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The Carletonian

Measuring the College Experience

< recent column for the New York Times, David Brooks argues that colleges need to be held more accountable for the learning outcomes of their students. He cites a handful of statistics that suggest that student skill-building during college has declined over the past couple of decades. For instance, student motivation drops over the first year of college, according to recent Wabash Study results. A quarter of employers found college graduates to have inadequate writing and thinking skills for their jobs.

Furthermore, students today spend significantly less time studying – in 1961 the average student spent 24 hours a week studying, compared with today’s 12 hours per week.

These trends raise a question: beyond the obvious credential, how much does a college education actually change a student? That is, how different is the graduating senior from the freshman who entered college four years earlier? Or, more simply, does college make you smarter?

Figuring out what a college actually provides for students is long overdue. Sometimes people focus on the outcomes of a university—average income of graduates, number of Ph.D.’s, number of Fulbright scholars, etc. However, in a society that first turns to U.S. News & World Report as an authority on higher education, we often spend more time thinking about “input” factors, such as SAT scores, GPA and selectivity, than the output. The purest measure of a college’s value, however, is the difference between these outputs and inputs—the extent to which the college helps its students grow.

Brooks provides a solution to this distraction away from the more important characteristics of colleges: more value-added assessments (like the Wabash). Tests like these, he argues, can capture how much students grow intellectually during college.

While we agree that we need to reorient our focus toward the growth that happens on the college campus instead of just the characteristics of admitted first-years, Brooks’ simplistic solution is troublesome. How do we measure the value of a four-year college education in a simple test, especially when students enter college with different goals and expectations? After all, high school nowadays is widely seen as an indisputable stepping stone toward matriculation in college. College, on the other hand is a gateway to “the real world”–which, means a wide variety of different things to different people. How would Brooks define universally positive outcomes? For the student who aspires to be a lawyer? The student who wants to teach middle school math? Or the one who wants to work for a non-profit? More specifically and immediately, would Brooks’ proposed test measure qualitative attributes, like the humility, mutual respect and light-heartedness that we bring and develop here at Carleton? Likely not.

Obviously, Brooks is not singling out small liberal arts schools like Carleton in his argument. However, Carleton can still glean some valuable messages from him as we evaluate the school’s values and imagine the school’s future in the ongoing strategic planning process.

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