Press Releases | General Education

Professor Alerts 10,000 Trustees to Higher Ed Crisis: Warns Students Aren’t Learning

Arum, ACTA Urge Immediate Trustee Action; Institutions Put Country's Future at Risk
August 2, 2011

WASHINGTON, DC—In a letter to more than 10,000 college and university trustees around the country, NYU professor Richard Arum, co-author of Academically Adrift, has warned that “problems of learning in higher education are real, deepening, and demand urgent attention.”

The mailing coordinated by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an organization dedicated to informed and engaged trustees, outlines what Arum calls a “deeply disturbing set of findings.” He found that the average college student is “learning less, even as tuition costs in many institutions have risen sharply and competition for jobs has increased.”

Arum reports:

  • 45% of our sample showed little or no evidence of improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing after two years.
  • After four years at college, 36% showed no significant growth.

“In simple language,” Arum writes, “these students were allowed to largely squander their educational opportunity and the investments made to support their college enrollment.”

The findings are based on a large study of over 3,000 students drawn from 29 diverse four-year accredited colleges and universities. Large numbers of college students report that they experience only limited academic demands and invest only limited effort in their academic endeavors. The students sampled spent less than one-fifth (16 percent) of their reported time each week on academic pursuits, and over half of their time socializing and engaging in non-academic activities.

“These sobering findings demand immediate trustee attention, and that’s why we are pleased to send Professor Arum’s letter to trustees,” said Anne D. Neal, president of ACTA. “Trustees that ignore these results and refuse to ensure rigorous, excellent curricula are defrauding their students and undermining students’ ability to thrive personally and professionally.”

Dick Leslie, trustee of Sweet Briar College, agreed. “Arum’s letter should wake up trustees of all American colleges and universities, public and private, selective or otherwise,” he said. “Trustees need to focus on student learning first and foremost. Arum has shown us that we haven’t done so.”

Arum’s letter also states:

  • Institutions that fail to set meaningful expectations, a rigorous curriculum and high standards for their students are actively contributing to the degradation of teaching and learning. They are putting these students and our country’s future at risk.
  • Among the full-time students we studied, 12 to 13 hours of preparation was the average amount of time spent per week preparing for class. That is, as best we can estimate, half of the norm of 50 years ago.

Arum’s findings are outlined in a book, coauthored with Professor Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia, and funded by the Lumina Foundation, Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, and Teagle Foundation.

Arum calls on trustees to (1) assess student learning, (2) target areas needing improvement, (3) put students first, (4) review general education requirements, and (5) remember their fiduciary responsibility to the academic health of their institutions. 

Founded in 1995, ACTA is the only non-profit that helps college and university trustees ensure academic excellence and accountability. ACTA publishes What Will They Learn?, a study of college core curricula, which reveals how few schools ensure students have a strong general education.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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