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Higher ed not delivering the results society needs

Students seem to believe that they 'deserve' high grades whether they work hard or not.

My wife, Sally, and I saw the much-acclaimed movie "The Social Network" last week. It was a sobering experience.

Our kids have been out of college for a few years, and we weren't ready for the slice of campus life -- at Harvard no less -- that the movie depicts.

I am sure most of you know the plot line. This is the story of how Harvard sophomore and computer geek Mark Zuckerberg made a billion or so dollars developing Facebook.

The short version of the story is that Zuckerberg did this by stealing the idea from a couple of well-connected jocks, and then throwing himself into the effort with driven, single-minded purpose. He caps off this coup by screwing his best friend and co-founder out of his rightful place in the company.

On the one hand, I suppose this is the classic entrepreneurial tale: Come up with a good idea and pursue it ruthlessly to success. Facebook certainly has been a great success. It is not simply the most extraordinary social network ever developed. It is now credited with tipping the balance in the recent Egyptian revolution, although it has not yet been as successful in Libya.

On the other hand, it is hard to leave the story of Zuckerberg's triumph feeling good about human nature. Even worse, the movie does lots of incidental damage to Harvard and to an understanding of what goes on in the halls of higher education these days.

At least in this depiction, there is little studying and lots of late-night action.

You might say it's only a movie, but now comes a new book on the subject of what students are actually learning in college these days.

The answer is apparently very little. In spite of the staggering costs of higher education, many students manage to graduate without significant improvement in skills related to critical thinking and complex reasoning -- the two building blocks of knowledge and understanding.

The book is titled "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses," by professors Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia. Arum and Roksa's work is based on a study of 2,300 students at a wide range of schools from 2005 to 2009.

The study showed that 45 percent of the students made no significant gains in higher-order reasoning and communication skills in their first two years of college. After four years, 36 percent of the group still demonstrated no substantial improvement. A parent's worst fears may well be true: A significant proportion of college students who complete their undergraduate degree do so with a minimum of effort and application -- and it shows.

The authors suggest that the average amount of time spent studying has dropped by more than 50 percent since the 1960s, to about five hours a week.

Grades, however, have gotten better, not worse, suggesting that many colleges and universities have developed a system where students can avoid difficult courses altogether and patch together a substantially meaningless degree.

Professor Arum was quoted in The New York Times recently as saying: "This is a terrible disservice, not only to those students, but to the larger society. You have to think what this means to a democratic society. This is a portion of the population that you would expect to demonstrate civic leadership in the future."

For someone like me who has been vocal in making the case for the importance of higher education in the 21st century, this is a body blow.

Is much of our investment in higher education being wasted? It seems so, if the Arum and Roksa study is as credible as it appears to be.

The obvious question is how we build more demanding quality back into our higher education system.

Some would suggest that the fault lies in the "entitlement culture" of the current generation of college attendees.

I have been told by professors at some of the better colleges in the East that it is almost impossible to give a grade lower than a B without endless picketing from students who believe that the high prices they and their parents pay mean they deserve at least a B. As strange as this logic sounds, it appears to be effective.

There are ways to improve the quality and rigor of the academic offerings. There must be colleges and universities doing so. Why have we not heard more about these efforts? Where are such schools?

Loss of academic rigor doesn't come overnight, nor can it be fixed overnight. I applaud professors Arum and Roksa for sounding the alarm. Is there anyone in academia listening?