January 18, 2011 12:33PM

Hollow Ivory

Rumor has it that President Obama, no doubt because it is always a warm and fuzzy subject, will feature education prominently in his upcoming State of the Union address. If so, he will almost certainly stress his goal of having the United States lead the world in the percentage of its citizens with a college degree by 2020.

Unfortunately, doing what feels good often isn’t the same as doing what’s smart.

Today, we get more evidence that simplistic, rhetoric‐​driven education policymaking — more degrees equals more learning equals economic bonanza! — is ultimately counterproductive. It turns out, students generally learn very little in at least their first couple years of college, and many learn little over four years.

According to Inside Higher Ed, that’s the main story of a new book being released today, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. IHE says the book reports that “45 percent of students ‘did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning’ during the first two years of college” and 36 percent “ ‘did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning’ over four years.”

But if students haven’t been nose‐​to‐​the‐​grindstone learning, what have they been doing?

Think of just about every television show or movie you’ve ever seen about college, and you’ll have your answer: They’ve been focusing on havin’ fun, or what Ivory Tower officials euphemistically call “student engagement.” And they’ve been doing it with hundreds-of‐billions of taxpayer dollars annually.

Now, all of this needs be taken with a grain of salt. The measure of learning used in the book was the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a test that according to IHE “is designed to measure gains in critical thinking, analytic reasoning and other ‘higher level’ skills.” Such fuzzy outcomes are notoriously difficult to pin down and aren’t necessarily major areas of concern for pupils studying, say, biology or engineering. It’s also worth noting that results varied significantly both between schools and within schools, so the findings are not at all universally applicable.

That said, the findings are a very troubling addition to the already mammoth heap of evidence that government pushes higher education way too much, not too little. But don’t expect to hear that in next week’s State of the Union. It is decidedly not warm and fuzzy, and that’s all that seems to matter in education policymaking.