A new study provides disturbing answers to questions about how much students actually learn in college - for many, not much - and has inflamed a debate about the value of an American higher education.
The research of more than 2,300 undergraduates found 45 percent of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years.
One problem is that students just aren't asked to do much, according to findings in a new book, "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses." Half of students did not take a single course requiring 20 pages of writing during their prior semester, and one-third did not take a single course requiring even 40 pages of reading per week.
That kind of light load sounded familiar to University of Missouri freshman Julia Rheinecker, who said her first semester of college largely duplicated the work she completed back home in southern Illinois.
"I'm not going to lie," she said. "Most of what I learned this year I already had in high school. It was almost easier my first semester (in college)."
Three of the five classes she took at Missouri were in massive lecture halls with several hundred students. And Rheinecker said she was required to complete at least 20 pages of writing in only one of those classes.
"I love the environment, don't get me wrong," she said. "I just haven't found myself pushing as much as I expected."
The study, an unusually large-scale effort to track student learning over time, comes as the federal government, reformers and others argue that the U.S. must produce more college graduates to remain competitive globally. But if students aren't learning much that calls into question whether boosting graduation rates will provide that edge.
"It's not the case that giving out more credentials is going to make the U.S. more economically competitive," Richard Arum of New York University, who co-authored the book with Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia, said in an interview. "It requires academic rigor ... You can't just get it through osmosis at these institutions."
The book is based on information from 24 schools, meant to be a representative sample, which provided Collegiate Learning Assessment data on students who took the standardized test in their first semester in fall 2005 and at the end of their sophomore years in spring 2007. The schools took part on the condition that their institutions not be identified.
The Collegiate Learning Assessment has its share of critics who say it doesn't capture learning in specialized majors or isn't a reliable measure of college performance because so many factors are beyond their control.
The research found an average-scoring student in fall 2005 scored seven percentage points higher in spring of 2007 on the assessment. In other words, those who entered college in the 50th percentile would rise to the equivalent of the 57th after their sophomore years.
Among the findings outlined in the book and report, which tracked students through four years of college:
-Overall, the picture doesn't brighten much over four years. After four years, 36 percent of students did not demonstrate significant improvement, compared to 45 percent after two.
-Students who studied alone, read and wrote more, attended more selective schools and majored in traditional arts and sciences majors posted greater learning gains.
-Social engagement generally does not help student performance. Students who spent more time studying with peers showed diminishing growth and students who spent more time in the Greek system had decreased rates of learning, while activities such as working off campus, participating in campus clubs and volunteering did not impact learning.
-Students from families with different levels of parental education enter college with different learning levels but learn at about the same rates while attending college. The racial gap between black and white students going in, however, widens: Black students improve their assessment scores at lower levels than whites.
Arum and Roksa spread the blame, pointing to students who don't study much and seek easy courses and a culture at colleges and universities that values research over good teaching.
Yahya Fahimuddin, a sixth-year computer science student at the University of California, Los Angeles, endorsed the latter finding, saying professors do seem more concerned with research. He said he can't remember the last time he wrote a paper longer than three pages, double-spaced. He feels little connection to his professors and gets the sense that mastering material is not as important as the drudge work of meeting goals and getting through material on schedule.
"Honestly, you can get by with Wikipedia and pass just about anything," he said.
Phil Hampton, a UCLA spokesman, said the university offers a rigorous and well-rounded curriculum led by faculty committed to student learning, and pointed to a study that showed high student satisfaction with their experience.
So what to do? The report warns that federally mandated fixes similar to "No Child Left Behind" in K-12 education would be "counterproductive," in part because researchers are still learning how to measure learning. But it does make clear that accountability should be emphasized more at the institutional level, starting with college presidents.
Some colleges and universities are taking steps. The University of Charleston, in West Virginia, has beefed up writing assignments in disciplines such as nursing and biology to improve learning. President Edwin Welch is among more than 70 college and university presidents pledging to take steps to improve student learning, use evidence to improve instruction and publicize results.
"I think we do need more transparency," Welch said. "I think a student at a private institution who might go into debt for $40,000 or $50,000 has the right to know what he can learn at the institution."
Lindsay McCluskey, president of the United States Student Association, said the findings speak to a larger problem in U.S. higher education: universities being run more like corporations than educational institutions, with students viewed as consumers who come for a degree and move on.
"There is less personal attention in the classroom, fewer tenure-track positions, and more classes are being taught by teaching assistants and in some cases undergraduate students," said McCluskey, a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. "Obviously, that has an impact on our learning and the experience we get in college."