College Tuition Goes Up; Learning Goes Down – What to Do About It!

By Sam Rosensohn

Despite an abundance of laptops on wireless campuses and many more courses in college catalogs, it is not clear that undergraduates today are learning more or becoming more proficient in writing, speaking, and critical thinking than their parents and grandparents were when they were students 25 and 50 years ago.

So says Derek Bok, a former president of Harvard University and a former trustee of the University of Massachusetts, in an article he penned this month for The Chronicle.

“Colleges are much less effective than they should be,” wrote Bok who noted that college surveys show that most seniors do not feel they have substantially improved their writing, critical thinking, and quantitative skills during college.

A national survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA designed to provide higher education practitioners and researchers with comprehensive information on the academic and personal development of college students, discovered a freshmen-professor communication gap.

Findings from a survey entitled Your First College Year disclosed that “close to one-third of the survey respondents felt intimidated by their professors in the first college year,” and didn’t seek them out to clarify their most basic questions.

The study also noted that many students “remain disengaged from their coursework: over half frequently or occasionally came late to class; almost half turned in course assignments that did not reflect their best work or felt bored in class.”

And at today’s prices? What’s going on? Why is both teaching and learning lagging? Bok believes it’s because there are no strong incentives to institute the reforms needed to improve how well students are taught and how much they learn.

He says if applicants could identify which colleges would help them to learn the most, they might gravitate to those institutions and force the rest to improve their educational programs to compete. But he notes that students have no way of knowing enough to make that judgment.

Instead, he writes, they choose the colleges that offer lower tuitions, better financial aid, more attractive facilities or programs – chiefly vocational – that seem especially useful.

While I find much of what Bok writes to be edifying, I disagree strongly that students are unable to learn if a school’s faculty is going to work for them.

This has to be the very doable job of every high school student who wants to attend college at today’s budget-busting prices. Students should find out how the heart of college (teaching and learning) functions at the schools they’re interested in – in short, is it the right beat for them.

Drop in on a couple of classes. Pick a core course you have little interest in to see how it’s taught and if you can tolerate it, and then attend a core class that interests you deeply.

Study the students in the class. Are they happy to be there; salivating to ask questions, or looking out the window? If students are disengaged you learned more in that class than they did. Try and get a sense if the professors strive to determine if the material they’re delivering is understood, or are they more intent on covering the bases and hitting the road?

If you’re like most kids you’re not going to want to poll students after class on what they think of the professor and the course; so ask admissions if the school has a chat room for prospective students or students to email questions to. And of course, see if someone from your high school currently attends that college.

Bok says professors feel no urgency to search for the best possible methods to educate undergraduate students. This is not because professors care only about research – it’s just, he says, that few faculties engage in a continuing effort to assess how much their students are learning.

What follows are some questions that Bok – whose latest book, Our Underachieving Colleges: a Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More, will be published next month – believes college trustees should ask their college presidents.

I suggest you ask some of them to people in admissions:

Does the college participate in the National Survey of Student Engagement that determines the prevalence of practices of active teaching and learning that have been shown to be effective in helping students learn? If so, what steps are taken to act on the results?

What efforts does the college make to assess student progress toward generally accepted goals, such as critical thinking, quantitative skills, writing, and proficiency in a foreign language?

Are the results of such assessments shared with the faculty, and are they used to identify weaknesses and discuss potential remedies?

Are funds available to enable instructors to experiment with new teaching methods, and are the results evaluated and publicized within the faculty?

Is training in classroom teaching given to new faculty members? Does it include exposure to research findings on teaching and learning?

What use does the college make of teaching evaluations, and how well are those surveys constructed? (For example, do they ask students to comment not only on the teacher but on what they think they learned?)

What evidence of a candidate’s teaching is collected in reviewing professors for appointment or promotion, how reliable is the evidence, and how much weight does it receive?

Sam Rosensohn is the founder of College Planning Partnerships, which offers prep classes for the SAT and helps students to prepare for college and write college essays. He can be reached in Clinton at 860-664-9857 or at