Laid-Back Higher Ed

Students Relaxing on Lawn

More often than is warranted, Washington embraces consensus positions based on the view “we all know this to be true.” One of these is “well, while K-12 education is a mess, we all know that American higher education is the best.” There is increasing evidence the last half of this consensus view is not true.

The latest evidence of this is an article in today’s Washington Post that relies on data from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) showing today’s college students spend about 40 percent less time studying than they did a half century ago. While everyone focuses on getting 6 years olds to spend every waking moment doing homework and giving up summer vacations so they can go to school (a great idea if we want to rob children of childhood), we are going in the opposite direction when it comes to college.

As I wrote in a blog on Huffington Post, “The Failure of American Higher Education,” American higher education is no longer adequately educating students – not just on STEM as we have written about, but on the broad capabilities of being able to think, write, and engage in reasoned logic. Strikingly, among recent graduates of four-year colleges, just 34, 38 and 40 percent were proficient in prose, document, and quantitative literacy, respectively. Just to be clear, these are among 24 year olds who have graduated from college. The bar, by the way, is not all that high. The questions are actually pretty easy.

What was especially interesting about the article is they had to ask area colleges to report the survey results from the NSSE on time spent on homework. This data is not necessarily public. The NSSE is designed to obtain, on an annual basis, information from more than 1,300 colleges about student participation in programs and activities that those institutions offer for learning and personal development. Unfortunately, few colleges and universities report their institution’s scores. There’s an easy and needed fix for this.

Congress should require as a “check off” criterion in the certifications and representations section of any grant proposal that provides student support, universities should have to assert that they have publicly posted their NSSE results. In other words, if a college wants to receive federal funding or have its students receive federal funding, it should make this data public. With this kind of transparency, perhaps there will be enough of a groundswell or public pressure to force colleges to pressure students to put in more time studying so they can come out of colleges better able to think, write, and do math and logic.


Photo credit: Flickr User Nick in exsilio

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About the author

Dr. Robert D. Atkinson is one of the country’s foremost thinkers on innovation economics. With has an extensive background in technology policy, he has conducted ground-breaking research projects on technology and innovation, is a valued adviser to state and national policy makers, and a popular speaker on innovation policy nationally and internationally. He is the author of "Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage" (Yale, forthcoming) and "The Past and Future of America’s Economy: Long Waves of Innovation That Power Cycles of Growth" (Edward Elgar, 2005). Before coming to ITIF, Atkinson was Vice President of the Progressive Policy Institute and Director of PPI’s Technology & New Economy Project. Ars Technica listed Atkinson as one of 2009’s Tech Policy People to Watch. He has testified before a number of committees in Congress and has appeared in various media outlets including CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, NPR, and NBC Nightly News. He received his Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1989.