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Measuring what college students actually learn

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Jeremy Hobson: In his speech tonight, President Obama is also expected to announce ideas to make college more affordable. Currently, less than 40 percent of American adults have a college degree. But as the price keeps going up, more people are questioning the value of a degree.

From the Marketplace education desk at WYPR in Baltimore, Amy Scott reports.

Amy Scott: Last year, two sociologists published a book that got a lot of attention on campus. “Academically Adrift” followed a group of college students to find out what they learned. After four years of college, more than a third of them showed no significant improvement on a test of critical thinking and reasoning.

It’s the sort of thing employers have been complaining about for years.

Carol Geary Schneider: Overwhelmingly, employers are telling us we need to do better.

Carol Geary Schneider is president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Schneider: Employers are telling us we’re not doing a good enough job on critical thinking, communication skills, problem-solving skills. That we need to get students out there in the real world actually applying their knowledge to real problems.

Schneider is part of a new effort to measure and improve what college students learn.

Today, a group called the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability is putting out a set of guidelines for schools. They recommend colleges set goals for what students should know when they graduate, and then measure and report the results. David Paris is executive director of the alliance.

David Paris: We can produce more degrees, but those degrees won’t be meaningful. They won’t serve the students and they won’t serve our society unless they really represent a high level of achievement.

He says schools could use a number of measures: standardized tests like the Collegiate Learning Assessment, retention and graduation rates, as well as portfolios of student work.

Jack Rossman is professor emeritus of psychology at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. He says in the past, faculty have resisted efforts to standardize student learning. He says the key is to get them on board early.

Jack Rossman: Those colleges and universities that have had good success in developing reasonable measures of student learning have had faculty engaged in the process.

Professors may have little choice. The alliance behind the new guidelines says groups representing more than 3,000 colleges and universities have signed on.

I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.

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