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What do students actually learn in college?

Michael Siff talks with junior Zachary Doege at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY.

Students discuss Jane Austen in James Horowitz's class. Most classes at Sarah Lawrence College are small seminars with 15 or fewer students.

At Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., about ten students — all women but one — sit at a round table discussing Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey.”

 The 88-year-old college has a reputation for doing things differently. Most classes are small seminars like this one. There are no majors. Students do a lot of independent projects. And grades aren’t as important as the long written evaluations professors give every student at the end of every semester. It’s no surprise, then, that professor James Horowitz is skeptical of any uniform college rating system, like the one being proposed by the Obama administration.

“The goals that we are trying to achieve in instructing our students might be very different from what the University of Chicago or many other schools or a state school or a community college might be striving to achieve,” Horowitz says.

The Obama administration is due out this spring with details of its controversial plan to rate colleges on measures like value and affordability. The idea is that if students can compare schools on cost, graduation rates and even how much money students earn after they graduate — colleges might have to step up their game. Especially if, as proposed, poor performers risk losing access to federal financial aid.

All that, naturally, makes colleges just a bit nervous. Sarah Lawrence is fighting back with its own way of measuring value. The faculty came up with six abilities they think every Sarah Lawrence graduate should have. They include the ability to write and communicate effectively, to think analytically, and to accept and act on critique.

“We don’t believe that there’s like 100 things you should know when you graduate,” says computer science professor Michael Siff, who helped develop the tool. “It’s much more about are you a good learner? Do you know how to enter into a new domain and attack it with an open mind, but also an organized mind?”

Faculty advisors can use the results to track students’ progress over time and help them address any weaknesses. A student who’s struggling with communication could take class with a lot of oral presentations, for example, or make an appointment at the campus writing center.

But Siff says the tool is also about figuring out what the college can do better.

“This tool will allow us to assess ourselves as an institution,” he says. “Are we imparting what we believe to be these critical abilities?”

So how is the school doing? So far there are only data for two semesters, but on every measure seniors do better than juniors. Sophomores do better than freshmen.

Starting next fall, advisors will meet with their students at the beginning of each semester to talk over their progress. In sort of a trial run, Siff goes over the results so far with one of his advisees, junior Zachary Doege.

On a scale from “not yet developed” to “excellent,” he’s mostly at the top end. Doege says he likes seeing his own growth.

“I think the thing I like the most about this is just the fact that I can look back at how I was doing in previous semesters and sort of chart my own progress,” he says. “Not comparing me towards other students—just me to myself.”

That’s a different measure of the value of an education than, say, student loan debt or earnings after graduation — the sorts of things the Obama administration is considering as part of its ratings plan. Students and parents are right to ask if they’re getting their money’s worth, says the college’s president, Karen Lawrence. After financial aid, the average cost of a Sarah Lawrence education is almost $43,000 a year.

“People are worried about cost,” Lawrence says. “We understand that.”

And they’re worried about getting jobs after graduation. But she says the abilities that the new assessment measures—critical thinking and innovation and collaboration—are the same ones employers say they’re looking for.

“We think these are abilities that students are going to need both right after graduation and in the future, and so it could be an interesting model.”

One she hopes other schools will take a look at as they figure out how to answer the national debate about the value of college.


The six "critical abilities" that Sarah Lawrence College identified as skills that every graduate should have:

  • Ability to think analytically about the material.
  • Ability to express ideas effectively through written communication.
  • Ability to exchange ideas effectively through oral communication.
  • Ability to bring innovation to the work.
  • Ability to envisage and carry through a project independently, with appropriate guidance.
  • Ability to accept and act on critique to improve work.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

Students discuss Jane Austen in James Horowitz's class. Most classes at Sarah Lawrence College are small seminars with 15 or fewer students.

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