KATHLEEN PARKER: Some universities fail to prepare their students

By Kathleen Parker

WASHINGTON – Jobs, jobs, jobs, we keep hearing. But for whom, whom, whom? Certainly not for the many young Americans being graduated from colleges that have prepared them inadequately for the competitive marketplace in which they find themselves.
We often hear lamentations about declining educational quality, but the focus is usually misplaced on SAT scores and graduation rates. Missing from the conversation is the quality of what’s being taught.
Fundamentally, students aren’t learning what they need to compete for the jobs that do exist.
These facts have been well documented by a variety of sources, not to mention the common experience of employers who can’t find applicants who can express themselves grammatically.
A study published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities has found that 87 percent of employers believe that higher education institutions have to raise student achievement if the U.S. is to be competitive in the global market. Sixty-three percent say recent college grads don’t have the skills they need to succeed. And, according to a separate survey, more than a quarter of employers say entry-level writing skills are deficient.
One of the most damning indictments of higher education came early this year with a book, “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” by Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia. It’s a dense tome that could put Ambien out of business, but the authors’ findings are compelling. Just two examples:
* Gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills are either “exceedingly small or nonexistent for a larger proportion of students.”
* Thirty-six percent of students experience no significant improvement in learning (as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment) over four years of higher education.
Most universities don’t require the courses considered core educational subjects – math, science, foreign languages at the intermediate level, U.S government or history, composition, literature and economics.
The nonprofit American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has rated schools according to how may of the core subjects are required. A review of more than 1,000 colleges and universities found that 29 percent of schools require two or fewer subjects. Only 5 percent require economics. Less than 20 percent require U.S. government or history.
College students may be undereducated, but they’re not dumb and many feel short- changed. A recent Roper Organization study found that nearly half of recent graduates don’t think they got their money’s worth.
In the lost spirit of in loco parentis, Neal and Arum have teamed up to take these findings to those upon whom ultimate responsibility falls – the nation’s 10,000 college and university trustees. In a letter sent a few weeks ago, Arum wrote that institutions not demanding a rigorous curriculum “are actively contributing to the degradation of teaching and learning. They are putting these students and our country’s future at risk.”
That’s a provocative charge and a call to arms. Let’s hope trustees hear it and heed.
Kathleen Parkeri’s email address is kathleenparker(at)washpost.com. She writes for The Washington Post Writers Group.

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