I’m pleased to see this question being raised in the national media, but I’m not sure that we have any way of answering the question. Do most Americans care if students learn in higher-education? Or is certification enough, and is flexibility and cost (what the non-profits excel at) more important than quality of learning?But look again at Obama’s criteria for “better”: holding down costs, graduating students and helping them get jobs. There’s no mention of whether the students are actually learning anything.
At most institutions, including my own, we have no idea if they are. Sure, professors assign grades in their courses, and students are asked to evaluate the classes they take and the professors who teach them. But neither measure gives us any real answer to the $200,000 question: What knowledge or skills are students acquiring in exchange for the skyrocketing tuition they pay?
And we now have some alarming national data to suggest the answer: not nearly enough. My New York University colleague Richard Arum and the University of Virginia’s Josipa Roksa recently tracked several thousand undergraduates as they moved through two dozen U.S. universities. They found that almost half of them didn’t significantly improve their reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college. And after four years, subsequent research showed, more than one-third of students still showed no significant gains in these areas.