Google "academically adrift" and find many articles about it. (Disclaimer: I have not read the book itself and I do not get a commission if you buy it.)

A key component seems to be the authors' finding that roughly 36% of all college students fail to show improvement on a particular learning assessment, the CLA. 

The street-level interpretation? College doesn't work.

As expected, some in the higher education world are upset by these findings and the study has been attacked on several fronts. However, it seems to me that a key statistical understanding is missing.

For the sake of discussion, let's take the findings at face value. Let's assume that the CLA is a good test and let's assume that the data is representative of all college students. 

Is the street-level interpretation fair?  Maybe, maybe not.

We don't know what would have happened to a similar group of non-students. What would the CLA show for a group who entered the workforce right after high school and never attended college? If there were the same 36% - 64% split then college would make no difference in learning.

But what if the non-college split was 90% - 10%? Then the college student results would be evidence that college works well. What if the non-college split went the other way and 90% of non-college students improved? That would be evidence that college actually hurts.

Even without considering an alternate test group, it's also worth pointing out the "half empty/half full" issue. If 36% of college students show no improvement, then 64% evidently do show some improvement.  If college increases scores for nearly 2/3 of students, it might not be fair to say college doesn't work.

What do you think of this study?  How can the data be interpreted?

Also, is it fair for you to comment on the study based on my blog post or should you read more about Academically Adrift first? Should you read the entire book before you comment? Should  I have read the entire book before writing a post? The world is full of summaries about summaries. How far back toward the original data should we have to dig before we're allowed to comment or draw conclusions?


  1. A similar question to this was discussed in a calculus class I took last year. The teacher brought up the point that I am paying $35,000 a year to attend a school and learn something. But due to new advancements in the internet, on youtube I could google 'box plots' and have a video show me what it is and how it works. Such as this link does,

    So if I can learn the same information from watching this video online, is it worth it to pay for a class and have a professor do the same thing?

  2. I feel that there are a lot of facts that have been hidden from this study. There are many different variables that go into tests like these. First, as mentioned, what about the 64% of college students that did show improvement? These numbers cannot be ignored. Second, we get a lot more out of college than just knowledge from our classes. We learn life skills such as budgeting, time management, and communication skills. These are essential skills that help people to succeed in life. So, saying that college "doesn't work" is unfair. There are other things to consider.

  3. I mostly agree with both statements. Where i disagree is in the fact that I can learn the same things online. Classes still bring in more to my knowledge base then when I have assignments to follow tutorials online. I tend to learn better having the Professor working through the problem with me, as in class. I agree that many factors go into college learning and experience which are not presented here. As young adults entering school, I feel every individual grows and matures into the adult they are meant to become. This comes from finding the best college atmosphere for each individual. I am learning much more beyond the classes. For starters I feel I have a better understanding of a work environment, something that if I went into immediately after high school, I probably would not have been successful at. College has much more value than this study is giving it. Each individual participating in the study and using the study should do further research, like reading at least a few experts from Academically Adrift and then read more articles before constructing a true opinion upon the topic.