New Study To Examine Inequality in Higher Education Learning

The Spencer Foundation awarded $236,850 to a team led by University of Virginia sociologist Josipa Roksa to study how college students' educational experiences contribute to inequality in academic skills and attitudes between those of different racial/ethnic and socioeconomic groups.

The study hopes to identify factors that promote greater learning and reduced inequality, Roksa said.

The study will focus in particular on students' exposure to "high-impact educational practices" like undergraduate research experience, challenging classes and high faculty expectations, explained Roksa, an associate professor of sociology and education, with dual appointments in the College of Arts & Sciences and the Curry School of Education.

Some research indicates that the cognitive benefits of exposure to high-impact  educational practices may not accrue equally to all students, Roksa said. For example, students who enter college with lower academic skills benefit more from working closely with a faculty member than their higher-ability peers.

The study will also consider how the benefits of high-impact educational practices may vary across institutions.

Inequality is a pervasive feature of higher education, said Roksa, who serves as associate director of the Curry School's Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. For instance, among a recent cohort of high school students, white students were twice as likely to complete a bachelor’s degree or higher as black students and almost three times as likely as Hispanic students.

While ample research has documented inequalities in college access and degree completion between students from different backgrounds, there has been very little research into inequalities in crucial learning outcomes, Roksa said.

One reason for that dearth of research is the lack of nationally representative datasets that include measures of learning in higher education, she said.

Relatively high-quality data sets for higher education are just starting to appear, and the new study will use "the best data set available today," Roksa said: the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education, which tracked college freshmen entering four-year institutions in the falls of 2006, 2007 and 2008.

The students were surveyed shortly after admission, at the end of their second year and at the end of their fourth year. The 2008 cohort was the largest, with more than 3,000 students, whose final surveys were completed this spring. In total, the sample will include approximately 6,000 students who attended 44 diverse four-year institutions, from highly selective small liberal arts colleges, to large public state universities, to less selective schools, both public and private.

The survey includes socioeconomic and family background information, an objective measure of critical thinking and a series of questions regarding students' academic attitudes and experiences, including their experiences with "high-impact educational practices."

By examining changes over the four years, the study aims to tease out the most important contributing factors.

For her 2011 book, "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses," Roksa and co-author Richard Arum, a professor of sociology at New York University, drew on the Collegiate Learning Assessment – a voluntary, 90-minute, essay-type test that includes real-world problem-solving tasks, such as determining the cause of an airplane crash.

They reported notable gaps in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing between students from different socioeconomic and racial/ethnic backgrounds. But the underlying data set was significantly less rich than the Wabash sample to be used in the new study, Roksa said.

"We observed those achievement gaps in the earlier data," Roksa said. "With the Wabash data, we are eager to explore the factors producing those gaps."

"As large and growing proportions of disadvantaged groups of students enter higher education, and as national attention shifts increasingly toward asking what students are learning during college – not just whether they are graduating – understanding inequality in academic skills and attitudes is becoming of utmost importance and urgency."

Moreover, examining variation in students' academic skills and attitudes is relevant for understanding inequalities in society more broadly, Roksa said. For instance, recent studies of employers have highlighted a need for developing students' critical thinking skills and attitudes conducive to life-long learning.

For the two-year project, Roksa is teaming with Charles Blaich, director of the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College, who led the Wabash Study; and Ernest Pascarella, director of the University of Iowa's Center for Research on Undergraduate Education.

– by Brevy Cannon