It’s OK to Say Good Things About Higher Education … Really, It Is!

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With Commencement season winding down, the media seems intent on making sure no one gets too optimistic or too positive about life after college. Newspapers and TV reports are replete with stories about levels of student debt, the paucity of good paying jobs and the low graduation rates. While there are certainly challenges for some graduates, the fact is that many will do just fine.

I was heartened last week to find a report that provided good news about higher education. In fact, it did so by reporting findings that seem to rebuke a widely held assumption since 2011 that too little learning actually takes place on college campuses.

In 2011, a book entitled, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, received a great deal of national and international attention. Using data from the College Learning Assessment (CLA), the authors of Academically Adrift concluded that students had very little growth in learning during their undergraduate years. The CLA is a national assessment tool that measures critical thinking.

At a recent meeting of the American Enterprise Institute, the authors of the CLA, who work for the Council for Aid to Education, released the results of two more recent studies, “Does College Matter? Measuring Critical-Thinking Outcomes Using the CLA” and “Three Principle Questions About Critical Thinking Tests.”  These results paint a very different picture from Academically Adrift.

According to this new research, critical thinking increases significantly between the freshman and senior years. Their data demonstrates twice the level of improvement than reported in the 2011 study. While the authors of this most recent research were quick to explain that the variance in results may have something to do with the research methodologies used in the various studies, the results seem clear and irrefutable. College does matter and students do learn!

The point of all this is that a college education is neither uniform nor totally predictable. Some students learn very little and others grow and develop exponentially. Some students graduate with large debt and others graduate debt-free or with manageable loans. Some students search unsuccessfully for jobs while others move seamlessly from graduation to full and fulfilling employment in their chosen field.

Higher education is not perfect. But in my experience, the benefits far outweigh the challenges and a vast majority of students experience real value in their lives intellectually, socially, morally and developmentally.

I understand that the headline, “College Graduate Debt Ridden and Unemployed” sells more papers than “College Graduate Happy and Successful,” but the second description is more accurate.

Colleges and universities are replete with dedicated faculty members and administrators working hard every day to improve the quality of teaching and learning. Colleges and universities are packed with students who arrive with hopes and dreams and study hard to achieve success. It’s OK to celebrate this. And the evidence can be found in research studies and through Commencement ceremonies.

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

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Guest Saturday, 19 April 2014