Tuesday, January 18, 2011

College Education: Little Learned, Then Little Earned

Two recent articles shed some light on the college experience of students and the post-graduation experience of wage earners. Neither article is encouraging.

The AP has a report on a new book "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses," by sociologists Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia. The summary findings:
“A study of more than 2,300 undergraduates found 45 percent of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years.”

“Not much is asked of students, either. Half did not take a single course requiring 20 pages of writing during their prior semester, and one-third did not take a single course requiring even 40 pages of reading per week.”
This is apparently the beginning of a long-term study to track student learning over time. A standardized test, ” College Learning Assessment,” is given to students before starting and then during their years in school to measure progress. One might have questions as to the validity of such testing, but I can only assume these people know what they are doing. Especially since the results seem to fit so well the student stereotype (caricature?).
“Overall, the picture doesn't brighten much over four years. After four years, 36 percent of students did not demonstrate significant improvement, compared to 45 percent after two.”

“Students who studied alone, read and wrote more, attended more selective schools and majored in traditional arts and sciences majors posted greater learning gains.”

“Social engagement generally does not help student performance. Students who spent more time studying with peers showed diminishing growth and students who spent more time in the Greek system had decreased rates of learning, while activities such as working off campus, participating in campus clubs and volunteering did not impact learning.”

“Students from families with different levels of parental education enter college with different learning levels but learn at about the same rates while attending college. The racial gap between black and white students going in, however, widens: Black students improve their assessment scores at lower levels than whites.”
After graduating, the experience does not improve.
“Subsequent research found students one year out of college are not faring well: One-third moved back home, and 10 percent were unemployed. The findings are troubling news for an engaged citizenry, Arum said. Almost half of those surveyed said they rarely if ever discuss politics or public affairs with others either in person or online.”
If this is the fate of the people we are graduating, then producing even more of them is unlikely to have much of a beneficial effect on the economy. That is the subject of a second article by Daniel Indiviglio in “the Atlantic,” "Would More Education Reduce Unemployment and Income Inequality."  We will pass on the issue of unemployment until a later time. The author presents results from a long report by Lawrence Mishel for the Economics Policy Institute.

The following chart is provided to indicate just how unequal income has become.

“Much of the wage inequality the U.S. has been experiencing has occurred because a small handful of people are able to become very, very rich thanks to modern communications, marketing, and technology. But for everyone else, incomes have not changed much. Education has little to do with this, as a college degree, or even an advanced degree, does not guarantee anyone who obtains one a seat in the top 10% of earners. Obviously a far larger portion or Americans than that obtain college degrees.”
The author refers to the spread in income between college graduates and high school graduates as the college wage premium. In recent times this premium has decreased to the point that college graduates are not experiencing any benefit from the increased income inequality. In other words, the top 5% are running away from the college graduates just as fast as from the high school graduates. In fact, both educational classes have seen wage drops in recent years.

Mishel’s conclusion on income inequality:
“... the pay of college graduates is as disconnected from productivity growth as is the pay of high school graduates. Vastly expanding college enrollment and completion will do nothing to address this problem.”
Another conclusion might be that if you are still waiting for that trickle down economy to reach you, you had better be very young.

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