David Brooks on the Value Added by Higher Education

20 04 2012


The NYT’s David Brooks has published an interesting column on the benefits, perceived and real, of attending “college,” which is, of course, what Americans call university. See here.

This is the most interesting paragraph, from my point of view:

Colleges are supposed to produce learning. But, in their landmark study, “Academically Adrift,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that, on average, students experienced a pathetic seven percentile point gain in skills during their first two years in college and a marginal gain in the two years after that. The exact numbers are disputed, but the study suggests that nearly half the students showed no significant gain in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills during their first two years in college.

Brooks makes a good point, although space constraints kept him from including some of the most damning data from the Arum and Roksa study:

  • 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college.
  • 36 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over four years of college

According to the study, the main reason for lack of academic progress of students was lack of rigour: “32 percent of students each semester do not take any courses with more than 40 pages of reading assigned a week, and that half don’t take a single course in which they must write more than 20 pages over the course of a semester.”

Students today much less time doing academic work than university students did in the 1960s.

Read more about the study here.

I like how Brooks’s column focuses on ways in which higher education can be improved. Brooks should be commended for not succumbing to the temptation to declare that universities are a colossal waste of time and money.  As we all know, there are many such critics. Indeed, some of the university-haters are putting their money where their mouths are and setting up anti-scholarship (i.e., paying bright students who could attend an elite university to go and do something else for four years). Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley tycoon who has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Stanford, is perhaps the most famous of the university haters.

Peter Thiel

I’m glad that Brooks didn’t jump on the university-hating bandwagon. I completely share his belief that university can and should be reformed, not scrapped. It disturbs me that so many people on the political right are university-bashing right now.



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