'Academically Adrift': The News Gets Worse and Worse

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

February 12, 2012

In the last few months of 2010, rumors began circulating among higher-education policy geeks that the University of Chicago Press was about to publish a new book written by a pair of very smart sociologists who were trying to answer a question to which most people thought they already knew the answer: How much do students learn while they're in college? Their findings, one heard, were ... interesting.

The book, Academically Adrift, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, fulfilled that promise—and then some. It was no surprise that The Chronicle gave prominent coverage to the conclusion that "American higher education is characterized by limited or no learning for a large proportion of students," but few people anticipated that the book would become the rare piece of serious academic scholarship that jumps the fence and roams free into the larger culture.

Vanity Fair used space normally allotted to Kennedy hagiography to call it a "crushing exposé of the heretofore secret society known as 'college.'" The gossip mavens at Gawker ran the book through their patented Internet cynicism machine and wrote that "To get a college degree, you must go into a soul-crushing amount of debt. And what do you get for all that money? Not learning."

The New Yorker featured Academically Adrift in a typically brilliant essay by Louis Menand. In one of her nationally syndicated columns, Kathleen Parker called the book a "dense tome" while opining that the failure of higher education constituted a "dot-connecting exercise for Uncle Shoulda, who someday will say—in Chinese—'How could we have let this happen?'" Her response proved that Kathleen Parker has a gift for phrasing and did not actually read the book, whose main text runs to only 144 concise and well-argued pages.

But the definitive evidence of Academically Adrift's ascension to the very small group of social-science studies whose findings shape conventional wisdom came when President King, the world-weary cynic and longtime leader of Walden College, sipped a martini and reacted to the book's documentation of declining student work by explaining, "That's why they come! As long as we give them good grades and a degree, their parents are happy too! Who cares if they can't reason?"

When your research ends up in "Doonesbury," that's saying something.

In part, it says that the public harbored a latent distrust of higher education that was activated by empirical evidence that supported their suspicions. After all, a lot of people have been to college and have experienced the academic indifference and lack of rigor that Arum and Roksa documented firsthand.

It also shows what happens when there's a mismatch between the importance and complexity of a question and the amount of research designed to answer it. In many ways, the most shocking thing about Academically Adrift was not what it revealed about what college students learn. It was that nobody had ever attempted to measure learning in that way before.

As responsible scholars, the authors were careful to interpret their findings in ways that emphasized the limitations of their instruments and sample population. But they couldn't control what happened after their research entered the zeitgeist. And the lack of other credible studies providing alternate perspectives on college learning meant that, in the national higher-education conversation, Academically Adrift became the only game in town.

Last month the authors released new results that should only add to our national worries about higher education. While press coverage of Academically Adrift focused mostly on learning among typical students, the data actually show two distinct populations of undergraduates. Some students, disproportionately from privileged backgrounds, matriculate well prepared for college. They are given challenging work to do and respond by learning a substantial amount in four years.

Other students graduate from mediocre or bad high schools and enroll in less-selective colleges that don't challenge them academically. They learn little. Some graduate anyway, if they're able to manage the bureaucratic necessities of earning a degree.

The central problem in American higher education today is that most of the people running things in politics, business, and academe come from the first group, but most of the actual students enrolled in college are in the second group. The former cannot see the latter, because they are blinded by their own experience. And so they think the problems of the many don't exist.

Now Arum and his colleagues have revealed what happened to those two groups after they left college and entered the unforgiving post-recession economy. Despite a barren job market, only 3.1 percent of students who scored in the top 20 percent of the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which measures critical-thinking skills, were unemployed. Not infrequently, their colleges helped them land the jobs they had. Many struck out on their own and were engaged in civic affairs. Those who got married or cohabitated often did so with someone they met in college. For students like these, the college-driven job and mating markets are functioning as advertised.

Graduates who scored poorly on the CLA, by contrast, are leading very different lives. It's true that business majors, who were singled out for low CLA scores in Academically Adrift, did better than most in finding jobs. But over all, students with poor CLA results are more likely to be living at home with their parents, burdened by credit-card debt, unmarried, and unemployed.

Those are inconvenient findings for a higher-education industry that is struggling to make the case for public support in the worst budget environment in memory. College leaders have long excused decades of relentlessly rising prices, exploding student-loan debt, and alarmingly high dropout rates with the assumption that students are learning. The prices are reasonable and the loans repayable, they say, because of the skills and knowledge that students acquire in exchange. And while dropouts are regrettable, we are told, that's an unavoidable—nay, admirable—consequence of maintaining high academic standards.

Academically Adrift exposed the bankruptcy of those assertions. But it didn't reveal anything that college leaders didn't know, in quiet rooms behind closed doors, all along. Academe was so slow to produce this research because it told the world things that those in academe would rather the world didn't know.

That time is over. For those who are dissatisfied with the methods or findings of Academically Adrift, who chafe at the way it has been absorbed by the politicians and commentariat, there is only one recourse: Get started on research of your own. Higher education needs a much broader examination of how and whether it succeeds in educating students. Some of that research will doubtless become fodder for reckless criticism. But there's no turning back now.

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Kevin Carey is policy director at Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington.