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Cognitive Growth at 2- and 4-Year Colleges Studied

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In terms of cognitive growth, students at two-year colleges get as much out of their freshman-year experiences as their peers at pricier four-year institutions. So says a report published in this month's issue of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.

The study--prepared under the auspices of the National Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning, and Assessment, a federally financed research center at Pennsylvania State University--tracked 2,685 freshman students at 23 colleges and universities in 16 states.

In fall 1992, the researchers paid random samples of first-year students at each of the selected institutions a $25 stipend to take a three-hour battery of tests and complete background questionnaires.

The tests were designed to measure reading comprehension, mathematical ability, and critical-thinking skills.

That spring, after the students had been in college for nearly an entire academic year, the students were paid an additional $35 to take the tests again.

Researchers first adjusted the results to account for differences in the students' educational backgrounds before they entered college.

Then, the researchers compared the test scores for students at the five two-year colleges in the sample with scores for students at four-year institutions that had similar demographic makeups.

Striking Similarities

Regardless of the type of institution, the researchers discovered "general parity" in the adjusted, end-of-year test scores.

"I think most colleges in this country do essentially the same thing for students, with the exception of a small number of elite liberal-arts colleges," said Ernest T. Pascarella, a professor of higher education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the lead researcher for the project. His co-authors in the study were Louise Bohr of Northeastern University, Amaury Nora of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Patrick Terenzini of Pennsylvania State University.

"If you take a look at the research, we're getting more and more evidence that there's parity, and two-year colleges are cheaper and more convenient," Mr. Pascarella added. "For students with limited financial resources, these schools might offer a cost-beneficial way of getting their first year or two of postsecondary education."

Subtle Differences

Mr. Pascarella said the researchers do not know why the two-year colleges, which are generally thought to be less selective, seem to be doing as good a job as more prestigious four-year institutions. He speculated, however, that the two-year colleges may focus more on teaching than do major universities where professors are also expected to conduct and publish research.

However, the overall evenness in the scores masked a few differences as well. The researchers found, for example, that first-year male students seemed to make more cognitive gains at two-year colleges, while the women in the sample excelled more often on a four-year campus.

Nonwhite students also benefited more from two-year colleges. Their white counterparts, on the other hand, did better at four-year institutions.

The researchers cautioned, however, that their findings on gender and race differences are preliminary. And they offered no explanations for why such differences may occur.

The investigators followed the students through their sophomore year and retested them. That data, however, is still under analysis.

The study comes as higher education in general has been coming under increasing scrutiny. Recent reports have pointed out, for example, that few research findings document the effectsof postsecondary learning on students.

What is more, the National Education Goals Panel has called for a national assessment for college and university students, much like the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a Congressionally mandated test given to a sample of students in grades 4, 8, and 12. Due to lack of funding, however, a postsecondary assessment has not been developed.

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