New Book Lays Failure to Learn on Colleges' Doorsteps

January 18, 2011

A book released today makes a damning indictment of the American higher-education system: For many students, it says, four years of undergraduate classes make little difference in their ability to synthesize knowledge and put complex ideas on paper.

The stark message from the authors of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press) is that more than a third of American college seniors are no better at crucial types of writing and reasoning tasks than they were in their first semester of college (see excerpt).

The book is already drawing its share of critics, who say the analysis falls short in its assessments of certain teaching and learning methods.

'ACADEMICALLY ADRIFT': Read an Excerpt From the New Book

NEWS ANALYSIS: A Damning Indictment, With Plenty of Critics
CHRONICLE STUDY: At Texas Colleges, Writing Assignments Are Scarce
COMMENTARY: 'Trust Us' Won't Cut It Anymore

"We didn't know what to expect when we began this study," said Richard Arum, a professor of sociology at New York University who is one of the book's two authors. "We didn't walk into this with any axes to grind. But now that we've seen the data, we're very concerned about American higher education and the extent to which undergraduate learning seems to have been neglected."

In the new book, Mr. Arum and his co-author—Josipa Roksa, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia—report on a study that has tracked a nationally representative sample of more than 2,000 students who entered 24 four-year colleges in the fall of 2005. The scholars do not name those 24 institutions, but they say they are geographically and institutionally representative of the full range of American higher education. The sample includes large public flagship institutions, highly selective liberal-arts colleges, and historically black and Hispanic-serving colleges and universities.

Three times in their college careers—in the fall of 2005, the spring of 2007, and the spring of 2009—the students were asked to take the Collegiate Learning Assessment, or CLA, a widely-used essay test that measures reasoning and writing skills. Thirty-six percent of the students saw no statistically significant gains in their CLA scores between their freshman and senior years. (The book itself covers the students only through their sophomore year. The full four-year data are described in a separate report released today by the Social Science Research Council.)

And that is just the beginning of the book's bad news.

The scholars also found that students devote only slightly more than 12 hours per week to studying, on average. That might be in part because their courses simply aren't that demanding: Most students take few courses that demand intensive writing (defined here as 20 or more pages across the semester) or intensive reading (40 or more pages per week). Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa's finding was based on students' self-reports, but a new analysis of Texas syllabi by The Chronicle offers additional evidence of the same point: Business and education majors at public four-year colleges in Texas are typically required to take only a small number of writing-intensive courses.

"What concerns us is not just the levels of student performance," Mr. Arum said, "but that students are reporting that they make such meager investments in studying, and that they have such meager demands placed on them in their courses in terms of reading and writing."

Another finding of the book is that racial and ethnic gaps in CLA scores persist—and even widen, in the case of African-American students—over the course of four years of college. That appears to be partly because African-American students are more likely to attend less-selective colleges with less-intense academic environments, the authors write.

David C. Paris, executive director of the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability, a two-year-old organization of college presidents and provosts, says the book is important.

"It's a reminder that many of our institutions really aren't set up to make undergraduate education a priority," he said. "The organizational systems and structures that we have really aren't set up for 21st-century challenges."

Value of Group Study Questioned

One element of the book that is already drawing criticism is the finding that score gains on the CLA were smaller, all else equal, if the students said they did most of their studying with friends, as opposed to alone. That insight cuts against the grain of the recent trends toward collaborative and experiential learning.

Studying in groups "seems to be difficult for students to pull off in a way that promotes learning, as opposed to being a social occasion," Ms. Roksa said.

"A lot of institutions and actors in higher education have invested a lot in this idea of collaborative education," Mr. Arum said. "These are very well-intentioned folks, and I know that they've been taken aback by what we found."

One such person is George D. Kuh, a professor emeritus of higher education and founding director of the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University at Bloomington.

"For many students, studying alone can be as good as any other strategy," Mr. Kuh said. But for others—especially those with weaker high-school preparations—there is a long train of evidence to support collaborative learning.

Mr. Kuh generally praises the book, but he says that the scholars erred by not using more-detailed questions about students' college experiences. On the question of studying in groups, for example, he believes Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa would have learned more if they had asked students about what went on inside their classrooms as well as outside. As the study stands, it is impossible to know whether the students who reported that they often study in groups were doing so because they had been given group assignments by their professors, or simply because they preferred to study with friends.

Alexander C. McCormick, director of the National Survey of Student Engagement, shares Mr. Kuh's concern. "They really just used two questions," Mr. McCormick said. "How many hours do you study alone, and how many hours do you study with peers. When people say 'I'm studying with peers,' presumably that includes sitting in a room with a bunch of students where the TV is on and there are all kinds of distractions. But presumably there is a subset of students who are actually sitting around a table and really working on the material with other students and striving to understand. By mixing those two very different kinds of activities, I think we run a risk of overinterpreting this finding as an argument against collaborative learning."

Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa concede that their study does not reveal anything directly about the value of collaborative assignments. In theory, they say, such projects could be very effective. But they add that they doubt that many faculty members have been trained to design effective collaborative projects.

"If professors aren't even being trained in traditional pedagogy," Mr. Arum said, "it's a lot to ask them to pull off these more-complex collaborative models."

Mr. McCormick also has a broader concern about the way the book might be received by the public. Even if many students are not acquiring writing and reasoning skills, he says, that does not mean that their college educations have been worthless.

"One way that this could all be misinterpreted," Mr. McCormick said, "is, 'College students aren't learning anything.' But the book really doesn't say anything about the development of subject-matter knowledge in the majors. If you did a similar study and administered subject-area GRE tests to students in their freshman and senior years, I expect that we would see a lot better results."

Mr. Arum is not so sure. "I'll just give you an empirical figure in response," he said. "Thirty-five percent of students report that they spend five or fewer hours per week studying alone. Do we really think that there is going to be a lot subject-specific learning when students are giving so little effort? I actually think that you'd find much the same pattern with subject-specific knowledge."

Cultures of Rigor

Dewayne Matthews, vice president for policy and strategy at the Lumina Foundation for Education, which supported Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa's study, says that the book's findings about racial and ethnic disparities should be taken seriously by university leaders. "These continuing disparities cannot all be explained away by looking at differences in high-school preparation," he said. "We have a responsibility here. Colleges need to look much more carefully at how students learn, and how they can support that learning."

Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa don't see any simple remedies for the problems they have identified. They discovered more variation in CLA-score gains within institutions than across institutions, and they say there are no simple lessons to draw about effective and ineffective colleges.

In the statistical analysis that sums up their book, they identify two significant college-level variables. First, all else equal, students' CLA scores are more likely to improve if they report that faculty members at their college have high expectations. Second, students' scores are more likely to improve if they say they have taken at least one writing-intensive course and at least one reading-intensive course in the previous semester.

It might sound trite, Mr. Arum says, but those observations boil down to the lesson that colleges must find ways to build cultures of academic rigor. He says that task is something that each campus will need to do for itself. It would be a huge mistake, he believes, for the government to impose a new learning-accountability regime from outside.

Donna Heiland, vice president of the Teagle Foundation, which also supported the study, agrees. "Even though this is a book with a lot of sobering news," she said, "I think it also contains some things to be encouraged by. First of all, it's encouraging to see new evidence that college does have an effect"—that is, that writing-intensive and reading-intensive courses actually do improve the CLA scores of students across the ability spectrum.

"It would be depressing to think that students just sorted themselves into colleges based on their SAT scores and life histories, and then essentially marched in place," Ms. Heiland said.

Sustained Difficulties

Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa are continuing to track the students in their study, and they are already at work on a sequel to Academically Adrift.

The students who graduated on time, in 2009, have been rewarded with a miserable recessionary labor market. As of late last year, 35 percent of those recent graduates were living with their parents or other family members, and 9 percent were unemployed. Among those who were working full-time, only 17 percent were earning more than $40,000 a year. (The authors have not yet done analyses to determine how these postgraduate outcomes are correlated with the students' CLA scores or any other element of their college experiences.)

Among the most troubling findings from the postgraduate survey, Mr. Arum says, is that 30 percent of the recent graduates said that they read a newspaper "monthly or never," even online.

"How do you sustain a democratic society," Mr. Arum said, "when large numbers of the most educationally elite sector of your population are not seeing it as a normal part of their everyday experience to keep up with the world around them? We need higher education to take the institutional responsibility for educating people broadly to see this as a basic part of civic life."

That notion of institutional culture, Ms. Heiland says, is the basic lesson that the public should take from the book. "I don't want people to walk away blaming people," she said. "You can say, Oh, the problem is with the students because they don't study enough. The problem is with the faculty because their priorities are elsewhere. There's truth in all that. But for me, what's really powerful about the book is that it talks about the culture of higher education and talks about how the work of one player is related to the work of everyone else. We need to talk about higher education as a system."