The Higher Education Learning Crisis – Analysis


The United States, as a leader in higher education, must act to improve the quality and quantity of student learning.

By Richard H. Hersh and Richard Keeling*

There is a crisis in American undergraduate higher education requiring a shift away from spurious magazine rankings, unacceptable graduation rates, inequitable admissions selectivity, rising costs, and administrative and faculty inefficiency to a more fundamental problem: Students do not learn enough in college, period.

This higher learning crisis is not unique to the United States, although here it is more documented and publicly discussed. For the past several decades, high costs and unemployment catalyzed public demand for greater accountability and learning assessment. Many countries, unlike the United States, rely on exit exams, but only recently have researchers studied institutions’ impact on learning compared to appropriate peers – how much, for example, is institutional quality a measure of learning caused by attendance at a specific institution versus entrance selectivity, what is known as the “diamonds in, diamonds out” phenomenon.

Other countries have emulated American universities because of prestigious worldwide rankings, but such emulation may be hollow as rankings are based on scholarship and research prowess, measured by numbers of publications and scholarly citations, not undergraduate learning. Indeed, higher education globally continues to follow a relatively passive learning tradition with full responsibility for learning placed on students. Ironically, some of the world’s best teaching and learning now happens on campuses jointly run by host countries and American universities, like Yale and the National University of Singapore. A new beginning allows faculty the freedom and creativity to develop more efficacious, learner-centered curricula and pedagogy.

Too many graduates are not prepared to think critically and creatively, speak and write cogently, solve problems, comprehend complex issues, accept accountability, take the perspective of others, or meet employer expectations. In their 2010 book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa provide statistical evidence that most students do not make significant gains in critical thinking, problem solving, analytical reasoning and written communication skills while in college – showing that the gap between what institutions promise and what they deliver has become a chasm.

In 2006, the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education scathingly labeled higher education as “risk-aversive,” “self-satisfied,” “unduly expensive” and “ineffective.” In a landmark study, Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College, the Association of American Colleges and Universities relayed the urgency: “even as college attendance is rising, the performance of too many students is faltering.”  This costly failure – in the face of a seemingly inexorable precipitous rise in tuition costs and student loan burden – must be resolved to sustain political, social, economic, and scientific leadership. The claim that the American system of higher education is the “best in the world” has become an empty accolade masking inadequate quality and quantity of learning.

Culture off and on campus is at the heart of the matter. The United States has bastardized the bachelor’s degree by turning it into a ticket to a job. Meanwhile, the academy has adopted an increasingly customer-based ethic reaping costly effects: “Professional training” has displaced the expectations and standards of a rigorous liberal education – with teaching and learning devalued, deprioritized and replaced by an emphasis on simpleminded metrics that feed magazine rankings,  enrollment, winning teams, facilities, with more revenue from sideline businesses. Teaching duties are increasingly left to adjunct faculty with few incentives for tenure-track faculty to spend time with undergraduates or improve teaching. Expectations for hard work in college have fallen victim to smorgasbord-style curricula, large lecture classes, institutional needs to retain students in order to make the budget and inflated grades for minimal student effort. None of this makes for higher learning.

The prevailing academic culture purveys a curricular and teaching model of credit hours per course founded on the presumption that topics and skills should be packaged into one or two courses, such as freshman composition, or a series of courses in a major or minor. Each course or series, presumed to stand alone, signifies a module of learning achievement. That module – even if it comprises the requirements for a minor or major – is too often compartmentalized and disconnected from other learning during that semester. This system conveys to students and teachers alike that learning occurs best when students stack individual courses like building blocks – as if learning becomes greater as the pile grows. But that assumption is false. No mortar connects these blocks; they topple easily, and the learning is disconnected and ephemeral.

A renewed academic culture must embrace the cumulative and collective nature of higher learning. The core learning outcomes proffered by higher education – critical thinking, effective written and oral communication, the ability to use rather than simply acquire knowledge to solve problems – are ineffectively attained in one or two required courses or random out-of-classroom learning experiences. One or two writing seminars are insufficient for producing competent writers. A required general education course in critical thinking alone cannot teach how to evaluate credibility of information and solve problems. Students do not learn qualities of effective leadership solely by serving as an elected officer of a student organization. It is not surprising, then, to hear faculty lament, “They were supposed to learn how to ___before they got to my course,” filling the blank in with any number of skills. Autonomy of disciplines, lack of true investment in general education, absence of faculty consensus about what students should learn across the curriculum, and weakness of academic advising undermine any sense of coherence in students’ learning. The consequence – and working assumption – is that constructing coherence among individual courses and learning experiences is the student’s responsibility alone.

Success in achieving core higher-learning outcomes requires an approach best accomplished cumulatively – requiring more instruction, practice, assessment and feedback than is now provided, or expected, within single courses or other isolated learning experiences. Learning how to think and write creatively, for example, are skills optimally learned over the span of an entire undergraduate program intentionally planned and assessed by faculty and staff across all courses and programs. Writing-across-the-curriculum initiatives are one example of the application of this idea, but the concept can also include across-the-curriculum demand for critical thinking, problem solving and ethical development.

This is not to suggest that such core outcomes are content free. One must think and write about something, and subject-matter expertise is a necessary, contextual condition. Offering a smorgasbord of course offerings in the name of “student interest” only serves to reify the belief that the student as customer knows best. Knowledge acquisition by itself is not sufficient; higher learning entails the ability to apply such knowledge, using it to inform one’s thinking, writing or discourse. While disciplinary competence necessarily differs across courses and programs, the core work of higher learning becomes cumulative when coursework reinforces common outcomes, intentionally progressing in complexity and sophistication towards collectively established learning goals. For example, a well-written paper in history offering a critical analysis of the causes of World War I would share standards for critical thinking and effective writing with a paper analyzing threats to biodiversity. A cumulative approach to higher learning requires that students are taught to an increasingly higher standard of competence – thus, a more integrative, stable and coherent education.

Cumulative learning requires faculty to collectively agree on which outcomes, expectations and standards to share and endorse, reinforcing them throughout all courses. Faculty must provide timely and appropriate feedback to students. Understanding “faculty” as a collective noun responsible for outcomes involves a substantial institutional culture shift.

A college education that fails to ensure that students learn is not worth the cost at any price. High cost plus poor quality equals low value. The answer is not throwing money at problems. Societies must take steps to improve the quality and quantity of learning, changing the very culture of higher education as a whole.

*Richard H. Hersh was formerly the president at Trinity College and Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He now teaches at Yale University’s Education Studies Program. Richard Keeling is president of Keeling & Associates, a higher education consulting practice, and formerly a vice president for Student Affairs at the University of Wisconsin. They are authors of We’re Losing Our Minds: Rethinking American Higher Education (Palgrave, 2012), and Hersh is author with John Merrow of Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk (Palgrave, 2005).

YaleGlobal Online

YaleGlobal Online is a publication of the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale. The magazine explores the implications of the growing interconnectedness of the world by drawing on the rich intellectual resources of the Yale University community, scholars from other universities, and public- and private-sector experts from around the world. The aim is to analyze and promote debate on all aspects of globalization through publishing original articles and multi-media presentations. YaleGlobal also republishes, with a brief comment, important articles from other publications that illuminate the many sides of this complex phenomenon. To the extent permitted by copyright arrangements, YaleGlobal archives such articles and makes them available for search and retrieval.

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