In 2010, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa revealed in their book Academically Adrift that of the 2,300 undergraduates they had studied at a wide array of four-year colleges and universities, as many as a third demonstrated almost no progress at all in developing their critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills, and even those who did demonstrate some improvement demonstrated very little. Some critics dismissed their findings, arguing that because the standardized test they used to gauge student learning (the Collegiate Learning Assessment) had no real stakes attached to it, it should come as no surprise that most students performed poorly.
Now, however, Arum and Roksa have released a follow-up study tracking these students as they entered the brutal mid-2009 labor market, which Kevin Carey summarizes in The Upshot.
Even after statistically controlling for students’ sociodemographic characteristics, college majors and college selectivity, those who finished school with high C.L.A. scores were significantly less likely to be unemployed than those who had low C.L.A. scores. The difference was even larger when it came to success in the workplace. Low-C.L.A. graduates were twice as likely as high-C.L.A. graduates to lose their jobs between 2010 and 2011, suggesting that employers can tell who got a good college education and who didn’t. Low-C.L.A. graduates were also 50 percent more likely to end up in an unskilled occupation, and were less likely to be satisfied with their jobs.
Yet the vast majority of students were convinced that their higher education experiences were worthwhile, including those who’d been essentially weeded out of the labor market by employers. “Through diplomas, increasingly inflated grades and the drumbeat of college self-promotion,” Carey writes, “these students had been told they had received a great education.” This is despite the fact that, as Carey reports by way of Arum and Roksa, “the typical student spent three times as much time socializing and recreating in college as studying.” One is reminded of the indebted students who had rallied around the Occupy movement, who insisted that the problem with the higher education they had received was not that it imparted little in the way of critical thinking skills, but rather that it hadn’t been adequately subsidized by taxpayers. My inclination is less to blame the students themselves than to blame the higher education institutions that mislead them, routinely if not deliberately, into pursuing courses of study that are unlikely to help them meet their academic and professional goals. Meanwhile, as Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton demonstrate in Paying for the Party, many universities focus more on catering to wealthy students for whom college is seen more as an opportunity for recreation than as a means to upward mobility, and that many less affluent students find themselves getting off track as a result.
But after reading Carey, one can’t help but worry about what will happen as these young people age:
Students who were interviewed in depth by Dr. Arum and Dr. Roksa put great stock in collegiate social experiences that often came at the expense of academic work, emphasizing the value of the personal relationships they built. But only 20 percent found their most recent job through personal contacts, and of those, less than half came from college friends. And while the recent graduates were gloomy about the state of the nation, they professed strong belief in their own future success. The vast majority thought their lives would be better than that of their parents. “They learned from the experts that they can do well with little effort,” Mr. Arum told me, “so they’re optimistic.”
This optimism won’t last if these former students continue to struggle and to depend financially on their parents. At some point they’re going to demand answers, or start looking for scapegoats. I should stress that Arum and Roksa devote much of their time to students who’ve actually managed to complete a course of study. The challenges facing those who can’t manage to do so are more daunting still.