• August 31, 2015

Are Undergraduates Actually Learning Anything?

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Drawing on survey responses, transcript data, and results from the Collegiate Learning Assessment (a standardized test taken by students in their first semester and at the end of their second year), Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa concluded that a significant percentage of undergraduates are failing to develop the broad-based skills and knowledge they should be expected to master. Here is an excerpt from Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press), their new book based on those findings.

 "With regard to the quality of research, we tend to evaluate faculty the way the Michelin guide evaluates restaurants," Lee Shulman, former president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, recently noted. "We ask, 'How high is the quality of this cuisine relative to the genre of food? How excellent is it?' With regard to teaching, the evaluation is done more in the style of the Board of Health. The question is, 'Is it safe to eat here?'" Our research suggests that for many students currently enrolled in higher education, the answer is: not particularly. Growing numbers of students are sent to college at increasingly higher costs, but for a large proportion of them the gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication are either exceedingly small or empirically nonexistent. At least 45 percent of students in our sample did not demonstrate any statistically significant improvement in Collegiate Learning Assessment [CLA] performance during the first two years of college. [Further study has indicated that 36 percent of students did not show any significant improvement over four years.] While these students may have developed subject-specific skills that were not tested for by the CLA, in terms of general analytical competencies assessed, large numbers of U.S. college students can be accurately described as academically adrift. They might graduate, but they are failing to develop the higher-order cognitive skills that it is widely assumed college students should master. These findings are sobering and should be a cause for concern.

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

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COMMENTARY: 'Trust Us' Won't Cut It Anymore

While higher education is expected to accomplish many tasks—and contemporary colleges and universities have indeed contributed to society in ways as diverse as producing pharmaceutical patents as well as prime-time athletic games—existing organizational cultures and practices too often do not put a high priority on undergraduate learning. Faculty and administrators, working to meet multiple and at times competing demands, too rarely focus on either improving instruction or demonstrating gains in student learning.

More troubling still, the limited learning we have observed in terms of the absence of growth in CLA performance is largely consistent with the accounts of many students, who report that they spend increasing numbers of hours on nonacademic activities, including working, rather than on studying. They enroll in courses that do not require substantial reading or writing assignments; they interact with their professors outside of classrooms rarely, if ever; and they define and understand their college experiences as being focused more on social than on academic development.

Moreover, we find that learning in higher education is characterized by persistent and/or growing inequality. There are significant differences in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills when comparing groups of students from different family backgrounds and racial/ethnic groups. More important, not only do students enter college with unequal demonstrated abilities, but those inequalities tend to persist—or, in the case of African-American students relative to white students, increase—while they are enrolled in higher education.

Despite the low average levels of learning and persistent inequality, we have also observed notable variation in student experiences and outcomes, both across and within institutions. While the average level of performance indicates that students in general are embedded in higher-education institutions where only very modest academic demands are placed on them, exceptional students, who have demonstrated impressive growth over time on CLA performance, exist in all the settings we examined. In addition, students attending certain high-performing institutions had more-beneficial college experiences in terms of experiencing rigorous reading/writing requirements and spending more hours studying. Students attending these institutions demonstrated significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than did students enrolled elsewhere.

The Implications of Limited Learning

Notwithstanding the variation and the positive experiences in certain contexts, the prevalence of limited learning on today's college campuses is troubling indeed. While the historian Helen Horowitz's work reminds us that the phenomenon of limited learning in higher education has a long and venerable tradition in this country—in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, "college discipline conflicted with the genteel upbringing of the elite sons of Southern gentry and Northern merchants"—this outcome today occurs in a fundamentally different context. Contemporary college graduates generally do not leave school with the assumption that they will ultimately inherit the plantations or businesses of their fathers. Occupational destinations in modern economies are increasingly dependent on an individual's academic achievements. The attainment of long-term occupational success in the economy requires not only academic credentials, but very likely also academic skills. As report after blue-ribbon report has reminded us, today's jobs require "knowledge, learning, information, and skilled intelligence." These are cognitive abilities that, unlike Herrnstein and Murray's immutable IQ construct, can be learned and developed at school.

Something else has also changed. After World War II, the United States dramatically expanded its higher-education system and led the world for decades, often by a wide margin, in the percentage of young people it graduated from college. Over the past two decades, while the U.S. higher-education system has grown only marginally, the rest of the world has not been standing still. As Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, has observed: "In the 1990s, however, as the importance of a college-educated work force in a global economy became clear, other nations began making the kinds of dramatic gains that had characterized American higher education earlier. In contrast, by the early 1990s, the progress the United States had made in increasing college participation had come to a virtual halt. For most of the 1990s, the United States ranked last among 14 nations in raising college-participation rates, with almost no increase during the decade."

For the first time in recent history, many countries today graduate higher percentages of their youth from college than does the United States. While the United States still ranks second among Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in terms of adult workers' bachelor-level-degree attainment, it has dropped to sixth when higher-education attainment of only the most recent cohort of young adults is considered. "We may still have more than our share of the world's best universities. But a lot of other countries have followed our lead, and they are now educating more of their citizens to more advanced levels than we are," the recent federal report "A Test of Leadership" observed. "Worse, they are passing us by at a time when education is more important to our collective prosperity than ever."

The U.S. higher-education system has in recent years arguably been living off its reputation as being the best in the world. The findings in our study, however, should remind us that the system's international reputation—largely derived from graduate programs at a handful of elite public and private universities—serves as no guarantee that undergraduate students are being appropriately challenged or exposed to educational experiences that will lead to academic growth throughout the wide range of diverse U.S. colleges and universities. While the U.S. higher-education system still enjoys the competitive advantage of a sterling international reputation, in recent decades it has been increasingly surpassed in terms of quantity (i.e., the percentage of young adults it graduates), and its quality is coming under increasing scrutiny. The U.S. government's recent decision to participate in international efforts led by the OECD to measure higher-education academic performance on a comparative basis cross-nationally, following the less-than-stellar comparative results observed in international comparisons of adult literacy, provides little reassurance that the system's reputation will not become increasingly challenged and debated. In an increasingly globalized and competitive world system, the quality and quantity of outcomes of a country's education system is arguably related to a nation's future trajectory and international economic position.

The changing economic and global context facing contemporary college graduates convinces us that the limited learning that exists on U.S. campuses—even if it has been a part of the higher-education landscape since the system's inception—qualifies today as a significant social problem and should be the subject of concern of policy makers, practitioners, parents, and citizens alike. While the phenomenon can accurately be described as a social problem, the situation that exists on today's college campuses in no way qualifies as a crisis, and we have consciously avoided the use of rhetoric here that would point to "a crisis in higher education."

Limited learning in the U.S. higher-education system cannot be defined as a crisis, because institutional and system-level organizational survival is not being threatened in any significant way. Parents—although somewhat disgruntled about increasing costs—want colleges to provide a safe environment where their children can mature, gain independence, and attain a credential that will help them be successful as adults. Students in general seek to enjoy the benefits of a full collegiate experience that is focused as much on social life as on academic pursuits, while earning high marks in their courses with relatively little investment of effort. 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. No actors in the system are primarily interested in undergraduates' academic growth, although many are interested in student retention and persistence. Limited learning on college campuses is not a crisis, because the institutional actors implicated in the system are receiving the organizational outcomes that they seek, and therefore neither the institutions themselves nor the system as a whole is in any way challenged or threatened.

Richard Arum is a professor of sociology and education at New York University and director of the Education Research Program of the Social Science Research Council. Josipa Roksa is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. Their book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, is being published this month by the University of Chicago Press.


1. tuxthepenguin - January 18, 2011 at 06:16 am

Since they are the customers, students are the only ones who have a right to evaluate what goes on in the classroom. If students want to learn, they'll take that into account when they fill in the bubbles on the course evaluation form.

Did it ever occur to the authors that maybe the students are not paying for 'learning'? Maybe the students are paying for attention from the instructor. Maybe the students are paying for entertainment. Who knows, but as long as they're happy, there's no reason to be concerned.

2. geneseo - January 18, 2011 at 07:04 am

45% did not show any "learning" between freshman and sophmore years. But 64% showed learning between freshman and senior years. Seems like something positive is going on during the entire college experience, no? Measuring classroom learning in just the first two years of the college experience, years that are full of learning how to be self-sufficient, learning how to live with others, and learning how to manage time, seems a weak measure on which to base a study such as this.

3. fsweitz3 - January 18, 2011 at 07:12 am

First of all, students (or their parents) may be paying a portion of the cost of their education but the customer metaphor breaks down. There are multiple "customer" in higher education, as anyone who tries to apply a business model to the endeavor quickly discovers. One of those "customers" is society. if higher education is to be a public good, accessible to all, rather than a private benefit and rite of passage for the elite, then it has an obligation to the socity that supports it to educate students with the intellectual skills to become productive members of society and engaged citizens. That goal is simply not reached by requiring only depth of knowledge in a subject area (nevermind that most of that knowledge will be gone in a few months).

Second, while the situation described by the authors is lamentable, I have to wonder how new it is. Imperfect though tools like CLA and NSSE may be, they are serious attempts to assess the college experience in a more in-depth manner. To my knowledge, we have to data from the "good old days" to compare these results to.

Finally, if we are serious about wanting all students to achieve some level of written and oral communication skill, critical thinking, information literacy, and whatever else is on our list, then these abilities cannot be relegated to the genreal education curriculum and then ignored in the majors or the professional portions of the curriculum. That, in turn, means that faculty members who have been trained in those professions and disciplines will need to be supported in and rewarded for learning how to infuse these core skills across the curriculum.

4. bdbailey - January 18, 2011 at 07:31 am

#1, Students, as customers may have a "right" to evaluate faculty, but that does not in any way mean they are qualified to do so. End of course faculty ratings are probably the worst way to measure teaching peformance.

#2 Yes, there are a lot of competing demands, particularly in the first two years. However, you seem to argue that a result showing 64% learned something indicates success.

I appreciate that the authors want to avoid the language of crisis, lest they be accused of hyperbole. I think they go to far. Arguing that this disfunctional system "works", ignores the spector of foreign competition. Resting on our reputation, and ignoring the efforts of institutions abroad suggests that higher education is following the path of the American auto industry.

5. jacobi1804 - January 18, 2011 at 07:36 am

@tuxthepenguin: I have to disagree on almost everything you said.

(1) Students are not customers since education is not a product of the college alone, the student's participation is required.

(2) Students are not usually paying for their education alone, their families are paying, and they're often paying enough to buy several luxury cars or a small house. So it's not a discretionary transaction.

(3) Even if students are considered consumers, in no other industry would consumer satisfaction be considered the sole arbiter of quality. Management and government have a role. Otherwise McDonald's would still be doing their french fries in beef tallow and cars would still get only 18 miles to the gallon.

(4) if students are only expecting attention or entertainment out of college, then they are being ripped off on a grand scale. Higher education is only valuable in real terms as an investment in future employment opportunities, and I would bet most students would report that as a major reason they are in college. They just want this goal to be achieved as painlessly as possible.

6. jcisneros - January 18, 2011 at 07:39 am

To be candid #1, your assessment is expedient at best.

Universities are beholden to more than one consumer of their product. If the universities turn out substandard students with bachelor degrees, then the pressure is (again) shifted upward to graduate programs to teach critical thinking, writing and analysis. Since graduate programs are not designed for these tasks (they actually expect grad students will be functional as junior faculty and research associates) they simply kick these folks to the curb.

I am sure those parents will take some small measure of comfort with your analysis when they discover that their kids really only learned how to party at university, and learned no skills that will contribute to their future status as successful, functioning adults.


7. mbelvadi - January 18, 2011 at 07:53 am

Thank you for this excellent summary. I may even take the time to read your book. I feel though that your last paragraph leaves out a critical "actor", the taxpayers who are subsidizing the whole thing. They surely are not getting what they paid for. Even private schools are heavily subsidized with taxpayer dollars in the form of tax breaks and federal financial aid dollars that poorer students bring. As a taxpayer, what I expect to get for my money is to find myself within a society of people who can think clearly, understand important issues that are at stake especially in elections, and make wise choices in their employment that would cause private and public services to operate more effectively and efficiently for ME as a citizen. That's what I pay for, but was not getting it. I finally gave up. I left the US for Canada. Canada has some of its own problems, but I am constantly amazed how much more intelligently the society and its services around me seem to run. Public policy discourse is more thoughtful, and basic services just work better. I'd be interested in hearing whether those with experiences living in the US and another well-developed place, like Japan or western Europe, also see a qualitative difference in the efficiency of the overall daily society around them in those countries and whether you see any connection between the educational system there and that outcome.

8. amnirov - January 18, 2011 at 07:57 am

People who use the terms "critical thinking" or "complex reasoning" seem to be wholly unaware of "thinking" and "reasoning". Honestly, when people say "critical thinking" all I want to do is beat them with an unabridged dictionary.

9. corwinamber - January 18, 2011 at 07:58 am

All of this assumes that all students are actually capable of benefitting from college in the manner for which it is "intended" by educators, politicians and parents. Students are like everyone else -- they try to get by as easily as they can, and not all take their "jobs" (in this case, being students) seriously. The range of results of higher education should not be expected to be any better than the range of results from parenting or life itself. We do what we can, and cannot predict how it will all turn out. The whole assessment to evaluate teaching model is just another boondoggle and one that is done by those trying to make sense of their "jobs" as professionals in trying to do the impossible--- "assess" the unassessable.

10. jencooper08 - January 18, 2011 at 08:13 am

The problem is, most public and community colleges have admissions requirements at a certain level and need to make up for high schools across the country that do not prepare students for college level work. There is a lot of effort that goes into bringing a student up to a level where they are prepared to confront critical thinking, intensive writing classes, etc. The ground that needs to be made up at most colleges and universities makes this delayed learning completely understandable.

11. bdbailey - January 18, 2011 at 08:24 am

#10, One point of the article is that high school students are unprepared; possibly because students who study education recieve very little gain in college. If the teachers have not gained the ability to think critically, how can we expect them to prepare their students.

12. rsamuels - January 18, 2011 at 08:40 am

My experience is that professors often have no incentive to motivate student learning and non-tenured faculty are often controlled by student evaluations, so they try to please the students or teach in a defensive manner. Since there is little real quality control in higher ed, administrators can pour money into pet projects and star faculty and staff and no one complains. I have asked my students if they had the choice between learning nothing and the school rankings going up or learning a lot, but the rankings go down, and half would prefer to learn nothing because they all want to go to med school or law school. It is clear that the more students pay, the less they get in return. We need to find some way to force schools to care about learning and teaching.

13. rjsax - January 18, 2011 at 09:23 am

@tuxthepenguin - as others have stated, society is the customer; students are a lot like the football players on the field or the members of the band on-stage performing. The spectators (public) are the customers. Almost no matter what students pay to attend, more is spent for/on them by the public (fed. & state) and/or by donors than any student has to pay out. In a figurative sense, the quality of our "football" and "band" programs is declining, and the public has a right to ask if the tickets cost too much....

14. mdassistantprof - January 18, 2011 at 10:03 am

The validity of the CLA scores, including the value-added scores produced for it have been subject to scrutiny and have not been considered sound. This test continues to receive far too much weight in thinking about student learning. Test users (e.g., universities, policy makers) need to carefully examine independent research on the quality of the claims made about this test.

15. swish - January 18, 2011 at 10:14 am

Or (to tux again) if the students are customers, they are customers akin to gym members. They are free not to show up, ignore trainers' advice, or spend all day in the hot tub instead of working out on the equipment.

As a society, we cast blame in many directions when it comes to our "epidemic" of obesity, but I've never, ever heard of anyone blaming private gyms (for failing to produce results among their members). So why are colleges so often blamed for the perceived lack of academic achievement among our young adults?

16. dcbetty - January 18, 2011 at 10:49 am

I agree that a huge part of the problem is the education students get before they enter college. Too many students are expected to write seriously for the first time at age 18 or 19 when they should have been doing this since the 8th grade. I worked with community college students in NYC who had graduated with As and Bs from public high schools. These kids were shocked and bewildered by what was expected of them even in an open-enrollment community college, and they were pretty much totally unprepared for the work. The problem goes back to elementary school -- there's no reason why some sort of critical thinking can't be taught and expected of kids by the 5th or 6th grade.

Let's take all the out-of-work English and composition PhDs and pay them at least $70K to work in middle and high schools (a salary that is probably 4-5 times what they make as adjuncts) and really teach these kids how to write. (Of course, the PhDs that are bogged down in Theory will be useless here, but maybe they can keep adjuncting.)

Getting all the out-of-work journalists out there into high schools to teach would also be a great investment -- and would probably have as good or better results than the PhDs when it comes to teaching clear writing and thinking skills. (You could start with teaching kids how to dissect advertising messages, which is pretty much the only sort of rhetoric most American kids are regularly exposed to.)

No, everyone can't be Socrates, but I do think we can expect a lot more of teenagers then we do now. Amd even a small increase in critical thinking skills would be a great help to our society.

17. demery1 - January 18, 2011 at 10:51 am

The CLA is a bunk measure for writing. How about longitudinal analysis of actual student writing from actual courses?

18. bowl_haircut - January 18, 2011 at 11:02 am

Around 70% of all college courses are now taught by people who make about what an experienced, full-time fry cook brings home from McDonald's. Higher education is all f*$%#-ed up, but we can't even begin to address educational quality issues until we kick our addiction to cheap, wage-slave labor.

Administrators: I'd love to hear your thoughts.

19. afprj - January 18, 2011 at 11:36 am

Kudos to the authors for tackling this.

If students are learning less in schools and colleges are spending the first two years doing remedial work would that not be consistent with the results?

20. resource - January 18, 2011 at 11:36 am

Educators and critics of education providers suffer from a grand delusion -- that all humans can be made to cognitatively function at the same high level, if we can just figure out the secret formula for instruction. This is an absurd and damaging presumption.

In my view the data shows success -- to move the cognitive development of 55% of the students in 2 years and to push 64% forward over 4 years borders on miraculous, given the sorry state of secondary education and the open enrollment policies of most institutions of higher education.

The authors wrote "exceptional students, who have demonstrated impressive growth over time on CLA performance, exist in all the settings we examined". The unrecognized truth is that it is the qualities and characteristics of the students that influence advances in cognitive gains much more so than the quality of instruction.

21. unusedusername - January 18, 2011 at 11:59 am

"While these students may have developed subject-specific skills that were not tested for by the CLA, in terms of general analytical competencies assessed, large numbers of U.S. college students can be accurately described as academically adrift."

Well, of course. Tests like the CLA are basically IQ tests, even if they aren't called that. All the tests prove is that your intellegence level doesn't increase after age 18, whether or not you go to college. We knew that already.

The purpose of college is to to give subject-specific skills to people who are already smart. College can't make people smarter, and it is a waste of people's time to try.

22. kronos_soldier - January 18, 2011 at 12:20 pm

The community does have a vested interest in Higher Education because, as others have alluded to, the bachelors degree is the new high school diploma.

23. 11223435 - January 18, 2011 at 12:22 pm

Not to trash any particular commenter--but all the comments on this study, here and elsewhere, indicate the lack of agreement on purposes of education, the qualifications of the "clientele," the necessary outcomes, and on and on.

You better hope this book doesn't become a best seller or a touchstone for the rightist or leftist critics of education. It will very well be another nail, or even THE nail. And it looks as though you simply won't or can't change practice or taht "you knew it all along."

24. notredame1 - January 18, 2011 at 12:45 pm

The study by Arum and Roksa simply confirms what teachers/professors in Arts/Sciences already know about learning at the undergraduatge level in American universities--it isn't happening to any significant degree, and the blame can be placed squarely on the institutions and their administrations who do not care about learning on the undergraduate level. If they did, they would make fundamental changes in funding, and the way undergraduate writing courses are taught, beginning with first-year composition. They would focus on learning and not on page count, number of papers, etc., so that students can develop writing and critical thinking skills early on in their college years--one cannot write an effective, well-informed paper without combining the two skills. I believe this lack of learning is especially true at America's public universities, especially public research universities which put a premium on research, development and publication. For example, about a year ago, I sent an email to a friend and former chair of English at a major American research university, The University of South Florida at Tampa, about this, saying that very little learning was going on at the undergraduate level, especially in the Liberal Arts majors that he and I know best, and he responded with silence--across his department, he knows better than I, and he probably did not want to acknowledge what is glaringly apparent. At one time, he told me that even some of the Ph.D. students in the English program there who enrolled in his classes could not write. How did they get into the program then I asked? He said he had no idea, but that they could neither write not think critically, and they needed to learn or be kicked out of the program. Learning to write and reason critically is hard work, and the truth is many students simply are not interested in expending the effort to learn these skills, and most teachers of writing and critical thinking on the university level are simply overwhelmed by students numbers, and cannot give enough individual students the time and attention they need to develop these skills. I'm glad that The Chronicle has finally published this kind of news article to expose the lack of learning going on at our universities at the undergraduate level, and to focus the discussion on writing and critical thinking.

25. dunder25 - January 18, 2011 at 01:12 pm

Show me a motivated student and I'll show you a student who will learn. I attended graduate school and taught as a T.A. for all six years of my doctoral education. I've since been a professor at a private 4 year institution for over a decade and the main impediment to learning that I've observed at both institutions by far is student motivation. Most professors, tenured, part-time, young or old are sufficiently capable teachers. Sure, some professors probably aren't cut out for teaching, but from my experience, they're a small minority. I love teaching and I love students, but the overwhelming majority of them don't seem particularly interested in learning that much. Professor devise elaborate, punitive attendance policies because too many fail to attend consistently. Others employ class participation policies, pop quizzes and other devices to force students to read. Drinking and excessive partying is a huge problem. Students aren't studying after class; they're out having fun at parties, football games, watching tv or working to pay for it all. I thought the analogy made earlier in this thread between a health club and a university was right on. Everything at a university or college is available for a student to learn is he/she really wants to. There is something about learning in a formal academic setting these days that turns off a large majority of 18-22 year olds even if they're going into massive debt to be there.

26. greeneyeshade - January 18, 2011 at 01:18 pm

Apropos to #1--tuxthepenguin: Back in the mid-90s, when TQM in higher ed was at its heighth, Roy Schwartzman wrote in excellent article carefully exploring the language of students-as-customers in higher ed.


So did Randal Franz in 1998:


Waddle on back, tux...or maybe Nordie's has a job for you?

27. notredame1 - January 18, 2011 at 01:43 pm

I agree with dunder25--motivation is everything. (My higher ed teaching experience is similar to his, and I have also spent five years teaching at the high school level.) Most students are not motivated, and the reasons are many, beginning at home where both parents are usually working and don't have the time or perhaps the ability to help their childen learn, and in the public schools, then universities where curricula is mandated by the state/state education agencies, and that curricula is arse backwards--it just does not get to the problems of learning, is more interested in numbers/quantity that are countable, drive the state machine, and validate the existence of state education agencies. In sum, America's students are no longer challenged to learn or face the consequences (i.e. failure), so they don't, and their lack of motivation is a reflection of America'a short-sighted education policies/programs beginning in K-12 all the way up through the undergraduate university years where the tail (i.e. students) is wagging the dog (i.e. teachers/professors). If dunder25 and teachers like him/her becomes too rigourous, and wants to hold students totally accountable so that they do learn in class and out, he/she will probably in short order receive a visit from his/her chair or dean who tells dunder25 that too many students (and their parents) are complaining about his standards, and to lighten up. This scenario happens every day at our private colleges. There, money talks, not education and standards.

28. trendisnotdestiny - January 18, 2011 at 02:03 pm

Has anyone ever considered how our economic theory permeates our most basic public institutions and perverts it? There is the business world and there are their processes. They are not difficult to see:

1) Open up: students in a neoliberal world are 'receptacles' to deposit information into (Freire). Teachers are supposed to make deposits and students are supposed to take and integrate these deposits while administrators/future employers observe and evaluate the outcomes.... all predicated on the student as a passive recipient who is constantly being pursued to open up!
We need more skeptics, not more students to regurgitate what we already know!

2) Assess Profitability: every action does not have an opposite and equal reaction in the neoliberal world, but a proportional reaction to self-benefit. When students can opt out of not having to learn because it isn't in their specialization or when teachers emphasize a curriculum that is hard to glean its utility in the real world, the system slows down based on assessments of future profitability and the time spent(entertainment, partying, social networking and a myriad of non-academic distractors). The critical thinker is energized when the process moves quickly where imagination, emotion and cognition are engaged.

3)De-regulate: most rules that govern teaching pedagogy, student critical thinking development and preparation need to be reconfigured under a new market-based curriculum (evidence-based outcomes) where the driving force behind developmental needs are corporate and state employers; thereby changing the nature of the rules and rituals governing student-teacher relationships.
Nowhere is this more evident than when teachers comment on how unprepared incoming students are for college. The market and the profitability of tuition schemes have already spoken. More is better and the rules need to change to reflect the neoliberal institutions of higher learning. The message is that there are some rules more important than others in a market based educational system.

4) Privatization: these students (and their revenue streams) belong to the university for as long as possible. Undergrad, Graduate, Alumni, Legacy, children, grandchildren too. The host institution is bent on replicating its DNA into the student body collective as a means to make it resemble the host. Students are rarely automonous self-critical and reflective thinkers going out into the world to share their gifts. Instead, they are graduates from Prestigious Institution #A with a meager interest in Prestigious Field #B. The individual feels apart of the system and benefits from this privatized label so long as the host feeds the students' need for approval and validation. They are owned implicitly and explicitly.

5) Cut Social Supports: All those systems that may help students individuate, develop critical thinking skills beyond a corporate benchmark model are to be liquidated, marginalized and starved of resources. By getting students to open up and constantly assess their financial interests, the new economic system is able to change rules and reward those behaviors most aligned with market principles. All those programs that fall short of this alignment or are not perceived to be profitable are re-routed to administrators for scrubbing, making due with less and elimination. This is how the market works (once in control re-direct resources away from non-productive endeavors like the humanities or non-profitable domains. Hence, students become consumers who wish to resemble future commodities (degrees), where the market based philosophy for education becomes entrenched and consolidated by eliminating resistance.

6) Profit Profits: This is where the marketing and public relations arms of the university kick it into high gear to re-write the battle. Why do this? A couple reasons. First, they receive more interest from potential new students with slick campaigns, buzzwords, and a seemingly new approach to a world of education that everyone ackowledges is slipping. This rebranding makes for easier solicitation. Also, it is a way to stem off the tide of resistance by going on the offensive within the system. Good marketing and PR means that they are dissecting their audience and giving them what they (the public) think they want (much like bdbailey writes above, they rarely know exactly what this is supposed to look like). Re-writing the narrative to protect profits is the best indication that a battle has already taking place. This is what is genius about this approach: is that very few people can make tangible what a very good education looks like. It is nebulous and thought to be of great import. However, most of know that education is a life long process not a four or eight year event proceeded by a piece of paper signifying an end. By following the profits, we see how the system maintains itself. We see where the weaknesses of this approach are.

This is the work of resistance; to make distinctions between (outcomes, market based educations that serve the interests of capital) and a whole other form of education which can be expressed in so many different ways it boggles the mind. However, it is in our purview to begin to illuminate what we all think comprises a 25-40K/year education.

Lets get started eh?

29. piffoel - January 18, 2011 at 02:16 pm

Recently, Amy Chua's book praising the merits of a draconian parenting method of Asian origins had received strong reaction from American parents. Most parents found her method inhumane and damaging to children's psychology. I would be very curious to know how this squares with the concerns of American educators voiced here, namely that a huge sector of the student population lack discipline. The issue seem to be our confusion about who should be the appropriate agent of academic discipline, and how that person/institution is rewarded for doing the work, if at all. Arum and his team should be applauded for pointing out the disturbing fact that, currently, no one in higher education seems to have a stake professionally in putting in the real hours that make students REALLY learn.

30. al_wallace - January 18, 2011 at 02:19 pm

The author writes, "While these students may have developed subject-specific skills that were not tested for by the CLA, in terms of general analytical competencies assessed, large numbers of U.S. college students can be accurately described as academically adrift. They might graduate, but they are failing to develop the higher-order cognitive skills that it is widely assumed college students should master."

"Higher-order cognitive skills" to me sounds like a synonym for IQ-which isn't going to change much past age 18. I spend most of my time teaching subject-specific skills--which were not measured. This seems to be a case of giving a bunch of math students a geography test and then wringing our collective hands because of the poor performance.

31. notredame1 - January 18, 2011 at 03:15 pm

If you analyze collectively the comments of 28 trendisnotdestiny and 29 piffoel you come up with this result: it is money and the economy, stupid, and it has always been the money and the economy that makes us do what we do educationally from parent to child, to state curriculum mandates that effect college/university course requirements. The "has always been" of America, 1945-1980, shows us a smaller and a better educated American population based on a high functioning economy, effective unions and higher pay scale; the present America suggests that we are headed toward educational disaster, that America will eventually become, like much of South America, a nation of haves and have nots because the demographics have shifted so drastically, the economy has slowed, and corporate America demands downsizing, advanced technological innovation and impersonalization in the American education business to match what goes on in corporate business enabling a seamless transition from one to the other. The result--a few will learn a lot and continue to control the nation's and part of the world's purse strings; a few will learn the advanced technologies that facilitate healing body/body parts,etc. and perhaps break even with their parent's income earnings; the rest of the "educated" will learn little to nothing but that will be good enough to graduate and get a job but their earnings will be less than their parents' before them; what is left, the detritus, will struggle and scheme to stay afloat. This is a bleak future vision of America and American education, but it is premised on the thesis of Arum and Roksa, turmoil in the American economy, and the ongoing power and persausion of the American corporate dollar. Of American higher education, caveat emptor--let the buyer beware.

32. janetc - January 18, 2011 at 04:05 pm

I feel so lucky. I teach at a women's liberal arts college in Boston. My grad students in education courses are great--smart, good at languages, good writers (I'm in an ESL teacher education program). I also teach a first-year writing section. My undergraduate students aren't uniformly well prepared for bachelor's studies, but by and large they are motivated. The ones with weak backgrounds are shocked and want to be as good as those who went to prep schools; those who went to prep schools find out that they don't know everything and that the real world (the big city, the academy) is complex. I see substantial learning across a semester in my first-year writing class. Some are motivated intrinsically out of love for knowledge and some extrinsically because they need good grades for scholarships and/or for future careers. (There are always those few annoyingly entitled and lazy ones, of course; their learning outcomes are their business.)

Is the overall difference in motivation because this is a women's college? I would be very interested to hear from faculty at other women's institutions to know if this is also their experience.

33. maggieven - January 18, 2011 at 06:08 pm

# 5: 1 A student at the Community College I am teaching is considered a "client"

34. raymond_j_ritchie - January 18, 2011 at 10:27 pm

I have taught biology and biochemistry over many years. In Australia we typically recruit our Masters and PhD students from out own undergraduate classes. We know what we have taught them as undergraduates. When working with them in the lab, what they have not learnt or failed to understand comes as a shock but you learn to live with it. At best you adjust your teaching accordingly.

What you find out about international students can be horrific. For example, I have met PhD students in biology who did not know that the earth orbited the sun (a Biochemistry PhD student at Cornell), what caused the seasons (you would be shocked how few know, particularly inhabitants of the northern hemisphere), did not know what photosynthesis did, did not know that anaerobic metabolism existed and of course had never heard of evolution (I mean had never heard of the idea not simply rejected it as a concept).

One thing I have learnt is that an oral exam over tea or coffee is worth a hundred pieces of paper.

35. 22276886 - January 19, 2011 at 01:49 pm

If you accept the conclusions in Academically Adrift as true, then Houston we do indeed have a problem! Blaming it on the teachers, students, or someone else won't solve the problem. I heard someone say recently that the problem with education in america is our perception. We see it as a social service, rather than an economic necessity. America already is on the slippery slope that ends with the U.S. losing its long held status as King of the Hill. Stop finger pointing. We need to FIX this.

36. 11134078 - January 19, 2011 at 02:45 pm

Consider: where teaching matters, promotion, tenure, and occasional perks ride on student evaluations, and they in turn tend to demand that instructors pander to the low ends of their classes. Consider: the in-house organ of the Arts and Sciences college of Cornell, my beloved alma mater, just carried an article on a brilliant physicist recently recruited. Neither "teach" nor "teaching" appeared in the piece. Unfortunately typical. Consider: at Division I schools, football and basketball coaches' salaries are many times the presidents'. And almost everywhere, in all divisions, teaching is done by underpaid and overworked contingent faculty. Can it be expected that students will be too stupid to grasp the messages?

37. rduniway - January 19, 2011 at 06:41 pm

I'm one chapter into the book, and so far I think the authors are a step ahead of many of the comments in response to this article. They lay out the objectives other than undergraduate education pursued by students, faculty, and administrators, noting the norms and incentive structures that maintain the relative priority of student engagement and student learning. They avoid contrasting the present to the golden age that never existed when all students were serious about their academic work, talk about date that shows the direction of time on school work declining from the middle of the 20th century to the fairly recent past, and consider the national and international competitive business/employment context in which this reduction in student effort and the accompanying limits on both knowledge acquisition and skill development may matter more now than it did 20 plus years ago. My only major concern so far is that they dismiss to readily the possibility that gains in critical thinking are limited by inate capacity of students. If there is a distribution of intellectual capacity, and if a higher percentage of high school graduates than ever are moving on to college, perhaps we have students not only ill prepared to do college level work but also ill equiped to develop critical thinking capacity occupying an increaing percentage of college enrollment slots. Of course, the fact that they are given high marks and allowed to continue in college limits the vehemence with which I'd be willing to push this line of argument. Great book well worth reading and thinking about critcally.

38. tuxthepenguin - January 20, 2011 at 09:38 am

To those who responded to my comment, I think the world would be a better place if universities had at least a little interest in teaching students.

The reality is that education is a business, regardless of whether it should be. Like it or not, students are the customer. The objective of universities is to make students as happy as possible.

As for the claims that others are affected, as true as it might be, it is also irrelevant. You'll never hear donors, parents, or politicians complain if the students are enjoying themselves.

Let's not live in a fantasy world where we act as if there's someone involved with the process who actually cares about 'learning'. If you don't believe me, fail a student who deserves it, and see if you get any complaints. Then give an A to a student who doesn't deserve it. See how many parents, politicians, and donors call your school to complain.

By the way, the authors make a great argument. The only problem is that their work is flawed by an assumption that colleges and universities have a reason to care about learning.

39. gahnett - January 23, 2011 at 11:04 pm

Don't we want the students to have limited learning?

If not, won't they be pissed that they're spending a million dollars to enter a market with no jobs?

40. citizenwhy - January 24, 2011 at 12:19 pm

The student as customer metaphor should be confined to stduent services and activities, and not apply to the academic side.

If students are not the faculty's customer, then who are the faculty's "customers?"

1. The standards of his/her discipline as agreed on by the scholarly work of peers? Is there an obligation to make sure that students live up to an appropriate level of the standards of the professor's discipline? If this is the case, then these standards also become the student's customer.

2. Society, in its expectation that college graduates become responsible, thinking citizens? If this is the case, then these standards also become the student's customer.

3. Society, including employers, in its expectation that college graduates become more capable of becoming productive contributors to society and not just consumers. If this is the case, then these standards also become the student's customer.

Why doesn't college orientation stress to the students that they have customers that they are ethically obliged to satisfy?

41. gplm2000 - January 24, 2011 at 03:03 pm

If one is not challenged or made to conform to norms, then why the complaint about not learning anything. From K-12, students are not challenged and given a pass, especially in light of the desire for equality/equal outcomes. Colleges are just an extension of the leadership failure to provide an environment of learning and recognizing there are capability differences between people. As a result, the whole system is "dumbed down" to the lowest common denominator.

42. newengland - January 24, 2011 at 04:40 pm

I want a "like" button so I can respond to other comments. The customer satisfaction model has been corrosive. And I agree with those that mentioned that having to spend so much time on remedial work is a major problem. One of my students was outraged that he failed despite coming to all classes and handing in every assignment [and working really hard!] He was completely befuddled at how I could do such as thing -- in a 300-level class in his major. That problem had been brewing for a long time.

43. mehaynes - January 24, 2011 at 06:31 pm

I particularly appreciate the comment made by responder #40, "citizenwhy" saying,

"Why doesn't college orientation stress to the students that they have customers that they are ethically obliged to satisfy"

As a faculty member in Developmental Reading and Writing for more than 20 years, I learned to orient students on the first day to the fact that taxpayers were paying a larger % of their tuition, so they owed taxpayers to "show up" and try to learn. This ethical obligation was periodically mentioned as a reminder. That justified my policy of dropping students after a certain number of absences (negotiable in private for cases with illness or other documented reasons).

I also emphasized to students that my frequent quizzes and regular exams, as well as writing assignments due each day of class, were my way of making sure they were progressing, because I was also ethically responsible to the public who was supporting my efforts as a teacher of Developmental English.

Unfortunately, the major ethos of our society consists of individual rights and individual autonomy. It is pretty hard to get across to college students that they have obligations for the common good of their society. The argument using taxpayers' rights to have expectations of students thus works better than a deeper ethical stance that what each of us does affects others around us...

44. tekton - January 26, 2011 at 05:12 pm

I thought tuxthepenguin (#1) was joking at first; the comment seemed to parody the steroetyped attitude of students. In #38, however, it appears he/she is not joking.

"As for the claims that others are affected, as true as it might be, it is also irrelevant. You'll never hear donors, parents, or politicians complain if the students are enjoying themselves."

Huh? The political debate about funding for higher ed in our state has nothing to do with students 'enjoying themselves.' That seems to not be on the radar. If anything, the students' liberty in 'enjoying themselves' contributes to the credibility problem that higher ed is suffering.

"Let's not live in a fantasy world where we act as if there's someone involved with the process who actually cares about 'learning'."

Excuse me? That would be news to me and to my colleagues and, I imagine, a lot of others involved with the process. And, yep, I care enough about teaching to fail students if they deserve it, and a surprising number of them do. I haven't gotten one complaint.

45. teacherguy - January 26, 2011 at 06:39 pm

#25: right on! Biggest issue: kids no longer think that their job in school is to work at it! If they are not reading at grade level by grade 3, studies indicate that they will start falling behind...and not catch up, ever. Generalizing always has its faults. I am a high school teacher, science, and my students write for me several times each week. We have good problem solvers and students who write very well. Is this everyone? No, but not for lack of the teachers' efforts. The concept that everyone is college material is not helping this country. As has been stated, students expect to be entertained, and not do anything for their education. I just wonder how much worse it will get before parents wake up and smell the coffee burning...too much television as a baby-sitter, instead of mom and dad teaching the kids how to read, by reading to them, which helps stress the importance of the skill.

46. venezian - January 26, 2011 at 08:52 pm

A number of points might be worth considering.

1. Students are not your customers they are your throughput, the material that is (supposedly) modified by the educational process. In many cases the lion's share of the cost is footed by the state tax payers, parents, and alumni contributions.

2. Although the overall context makes it clear that this is not the case, the text does not tell us whether the 36 percent who ewxperienced no increase during their university career were the 36 percent that got perfect scores in the initial assessment. If we pride ourselves in our ability to think critically we might expect that point to have been made by someone.

3. The authors tell us virtually nothing about the initial characteristics of the students whose performances did improve, remained stationary, or actually declined. These may be important. A certain level of critical reading is required for adequate performance in most tests; students that do not meet that level cannot be expected to do well. On the other hand over-critical reading leads to the student finding ambiguities in the test questions that were not perceived by the framer of the question or scorer of the test and might lead to poor performance.

4. Given the contemporary version of the "three r's" in higher education ("read, remember, repeat" since many students do not quite get "read, remember, regurgitate"), emphasizing critical thinking is a difficult task. Every professor tells students they need to sharpen their critical thinking skills. Most professors then give poor grades to students taht challenge any of the professor's convictions. The exhortation to "think critically" becomes, to the students, a command "think as the professor does." What is worse is that I have had colleagues who define "teaching" as "getting students to think as I do."

47. ciceronow - January 27, 2011 at 12:51 pm

Who funded the study and what is their agenda? Crisis construction for material gain.

The book seems like a half-baked attempt to do quick and easy research in order to take advantage of the brewing popular media debate over standards and accountability in HED. The methodology and methods appear to be flawed. The measures appear to be flawed. I have not seen it but I will venture a guess that the sampling was problematic as well. I know lots of profs who don't attain the pages/week and writing assignments/week whose students learn a lot. This reads like "Crisis in HED", a manufactured crisis by academics who buy into the conservative attack on public higher education.

If two-thirds of students are learning something over 4 years as indicated by the flawed methodology, its probably more like 80% are so I doubt there is anything here to be worried about. If the problem is so prevalent, why are our universities and colleges full up and why do so many foreigners clamor to get in?

The authors forget that for many students higher education is about credentials and signaling. The have the cultural and social capital and want the license. For many others, HED is crucial for attaining that social and cultural capital.

The entire problem could be fixed with one simple policy change. Make sure all higher education governing bodies have a majority of faculty and students on it.

The authors got funding from a source that is invested in promoting solutions that will bring in more money, so they needed a crisis and the academics helped them create one. As Gomer Pyle would say "for shame, for shame, for shame".

48. copesan - January 28, 2011 at 08:57 am

1) The suggestion that surplus English PhDs should be recruited to teach in middle and secondary school is 1) insulting to those who teach in those institutions by assuming that there is no skill involved other than the "lack" of a phd 2) something only someone who hasn't done it could write.

2) The tenure system should be tweaked to include a periodic review of syllabi and assignments to try to keep syllabi fresh and keep faculty working with students actively on their writing skills.

49. libwitch - January 28, 2011 at 01:27 pm

mbelvadi - Taxpayers haven't "heavily" subsibized higher education in years, possibly decades in most states. Even in most "public" higher education systems, the only taxpayers schools are getting support from in any real dollars are those that are either enrolled in the system themselves; or have children in the system. Most schools are now getting the bulk of their monies from tutition.

We have created, in our higher education systems, a system where other stakeholders are also given far more money into the system - such as coporations, who often do, for better, or worse, have effect on the curricula by complaining that the graduates are not suited for internships or jobs.

Furthermore, professors in higher education also complain that students are coming in less prepared then ever before to understand basic writing and critical thinking skills. And they may have a point - and it might be terribly difficult to teach them the level of skills these tests are seeking to measure when they lack a decent foundation to build on. In many cases, colleges need to really be a grade 17 and not college at all.

50. campuscompact - January 28, 2011 at 04:22 pm

As an administrator, I've found that most of the resistance to improving undergraduate teaching and learning has come from faculty members. I have tried several sticks to entice faculty to adopt pedagogical practices that have contributed to gains in learning as measured by the CLA and other instruments. Unfortunately, they know that 1) experimenting with new pedagogical techniques frequently results in lower student evaluation scores; 2) that student evaluations tend to be the principal piece of evidence used to evaluate teaching in tenure decisions; and 3) that research is what really counts towards tenure. It's easy enough to blame the students, the pre-college teachers, and administrators, but until faculty senates and unions agree to hold themselves accountable for student learning and to make that accountability part of the tenure process, I doubt much will change in the long run.

51. researchanalyst - January 29, 2011 at 12:07 pm

I have a Master's degree from what was once considered to be a good program (it probably still is.) The AAU university central budgeting office changed its budgeting schema to a more formulaic process that demands "self-sufficiency" of the various academic units and schools. As a public university - the budgeting office thought it better to direct 60-70% of annual state aid money to construction and debt service, presumably in order to "attract more customers" and help the individual programs toward their goals of self sufficiency. How benevolent.

The Master's program I completed, in order to meet its imposed budgeting targets had to convert to an open enrollment program. If you can cash a check, you can have a Master's degree. Students that pay on time rarely fail out since they are "customers" and their revenues are sorely needed by the program. As despondant as the faculty members are about this, they will pass most people as the educators before them have. I don't blame the faculty for doing this. They are preserving their way of life in an academic landscape that has changed dramatically in the past two decades. Its a very normal and predictable course of action any rational person would take.

I swear to you I have met and talked to (and worked as a peer with) people with the same master's degree that are truly functionally illiterate. Most people think this is hyperbole when I tell them this, but I can provide writing samples to demonstrate to you its not. The customers of course are sure a master's degree will lead to a high paying job (since their undergraduate degree no longer distinguishes them in an overeducated and crowded northeastern job market.) Of course employers take one look and spend the rest of the day curing everyone from K-12 teachers to graduate level professors to the government to Obama because they find that no good help is available.

I know one person who had her house foreclosed on because the way she saw it, she was buying a good job which was a better investment than the current property she owned. Only the good job never materialized and in the best of economies probably wouldn't have. She was just not suited for employement that required any intellectual skill what so ever. Now she's both in debt and homeless.

Prehaps is more salient here in my region, since living wage job opportunities that don't require literally hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment in advance have virtually dissapeared from the economic landscape. Its looks to me like nothing more than a slightly altered truck labor system. If an immigrant laborer was charged $50 to get on a work list to do C&D demolition, it'd be illegal. I find this entire situation very tragic on its face.

My specialty is higher education finance and budgeting. So I can go on all day about how the intersections of various state and university system budgeting schemes reinforce this viscious cyle - but I won't. But I will say, the old adage that tuition goes up because state aid goes down...not particularly true. It very often works the other way around. More state aid to education will probably lead to larger, more bloated degree factories. As a public policy, America needs to rethink this whole issue and tackle it quickly.

52. klwilcoxon - February 01, 2011 at 12:14 am

To tuxthepenguin -

What I dislike most about your posts is that you believe your version is the only reasonable version, and so find it easy to dismiss others. Perhaps you need your own sandbox.

"The reality is that education is a business, regardless of whether it should be. Like it or not, students are the customer. The objective of universities is to make students as happy as possible." Bullsh**

53. seventwo - February 01, 2011 at 07:40 am

#28-Trend is not destiny--

Thank you so much for your brilliant exposition of the bone-chilling procesess that are engulfing and destroying the university.

54. sirkarl101 - February 01, 2011 at 10:52 am

When attending my first 2 years of college, I was so bored having learned the curriculum in grade school. It may be in the best interest of our children to home school them and receive payment that other wise would have been paid to the public school. There is no one more qualified to teach, discipline our children then a family member. In addition doing so, additional revenue can be made for the family. There are some teachers that are good but few care for your child like yourself.

55. burger1376 - February 02, 2011 at 07:54 am

As an American teacher in China, trust me. We have our problems, but the stats that most of you believe about China are simply not true. In China, any stats are flawed by the simple fact that when they give the tests which are used in comparisons, they just make sure the "bad" students don't come that day. The US should fix its education system, and especially highschools and undergraduate education. However, we are not falling behind as much as OECD or other institution would like us to think.

56. gplm2000 - February 03, 2011 at 04:53 pm

This report/study is another reason why the US should have a universal draft (military, peace corp, jobs corp, etc.) of every teen from 18yrs.-20yrs. old. The entering college freshman would be 20-21yrs., more mature and focused on what they want to do. Also, they are forced to associate and live with people of dissimilar backgrounds, thus start to understand their own lives and that of others. The universal draft would do more to integrate US society, as well as give it purpose, than any program we are doing now.

57. bemsha - February 08, 2011 at 03:41 pm

College Administrator in comment #50. You say resistance comes from faculty unions and senates, but they do not set requirements for tenure: the administration does. All you have to do is do away with consumer satisfaction measures of learning and replace them with measures of student learning; then faculty members will have an incentive to do what you want them to. You can't send a double message. "You should publish like crazy and have great consumer scores on the evaluations; but you should also experiment with methods that might get you worse evaluations." You've tried every "stick" except changing the structure of incentives.

58. bwooten2 - February 09, 2011 at 02:53 pm

#56 - Thank you, thank you, thank you for saying this.

My lack of collegiate motivation stemmed 100% from the general lack of vulnerability, overwhelming sense of entitlement, and fear that I brought to college directly out of highschool.

I think two years in civic service would have done much to settle my hash, in healthy ways, as regards a solid sense of my own humanity. What a wonderful foundation from which to make a measured choice about college and higher education.

Benjamin Wooten

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