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Academically Adrift: A Must-Read

The most significant book on higher education written in recent years is out, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia. While I have not read every word of this new University of Chicago Press book, I have read enough of it and an accompanying summary to know that it is very, very important, and extremely devastating in what it says about American higher education today. Basically, students study little and, as a consequence, learn little.

Arum and Roksa wed data from two very important but underutilized test instruments, the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), and the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). These instruments are used at hundreds of schools, and the Arum and Roksa book is based on detailed results from a good sized sample of students from 29 institutions. The CLA measures things such as aptitude with respect to critical learning and writing skills, while the NSSE mostly measures how students are engaged at school, in large part measured by how they use their time.

For the reader not familiar with some of the findings, Arum and Roksa conclude:

  • “gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills (i.e., general collegiate skills) are either exceedingly small or empirically non-existent for a large proportion of students”;
  • 36 percent of students experienced no significant improvement in learning (as measured by the CLA) over four years of schooling;
  • less than one-half of seniors had completed  over 20 pages of writing for a course in the prior semester;
  • total time spent  in academic pursuits is 16 percent; students are academically engaged, typically, well under 30 hours per week;
  • scholarship from earlier decades suggest there has been a sharp decline in both academic work effort and learning;
  • “students…majoring in traditional liberal-arts fields…demonstrated significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study. Students majoring in business, education, social work , and communications had the lowest measurable gains”;
  • 35 percent of the students sampled spent five hours or less a week studying alone; the average for all students was under 9 hours.

Critics will no doubt argue that the CLA is an imperfect test instrument or that the sample of schools was too small and unrepresentative. What strikes me most, however, is that these findings are similar to those found in other studies (e.g. the Time Use Survey of the Bureau of Labor Statistics), and with my own personal observations based on a half century of involvement in higher education in all types of institutions ranging from mid-quality state universities to elite private liberal-arts colleges and prestigious private research institutions.

Moreover, the survey seems to confirm that many of the modern-day trends in higher education have lowered the quality of the educational experience. “Collaborative learning” is all the rage, and students are encouraged to work in groups—the Arum and Roksa study, however, suggests that studying alone is more effective than studying in groups. Another trend is the decline in the “market share” of the traditional liberal arts disciplines—social and natural sciences and the humanities—yet students in these disciplines seem to be learning more. To be sure, the communications and business majors are sometimes picking up vocational skills that are useful, which are not measured by the CLA.

To me, this above all further strengthens the thinking of scholars ranging from Robert Hutchins and James Bryant Conant (to go back more than a half a century) to Charles Murray today. As the proportion of the population going to college rises, more and more of them are simply not suited for academically rigorous forms of higher learning. Consequently, schools dumb down the curriculum, engage in grade inflation, etc.

Why, then, do college graduates continue to earn a healthy premium over high school graduates? In part, because, despite being relatively lazy and relatively unchallenged in school, college graduates are still smarter, more ambitious and more disciplined than the graduates of our relatively mediocre (on average) secondary schools. College is an expensive (to students) screening device, and one that is increasingly emphasizing the socialization dimensions of young adulthood over the dissemination of true knowledge and ideas. We are sending too many kids to school to learn too little to get jobs for which often the little that they do learn is not even necessary.

Ultimately, the public policy question is why the financially strapped federal government provides billions of dollars to subsidize students participating in the increasingly expensive and hedonistic experience we call “higher education?” Why do states subsidize the institutions that are responsible for this decline, rather than directly supporting a modest number of serious, hard-working and financially needy students? Why is higher education so dysfunctional, and becoming more so daily? When is the bubble going to burst? Run; do not walk, to the store to get this book.

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