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The Challenge of ‘Academically Adrift’

Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift continues to spark commentary and discussion both in public life and in higher-education circles, and none of the efforts to discredit their findings, such as this petulant dismissal, has stopped the questions Arum and Roksa ask from hovering above academic policy meetings on every subject from curriculum to job placement to faculty research.

But it isn’t just the research figures that Arum and Roksa derive from CLA scores that launched their study into the national spotlight.  It was also their style of expression.  They cited the statistics, yes, but they also drew blunt, no-excuses conclusions from them.  They took the complexities of the campus environment and cast the learning situation in stark, adamant terms, for instance, stating in response to the question of how much students actually learn: “The answer for many undergraduates, we have concluded, is not much.” Furthermore, the data they had compiled shielded them from the charges of oversimplification, cherry-picking, etc.

Indeed, statement after statement in the book lays out the conditions of non-learning relentlessly.  Here’s another from the beginning:

“Policy makers and practitioners have become increasingly apprehensive about undergraduate education as there is growing evidence that individual and institutional interests and incentives are not closely aligned with a focus on undergraduate academic learning per se.”

This is a particularly disturbing assertion because it says that poor academic learning outcomes for undergraduates are not the result of faculty failure or dereliction or incompetence. They are the logical result of a system that pushes professors toward other concerns. Low CLA scores, then, cannot be corrected by simply telling professors, “You’re not doing your job very well—fix it.”  Rather, faculty members may be doing their jobs quite well, but the duties of their job don’t include ensuring that undergraduates leave their classrooms more educated than before.  It’s a systemic problem.

The criticisms aren’t going to go away, and they will be used to bolster the rising movement of accountability in higher education.  Arum and Roksa, in fact, have a statement about that, which appears in this document on pages 12-13, which concludes, “Efforts to mandate the use of specific measures for accountability purposes (as opposed to promoting their use for research and internal formative assessment tied to improving instruction) would likely be counterproductive at this time.”

But with the opinion spreading that learning isn’t happening on campus as much as it should, accountability demands will likewise spread.  If academics don’t get out in front of the reform, others will take the lead.

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