Debunking Three Myths About Higher Education

By Thomas K. Lindsay

Nationwide, higher education suffers from three intersecting crises: 1) declining affordability; 2) poor student learning; and 3) lax standards. But you wouldn't know this from listening to the three myths masquerading as narrative in typical reporting of the issues.

The first myth addresses why tuition has jumped 400-plus percent nationwide in the last quarter-century, outstripping inflation and even health-care cost increases and forcing students to amass a historic $1.2 trillion in debt. Public universities, when confronted with these facts, blame state cuts, which, they argue, leave them no option but to raise prices.

This claim misleads. For example, in my home state of Texas, the nation's second largest state, declining funding for public colleges and universities accounts for only a fraction of tuition increases. Adjusted for inflation, Texas higher-education funding declined 15.9 percent from 2000 to 2010. But average, inflation-adjusted tuition and fees collected jumped 76 percent during this period. In truth, mild decreases in legislative funding have been met by wild increases in university spending.

The second myth masks a deeper crisis. While this country boasts some of the best universities in the world, this fact has led to an unwarranted confidence in U.S. higher education generally. In reality, college-student learning is too often alarmingly poor. The quality crisis became undeniable after the 2011 publication of the national study of collegiate learning Academically Adrift, which employed the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) to measure how much undergraduates learn. Its findings are alarming. After four years in college, 36 percent of students demonstrate "small or empirically non-existent" gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills. These conclusions are supported by research at the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College, where the small gains reported in Adrift were essentially replicated using an alternative test, ACT's Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency.

Many are shocked to learn that roughly half of all students who enter college never graduate. Adrift shows that, of the half who do, 64 percent demonstrate a meaningful increase in learning after four years. Therefore, only 32 percent of all students who enroll in college come away with both a degree and the increased learning it is meant to signify. Charles Murray's contention that too many students go to college notwithstanding, this is not a robust return on society's sizable investment. Worse, a Hart Associates survey finds employers rate critical thinking, problem solving, analytic and quantitative reasoning, and clear writing more crucial than academic majors for employment. A bachelor's degree has become an unreliable indicator of workforce readiness.

The third myth is that A's and B's signal genuine accomplishment. In truth, college grades today are radically inflated. According to Rojstaczer and Healy's study, in 1960, a C was the most common grade given nationwide. D's and F's accounted for more grades, combined, than A's, which stood at 15 percent. Today, 43 percent of grades are A's. In fact, an A is now the most common college grade; 73 percent of all grades today are A's or B's. These findings are supported by Arthur Levine's study, which finds that in 1969, 7 percent of two- and four-year college students responded that their GPA was an A-minus or higher; by 2009, 41 percent of students reported this majestic GPA.

For Rojstaczer and Healy, "When college students perceive that the average grade in a class will be an A, they do not try to excel." Proof of this is suggested by a study finding students in the early '60s studied 24 hours a week. Today, they report a mere 14. Yet the number of A's they receive has nearly tripled. Meanwhile, 36 percent of these higher-GPA, lower-effort students fail to demonstrate any significant increase in the fundamental academic skills for which they, their parents, and taxpayers made a sizable investment. Reformers pronounce this a broken system, aided and abetted by the three myths above.

There is some good news breaking out. A number of universities, among them Columbia, Dartmouth, and UNC-Chapel Hill, have adopted "honest transcripts," which look to arrest grade inflation by making it transparent -- adding on transcripts, next to the grade each student received for each class, the average grade given by the professor for the entire class. The Texas house of representatives this year voted overwhelmingly for a bill requiring all the state's public colleges and universities to adopt honest transcripts. Though the bill was not considered in the state senate, it's not going away. Also, 200 schools this year will employ the CLA in order to get a better handle on what their students actually learn after four years in college.

These small yet indispensable steps suggest we may be starting to move from myth to reality. The sooner, the better; for, so long as public debate continues mired in myth, too many students will continue to pay too much and learn too little.

Thomas K. Lindsay directs the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and is editor of SeeThruEdu.com. He was deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under George W. Bush. He recently published Investigating American Democracy with Gary D. Glenn (Oxford Press).

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