Interview with the authors of Aspiring Adults Adrift

What do students learn at US colleges? Not much, found Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in Academically Adrift. Their sequel follows the same cohort into adulthood

September 11, 2014

They are told all the time that having a college degree is a ticket to a good life. And college does very little to dissuade them from that

In 2011, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa ruffled a lot of feathers by calling for “institutional reform” within American higher education, on the grounds that it was “characterized by limited or no learning for a large proportion of students”.

They argued in their book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses that, even though students were “earning high marks in their courses with relatively little investment of effort”, there was little resistance to this trend since it suited everyone. “No actors in the system are primarily interested in undergraduate student academic growth…Professors are eager to find time to concentrate on their scholarship and professional interests. Administrators have been asked to focus largely on external institutional rankings and the financial bottom line. Government funding agencies are primarily interested in the development of new scientific knowledge. In short, the system works,” they wrote.

Richard Arum is a professor in the department of sociology (with a joint appointment in the Steinhardt School of Education) at New York University, and senior fellow at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Josipa Roksa is associate professor of sociology and education, and associate director of the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, at the University of Virginia. Academically Adrift – described in one US review as “the most significant book on higher education written in recent years” – drew on the results of more than 2,300 students tested over their first two years of college on an instrument known as the Collegiate Learning Assessment. This measures not specific course knowledge but “the broad competencies…mentioned in college and university mission statements”, namely “critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem solving and writing”. Forty-five per cent of students surveyed did not significantly improve in their writing or critical-thinking skills.

Strictly speaking, Academically Adrift presented evidence only about “the limited or no learning” that occurred during students’ first two years, so it remained theoretically possible that they improved significantly once they started attending smaller, more intensive classes and seminars in the later stages of their course. Arum and Roksa’s follow-up book, Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates, published this month, takes the story further, tracking more than 1,600 of the same students through their senior year at 25 different four-year colleges and universities, and then about 1,000 college graduates from the same sample for two years after their graduation in the spring of 2009. It also incorporates in-depth interviews with a subset of 80 graduates in the summer of 2011. It therefore provides a much fuller picture while also documenting how recent graduates attempted to make the transition to life after college during “a particularly difficult period for the US economy”.

The results are sobering. We now know, says Roksa, that “over the whole four years of college, students don’t improve [on their CLA scores] a great deal and a large proportion of them don’t improve much at all. That was initially surprising…As educators, we obviously hope that what we do within a classroom will improve important skills.”

It became less surprising when Arum and Roksa began to examine the students’ study patterns. “It seems they are not spending much time studying – less than an hour a day. They are not being engaged or asked to read and write a great amount,” Roksa explains.

When students are asked about “engagement”, she goes on, “what they talk about is so minimal that it’s striking. They say they are very academically engaged but describe it in terms such as ‘I went to most of my classes’, ‘I did most of the work’, ‘I turned in my assignments on time’ – that’s what it means to be ‘engaged’ and given good grades…You can get a B for basically turning up to classes and doing the assignment on time.”

“Students appear to be doing stunningly well while doing very little work,” concurs Arum. “It gives them a false sense of what it takes to be successful as adults.”

While neglecting the academic core, in Arum’s view, “both the students and institutions have put such a high focus on social engagement as a key component of higher education that the students have come to believe that it’s those skills and networks that are going to be critically important for their lifelong success”. Yet the evidence from the study indicates that relatively few graduates secure early career jobs through their social networks (although those may prove useful later on in life), and positions found this way tend to be less attractive than those obtained directly through college career services.

CLA scores, on the other hand, notes Arum, are correlated with many early labour market outcomes such as the chance of being employed at all or employed in more satisfying graduate-only work. Those outcomes in turn are associated with “other indicators of successful transitions to adulthood such as financial independence and living away from one’s parents – and so are very important to students’ lifelong success”.

Aspiring Adults Adrift describes a generation of recent graduates who are not very interested in newspapers or current affairs and pretty gloomy about the state of America, yet (even when going nowhere fast) notably optimistic about their own futures.

“The hopes of those without a college degree have declined quite sharply in recent decades,” explains Roksa. “They are much more realistic about their prospects of doing as well as or better than their parents. It’s the college graduates that have become increasingly optimistic and have these grand ideas, even though they are having difficult transitions.

“They are told all the time that having a college degree is a ticket to a good life. And college does very little to dissuade them from that or talk about the variation that happens, and that a degree is not itself enough, you also need to have skills. Colleges don’t seem to be providing students with the tools to realise their high expectations.”

Arum and Roksa inherited their student cohort from an earlier research project and, as it happens, neither of their institutions is represented within it. Nonetheless, they are working within the system that they claim is letting down America’s youth, so how do they try to compensate for such failings in their own teaching?

Feature illustration (11 September 2014)

Roksa believes that she now focuses much more seriously and explicitly than before on “critical thinking”. She is about to teach a small seminar called College Life to a group of students at the start of their first year, where she plans to bring up some of the findings of Aspiring Adults Adrift and “really get students focused on: why I’m here, what I’m doing, what my purpose is, what I hope to accomplish”.

Arum, too, thinks that he has changed his pedagogical approach in the classroom. For example, he has responded to the finding that more than 30 per cent of graduates reported reading newspapers in print or online once a month or never. “I realised that it was important to give students an understanding of why reading a newspaper is a regular part of being a democratic citizen in our society,” he says. His introductory sociology class now invariably incorporates reading and reflecting on a relevant newspaper article alongside the students’ standard course reading.

And what about the “persistent or growing inequalities” Arum and Roksa wrote of in Academically Adrift? Their new book suggests that the notion of “emerging adulthood” as “a time of exploration and discovery may perhaps inadvertently convey the message that the ‘twenty-something’ decade is somewhat inconsequential”. As researchers interested in social stratification and “the effects of inadequacies in higher education”, as Arum puts it, they are very concerned about the class implications of this.

“The privileged youth are able to spend their twenties figuring [things] out,” he concedes, “supported by families and with a safety net in place. Other students, who may be the first in their families to attend higher education, don’t have that luxury. Institutions need to provide better support and preparation for all students so that they can make successful and smoother transitions to adult success, not just in the labour market but in a broad set of domains including democratic citizenship.”

There has been a good deal of debate in recent years, in the US and elsewhere, about whether going to college is “worth it”. Commentators, as Arum and Roksa acknowledge in Aspiring Adults Adrift, have “often explicitly invoked our prior work to question the value of undergraduate education”. Although they claim to have no explanation for this, it is not difficult to see why some of their comments about “decades of grade inflation” and the way that “educators have increasingly ceded their authority to students”, or the slightly sneering comments about universities’ adoption of “a therapeutic ethic” and “a personnel perspective that celebrated self-exploration and social well-being”, might appeal to traditionalists who think that things went wrong in the 1960s and have steadily got worse.

Asked about this, Arum is keen to clarify that he supports “attention to students’ understanding of difference and developing tolerance of different cultural backgrounds” and that “attending to their social and psychological well-being is also obviously a positive thing in itself, but if that becomes the sole or primary focus of life within these institutions, something is amiss”.

As for the value of higher education, Arum is adamant that “even in the US with a high cost of attending college and the large debt load that students amass, it absolutely still pays to go to college. The returns to college are still dramatically high, but we raise a much more important question: are students getting value for the money and the time they are putting in? And there we think the answer is: not particularly…students could be getting much more out of their investment.”

Their new book, agrees Roksa, is “not about college mattering but about what college could really do”.

What they did next: graduates from the class of 2009

In their analysis, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report that, two years out of college, some “53 per cent of the college graduates who were not re-enrolled full-time in school were unemployed, employed part-time or employed in full-time jobs that paid less than $30,000 [£18,000] annually”.

The impact of the skills tested by the Collegiate Learning Assessment was clearly visible here: only 5 per cent of those who had performed well on the CLA were unemployed, compared with 7 per cent for those who had performed less well. For those who had lost a job in the past year by being “fired, laid off or denied a contract renewal”, the figures were even starker, at 5 and 10 per cent respectively.

In terms of living arrangements, 28 per cent of the cohort owned or rented on their own, 16 per cent were renting with a partner or spouse and 29 per cent renting with friends, while 24 per cent were still living with family or relatives. Even those in the first three groups, however, were often not truly independent financially, with 71 per cent of those who had left home (and 83 per cent of those who were still there) saying that they received support from their parents.

Other figures, suggest Arum and Roksa, “raise questions about the role of college in fostering civic awareness and engagement”. More than 30 per cent of their graduates “read newspapers online or in print once a month or never”, and almost 40 per cent “discussed politics and public affairs with family and friends that infrequently”. Only 17 per cent believed that “the country was going in a positive direction”, whereas 51 per cent felt “distinctly negative” about it.

Asked about their own futures, they were markedly more optimistic, with a mere 5 per cent thinking “their lives would be worse than those of their parents” and 30 per cent thinking they would be “equal”, although even that would be “a notable accomplishment, given that many graduates came from relatively advantaged families”.

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