I Wish My Private College Experience Had Been More Like My Public High School Experience

The Study

There are some pretty damning statistics to the American college system coming from lead author Richard Arum’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses that tracked several thousand college students in 24 colleges and universities and tested how much they improve in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication skills over their college careers.

45% of students made no improvements after 2 years, 36% showed no improvement throughout their entire college careers, and a majority showed only modest improvements. Sheesh, chalk one up for systemic failure.

The following is one horrifying statistic (to nerds like me):

Combining the hours spent studying and in class, students devoted less than a fifth of their time each week to academic pursuits. By contrast, students spent 51 percent of their time — or 85 hours a week — socializing or in extracurricular activities. McClatchy via Wonkette

Beer pong and flirting over analyzing European revolutions! Insanity! As an adult, I wonder, then why did these kids pay all that money? I must be getting old.

These other quotes on the study by an Inside Higher Ed article on the subject are pretty accurate.

  • Students who study by themselves for more hours each week gain more knowledge — while those who spend more time studying in peer groups see diminishing gains.
  • Students whose classes reflect high expectations (more than 40 pages of reading a week and more than 20 pages of writing a semester) gained more than other students.
  • Students who spend more time in fraternities and sororities show smaller gains than other students.
  • Students who engage in off-campus or extracurricular activities (including clubs and volunteer opportunities) have no notable gains or losses in learning.
  • Students majoring in liberal arts fields see “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.” Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the smallest gains. (The authors note that this could be more a reflection of more-demanding reading and writing assignments, on average, in the liberal arts courses than of the substance of the material.)…

…The culture of college needs to evolve, particularly with regard to “perverse institutional incentives” that reward colleges for enrolling and retaining students rather than for educating them. “It’s a problem when higher education is driven by a student client model and institutions are chasing after bodies,” he said. Inside Higher Ed

Personal Experience

I’ll use my personal experience as anecdotal evidence. I spent four years of high school extremely involved in academics compared to college. My high school schedule for 4 years went like this:

Monday – Friday: 6 AM wake up, school from 7:30 am to 3 pm of 5 AP or Honors classes with music, lunch, and gym, sport or extracurricular until 5 PM. Homework from 6 pm to 10:30 pm – 11 pm. Repeat.

Weekends: Saturday was sports practice/event with 6 or so hours of hanging out with friends. Sunday was an average of 4 hours homework/writing papers. The average was when I didn’t have a paper or important lab to write up. Sometimes, it could be my entire weekend was spent on papers and studying for exams.

So that’s about an average of 11 hours of academics a day with 5 hours on the weekends, so roughly 50 hours a week with 18 hours of extracurricular hours/socializing. For high school me, I spent 30% of my total weekly hours (at a minimum) working on academics, which is more than most of the sample population of college students.

I had this schedule because it was expected of me. There was that much work to do with the academics I had signed up for. Sure, I didn’t have to be involved with sports or music, but I enjoyed those things and they had value in themselves. I was going to do them anyway, and I still do. It also helped that my family provided a support environment for a high level of activity.

Juxtapose that to my college experience, it was much less academic focused. I’d go to classes, put in about 2-3 hours of reading a day for a total of about 5 hours a day of academics. I spent just as much time at my rowing club and my internship a day as I did academics. I did this because college was less regimented, and also easier. It was more reading and writing and thinking without review of my individual progress (unlike high school), without being challenged by my professors with less demanding courses. I could come into a college class, read the material, write the answer the teacher wanted, and leave with an A. I came out with two degrees (political science and international relations) and a minor, but found I could use what I learned in one class and bring it over to another. This minimized the work I had to do and also the processes I had to learn to do well, but amplified the strength of my resume.

As an upper level college student, I (thought I) knew that focusing on academics any more than I was (I had a 3.8 GPA) was not really going to help me that much. Instead, I spent a lot of my time at a paid internship, doing an extracurricular, hanging out with friends, and learning a language/studying abroad. So I think this statement can be applied to me and others like me for why we did not fully engage in academics.

“If you don’t have a good resume,” Walker said, “the fact that you can say, ‘I wrote this really good paper that helped my critical thinking’ is going to be irrelevant.”

Except later when it came time to find a job, my employer was impressed with the strength of my thesis paper, and hired me in part because of it, which makes the attitude I had in college and the attitude of this interviewee all the more distressing to me now.

What I’d Do Differently If the System Had Given Me the Chance

Upon reflection, my college (and I’m applying this to others wantonly) had the opinion that college students were adults that had to make their own choices and set their own schedules. I do not agree. A college 18 year old is no different than a high school 17 year old, and my 18 year old mind was not exactly developed to self-sustain a rigorous work schedule without support and a clear challenge from teachers to do so.

I spent some of my first year in college practicing academics much like I did in high school. I studying intensely, alone, for hours. I got perfect grades easily and made it into the Honors program easily. Then I got bored and learned I could slack off and still do very, very well because college did not support your individual progress or push you if you started to slack off. To professors, I was here one semester and gone another. I also thought that this academic culture I had was not going to get me an internship or show I had the diverse skills I thought employers were looking for.

I wish my professors had challenged me, and I had had more time with them. I wish I had had to get up at 6 am and work until 11 pm to finish all of my work. I wish I had gotten 8 solid years of the critical thinking and academic growth I received in high school instead of 4 solid years, but my college experience just wasn’t structured enough to keep an immature 18 year old interested through his own means, and my college didn’t expect me to do so. There were girls and alcohol and new sports and new places to be, but those things would have come anyway. I got distracted, and I don’t think exploring those things instead of focusing on academics made me a better person. I wish someone or something had forced me to stay focused on academics.

I wish college had been more like high school. If I could see colleges adopt just one practice from high school it would this:

Get rid of the semester system and make teachers spend a year with their students in more classes for longer time. As reinforcement, tie students’ progress in critical thinking skills to teacher evaluations. I had just one teacher for two semesters, and I learned a lot more and worked harder because we built a relationship. To me, it’s hard to make progress, never mind analyze that progress, in four months. In the semester system, classes just become places where you’re tested if you learned the key principles and memorized the material in a 3 month time frame. There wasn’t much about building my critical thinking and analysis skills that I remember, and there wasn’t really the time to do so. We met twice a week for an hour and fifteen minutes. That is not enough.

Also, since most families and individuals have to pay for their college experience, is it a smart investment to leave the decision making to an immature, hormonal teenager? Maybe the American higher education system should be more like a boarding school.


I went to a very good, highly ranked college, with smart kids and distinguished professors. I don’t think it is the individual institution that is the problem, but I can’t know for sure.

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