Our Views: Real value in colleges

As parents go through the pangs of their child’s departure for college, and new freshmen wonder if their parents will ever leave the dorm room, life begins at campuses across America. New people and things to do, new loves perhaps for the young; social lives are probably already in swing.

When does the studying start?

Unfortunately, maybe not in time for our stereotypical frosh to graduate in the traditional four years.

The dry discussion of graduation statistics has some pretty startling lessons in it. Only a bit more than half of all U.S. students enrolled in four-year colleges and universities complete their degrees in six years. Six years, the official standard, not four, that most of us in our innocence believe to be a traditional college timeline.

Sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa and their colleagues have published research showing that many students do not advance in a written test of critical thinking — even after the benefit of a college education.

There is much worry about the costs of education, and that’s a legitimate concern. It crosses party lines from Texas Gov. Rick Perry to President Barack Obama, the latter recently hustling around in a bus tour to push for affordable educations.

Yet what is the profit in a lower-cost Ph.D. from Slacker U.?

Blogging for the Harvard Business Review, MIT researcher Andrew McAfee noted that nonelite colleges — not the Harvards, but maybe LSU could be in that rank — have suffered from budget cuts and thus resources per student have gone down.

“It also seems, though, that colleges in general have stopped asking students to work as hard, and the students have been more than happy to take them up on that offer,” McAfee commented. Drawing on the research of Arum and Roksa, he noted that students spend less than 10 percent of their time studying, and the majority on “socializing, recreating and other.”

Speaking of researchers, it does not take Masters and Johnson to figure out what the “other” is.

The same surveys found that only 42 percent of students reported taking a class the previous semester that required them to read at least 40 pages a week, and writing 20 pages total.

Noses to the old grindstone, that’s not.

“Many changes are necessary in higher ed, most of which will take a great deal of time,” McAfee noted, but he had good advice for the entering freshmen of the class of 2017: “Crack the books, find good teachers, and take the education part of your education seriously.”

There is much needed discussion of the academic rigor in America’s high schools. The new research suggests that discussion is needed in higher education as well.