By Ryan Velez
College is supposed to be a bridge between the fundamentals learned in high school and what is needed to be a professional in the workforce. But as college becomes more expensive and recent graduates struggle to find decent work, some are turning the lens to the institutions themselves. A recent Black Enterprise focuses on one researcher’s efforts to see if colleges are really helping their students, particularly with writing.
“Colleges and universities seldom perform such before-and-after comparisons to see how much—or whether—students improve over their college years,” explains James Pomerantz, a professor of psychology and a co-author of the writing skills study. “If you scour the web looking for information about how well students progress while pursuing degrees at America’s colleges, you will be hard-pressed to find a single school that provides this information.”
When Pomerantz found out that students at his school, Rice University, had an overall improvement of 7% in writing skills, Black Enterprise reached out to him for further insight. For one thing, he noticed that the value of these statistics is still in a nascent stage, as the true value of these will come with comparing different schools to each other. On top of this, other important skills have yet to be tested. “We’ve not gotten to quantitative reasoning or critical thinking yet. Our initial goal here was just a proof of concept, that a fundamental skill such as writing ability could be assessed and tracked. It will take some time to develop suitable tests for these other skills,” Pomerantz says.
During the follow-up interview, Pomerantz was also asked whether or not testing students on the knowledge they acquired in college makes sense. This comes on the heels of sensational headlines saying that Americans don’t know basic knowledge like the three branches of government or similar facts. However, Pomerantz doesn’t think there is much value in general knowledge testing in college.
“It’s almost a certainty that college students majoring in, say, electrical engineering know more about that subject when they graduate than when they first enrolled as freshmen. But they may know a lot less about other subjects that they have not studied, where they have become rusty. People often assume that skills must improve over students’ college years because of all they are learning. But as they are learning new things they are forgetting old things. It’s a race between acquisition and loss—it’s like trying to fill a leaky bucket!”