The Collegiate-Learning Crisis

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As detailed in the landmark national study of collegiate learning, Academically Adrift, there is a nationwide college-student-learning crisis: 36 percent of college students across the country demonstrate little-to-no increase in critical-thinking skills after four years spent in college. The Lone Star State is not immune to this national malady. What will the University of Texas, Austin do about its 23rd percentile ranking in student learning?

It is incumbent upon UT’s Board of Regents and administrators to correct the dismal 23rd percentile ranking of UT on the Collegiate Learning Assessment.  This is a standardized test comparing apples to apples among universities.  It was the Washington Post that broke the story.

This academic improvement will not be easy to achieve.  Derek Bok, president at Harvard for twenty years, tells us why:  He asserts that reform will never come from within the university.  “In theory,” he writes, “presidents and deans are supposed to counteract self-interested behavior to make sure that the legitimate needs of students are properly addressed.  In practice, however, academic leaders often fail to fulfill this responsibility.  Ultimate power over instruction and curriculum rests with the faculty.  While leaders have considerable leverage and influence of their own, they are often reluctant to employ assets for fear of arousing opposition from the faculty that could attract unfavorable publicity, worry potential donors, and even threaten their job.”

He adds, “Presidents and deans are unlikely to challenge the status quo.”  Faculty, at bottom, really do run the place—at all large universities in the country.  It amounts to a national de facto cartel.  They ran the place, for example, at the University of Michigan where I got my Ph. D. and taught for four years.

Bok continues, “What are the prospects for turning colleges into effective learning organizations?  Not good, unfortunately.  The weaknesses of undergraduate education may be real, but they serve important faculty interests.  Like most human beings, professors do not relish having their work evaluated by others.”

But Bok does see a potential way out:  “Finally boards of trustees could give an added boost to reform by making a point of inquiring regularly into efforts by their colleges to become more of a learning institution.”  But don’t hold your breathe:  such board inquiries imply that administrators may not be doing their job in attending to improvements in student learning.  Administrators will be insulted by such questioning inquiries;  hence, trustees will shy away from them.

With an academic ranking at the 23rd percentile, what UT needs are strong regents and administrators who question the easier route of business as usual.  It must always be foremost in mind that students are first, not last, and that student learning is the principal end of the university.

The chief advantage to attending UT is that image itself matters.  It helps a graduate to say, “I attended UT,” just as it similarly helps a graduate who says, “I went to Harvard.”  We do in some measure judge a book by its cover.  My daughter went to Oxford University in England, and you’d better believe that I tell everybody that.

UT does project a good image, but its academic achievement and ranking demonstrably are weak by comparison. Higher academic performance can be achieved:  there are other colleges and universities in Texas that have done so. UT needs to do something about it.


Ron Trowbridge is a Trustee of Lone Star College




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