A new study following thousands of college students from 2005 through 2009 concludes that students are not learning the basic cognitive skills required for functioning properly in life, namely critical thinking, complex reasoning, and communication skills. The primary assumption that the goal of earning a college degree is obtaining these particular skills is where this study went wrong.
Not everyone agrees that this is the purpose of a college education. While these core cognitive skills are imperative for life outside of college, the trend has been to downplay these qualities. Because of the long-term trend of increasing availability and affordability of a college degree, this level of education is often required, even for jobs that in the past did not require it. The country has moved away from a manufacturing economy to an information economy, and a college degree is what gets you in the door for a typical middle-class career. Even though tuition costs have been exceeding inflation, there are more people attending college now than any time in the history of Western civilization.
When college degrees were for the privileged, the curriculum could focus exclusively on these skills and the liberal arts, but a college education has recently become more focused on practical applications and learning specific, job-related skills — the function of apprenticeship in the past. It’s no surprise that when separated by degree type such as, engineering vs. liberal arts, the engineering students did not gain critical thinking skills but did gain specific skills that would help them in a specific industry, while the liberal arts students did increase their level of cognitive skills.
Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics — showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills. Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the least gains in learning. However, the authors note that their findings don’t preclude the possibility that such students “are developing subject-specific or occupationally relevant skills.”
Much of the blame for the overall cognitive failure of these sampled college students will go to the students themselves. Perhaps they should have applied themselves more or studied more efficiently. The study showed that students who study alone were more likely to gain needed skills than those who study in groups. Much of the blame will also go to the colleges and universities, whose professors often focus on their research rather than instructing and don’t challenge the students enough.
Looking at the bigger picture, we’re doing fine. Today, students learn in elementary school facts about the world that were discovered by people considered the geniuses of their day many centuries ago. In high school, students learn science that was not general knowledge only a few hundred years ago. College students have the opportunity to learn more about the world than the best scientists and philosophers understood only decades ago.
Yet, the college degree is so commonplace now that in the same breath we can both question whether the increasing cost of a college education renders a degree no longer financially worthwhile and state that since the job market for middle-class careers sees the college degree as an entrance barrier, it is more like a high school degree less than once century ago.
The college degree is having an identity crisis. I’m not surprised a study finds that students aren’t learning cognitive skills in the four years they are enrolled.
Published or updated January 18, 2011.