Is College Worth It? Many Students Still Lack Critical Thinking Skills After Completing Higher Education

Students retrieve their bicycles after leaving a class, at the Main Quad at Stanford University in Stanford, California, May 9, 2014. Beck Diefenbach/Reuters

Is college worth it?

Whether you're a parent with a pen in hand preparing to write yet another hefty tuition check, a student with a headache trying to persuade yourself to get out of bed and go to class or a high schooler with a lot of options deciding what to do after graduation, you've probably asked yourself that question at least once. And an exclusive report out Monday from The Wall Street Journal may help you toward an answer.

Related: What it's Like to Go from War to a Liberal Arts College

The Journal analyzed results from the College Learning Assessment Plus, or CLA+, a critical-thinking test given annually to freshmen and seniors from about 200 U.S. colleges. The test, in part, asks students to use data, articles, blog posts and emails to answer questions and demonstrate skills it says are important for "not only for success in high school and college" but also "for success in the workplace and other aspects of life outside the classroom."

The Journal found that at about half of schools, large groups of seniors scored at basic or below-basic levels. According to a rubric, that means they can generally read documents and communicate to readers but can't make a cohesive argument or interpret evidence.

This was true even at some high-profile colleges. At California State University in Los Angeles, for example, 35 percent of seniors had below-basic skills and 29 percent had basic skills. At the University of Kentucky, 6 percent of seniors were below-basic and 14 percent were basic, according to the Journal's statistics.

"Faced with unlimited information, students must be able to gather, analyze, and evaluate information effectively," the Council for Aid to Education, which developed the test, writes on its website. "These skills are essential to navigating today's world."

As someone who took the CLA, I'm skeptical of student motivation on the test. But still a fascinating analysis using open records requests.

— Robert Kelchen (@rkelchen) June 5, 2017

There are some issues with the CLA+, like the fact that it's voluntary, but Monday's report wasn't the first indicator that completing higher education might not be necessarily making people smarter.

A 2011 book called Academically Adrift: Learning on College Campuses made waves years ago when it used CLA+ data to claim that 36 percent of students didn't show any big improvement in learning after four years of college. A Pew Research Center study from that same year found that 57 percent of Americans thought the higher education system wasn't a good value, and 2016 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the average student spends only 3.5 hours every day on educational activities.

These conclusions and others may draw attention because of the rising cost of college.

The College Board recently estimated the average cost of tuition and fees at a public, four-year college during the 2016-2017 academic year to be $9,650 for in-state students. Private four-year colleges were even more expensive, costing about $33,480 before room and board.

A decade ago, tuition and fees cost about $6,860 at in-state public, four-year colleges and about $26,380 at private, four-year colleges when adjusted for inflation.