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How Much Are University of Texas Students Learning?

Commentary
Highlights
Members of the UT community must commence a profound self-examination aimed at answering why its performance is lagging and how it might be improved.

Note: This article originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News on Sept. 10, 2012.

When the University of Texas announced its “Framework for Advancing Excellence” at this time last year, many Texans who support our institutions of higher learning, including those of us at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, applauded Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa’s initiative as an impressive first step. The framework establishes timetables to improve graduation rates, student academic advising and online courses. It aims also to keep tuition down, to strengthen faculty reviews, including post-tenure reviews, to increase support for research projects and to improve fundraising.

All of this is admirable. However, March 14, The Washington Post pulled the rug out from under its aspirations. Here’s how:

For the past eight years, the UT System has measured its students’ learning using the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which tests how much students gain from their freshman to senior year in “general collegiate skills” — critical thinking, complex reasoning, computational and writing skills.

UT deserves credit for its pioneering use of the test. However, as revealed in the Post piece, UT-Austin students score in the lowest quartile (23rd percentile) on the Collegiate Learning Assessment when compared with peer institutions. According to information obtained by the Post through a public records request, last year, UT freshmen scored an average of 1261 on the test, which assigns grades on a scale akin to that used by the SAT. UT seniors averaged 1303.

The article rightly noted that “both groups scored very well, but seniors fared little better than freshmen.”The Post then took UT’s scores to Richard Arum, lead author of the 2011 landmark study of student learning titled “Academically Adrift.” Arum’s assessment is sobering: “The [UT] seniors have spent four years there, and the scores have not gone up that much.”

Before critics of UT pounce, it is crucial to note that what the Collegiate Learning Assessment reveals is not simply a UT problem; far from it. It is a national crisis. “Academically Adrift” administered the test to students across the country and found that 36 percent show either “exceedingly small or empirically nonexistent” gains in general collegiate skills after four full years in college.

There is no question more important for those concerned with “advancing excellence” in higher education than that of how much students actually increase in their learning after investing four years in college. Accordingly, while the framework’s focus on increased graduation rates, online learning, sponsored research, increased advising and the like are all important, these probably will have but a marginal impact on the central goal of student learning.

Given what we Texans learned in March, we have little alternative but to call for the reframing of the framework. How? Members of the UT community must commence a profound self-examination aimed at answering why its performance is lagging and how it might be improved.

This effort must include addressing why some academic majors — both at UT and nationally — consistently place at the bottom when it comes to their academic “value-added,” as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment. Can we justify continuing to offer majors that produce little to no increase in students’ abilities to think critically, engage in complex reasoning, compute and write?

These majors need to be revamped if we aim truly to advance excellence in the one area that, more than any others should define every university’s reason for being: educating students.

In so doing, UT would also be in a better position to satisfy a number of the other, lesser but laudable goals established by last year’s framework.

Texas has a history of paving the way for reform in a number of areas. Through improving the quality of the courses and majors that it offers, UT can join this proud tradition of Texas-as-national-trend-setter by serving as a model for colleges and universities across the state as well as the nation.

Around such a “reframed” framework for advancing excellence, all Texans could rally.

Thomas K. Lindsay is the director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a nonprofit, free-market research institute based in Austin. He may be contacted through tlindsay@texaspolicy.com.