'Adrift' After College: How Graduates Fail

September 02, 2014

Many recent college graduates struggle to transition into adulthood, and their alma maters must share some of the blame, argue the authors of Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates, scheduled for release this week.

The book is a follow-up to its authors’ 2011 hit, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. In their new book, published by the University of Chicago Press, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa tracked many of the same 2009 graduates they studied in their first book, compiling data on employment outcomes, living arrangements, relationships, and levels of civic engagement after college, among other things.

More on 'Aspiring Adults Adrift'

The findings in the new book are not as explosive as those in the first, which concluded that nearly half of the cohort failed to make any real gains on a test of critical-thinking skills during the first two years of college. The new book deepens those results, showing how academic disengagement during college often translates into a lingering anomie after it.

The authors followed more than 1,600 students through their senior year at 25 four-year institutions. Of this group, 918 responded to surveys in 2011, two years after graduation, and 80 were interviewed in depth.

While these students may have graduated from college, the authors write, many of them "transition only partially into adult roles." And because colleges often emphasize students’ social development and consumerist desires over academic rigor, these institutions help prolong adolescence instead of molding adults. Here are some of the key questions and takeaways:

How adrift were these graduates?

  • More than half struggled to find decent jobs: 53 percent earned less than $30,000 per year, either in full-time or part-time jobs or because they had no work at all.
  • Many lived with their parents and still leaned on them for money: One-third lived at home one year after college. Nearly one-quarter still did so two years after graduating. More than 70 percent received financial help from their parents.
  • Weak learners during college often became less-valued employees afterward: Students’ performance on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test of critical-thinking skills that simulates the kinds of tasks needed in the workplace, correlated with their ability as graduates to hold down a job. High scorers on the CLA had a 5-percent chance of losing their jobs through being fired, laid off, or not having their contracts renewed. Low scorers were twice as likely to do so. Perhaps, the authors wrote, "employers made judgments about keeping these employees on the basis of factors that track closely with their performance on the CLA." For example, a company might have hired a graduate to study its competitors and write a memo on their strengths and weaknesses, only to find that he or she had poor writing and complex-reasoning skills, which the CLA measures.
  • They rarely kept up with the news or current events: About one-third read newspapers online or in print on a daily basis. Only 16 percent discussed politics and public affairs with a family member or friends daily. "That’s horrifying," Mr. Arum, a professor of education and sociology at New York University, said in an interview. "Most institutions never conveyed to students that keeping up with the news is an essential part of democratic citizenship."
  • And yet they were hopeful: Almost two-thirds believed their lives would be better than those of their parents, even though they seemed to have only a foggy idea of how that would happen. And their opinion of the quality of their academic experience grew rosier the further they got from college. From 40 percent to 50 percent gave higher ratings of their learning in college in 2011 than they did in the spring of 2009, their senior year.

Who’s at fault?

The causes are complex, the authors write, and include consumerism, a historically weak labor market, and the phenomenon of emerging adulthood, or the theory that people in their late teens to mid-20s delay marriage, childbirth, and other markers of maturity because they are in a distinct developmental stage. Colleges bear some blame in extending this stage, the authors argue, because they tend to adopt a perspective that stresses personal fulfillment and intergroup relations at the expense of academic rigor. Rapid increases in administrative and noninstructional staff reflect a systemic focus on students’ well-being, they write, but faculty members aren’t blameless either. They dial down expectations and inflate grades. For example, seniors who reported studying alone for just five or fewer hours per week were rewarded with a 3.22 cumulative grade-point average.

A culture of consumerism has infected college, the authors also say. Soon after entering, students realize that they won’t have to work very hard, Ms. Roksa, an associate professor of sociology and education at the University of Virginia, said in an interview. "Students come to college with certain attitudes," she said, "but higher education has in some ways embraced them."

What can colleges do?

Greater academic rigor can cure much of what ails higher education, the authors argue. Their recommendations are both technocratic and morally grounded. They support collecting more data on student outcomes and using more-varied assessments, including those that employ adaptive technology. They are skeptical of efforts to evaluate colleges on their graduates’ first-year earnings but give a thumbs-up to accountability efforts, as long as those remain on an institutional level.

They also call for more "moral courage" among faculty members and administrators to improve education. They exhort academe to reclaim its role in setting norms and expectations, as was the case when colleges thought of themselves as forming students’ characters instead of catering to their desires.

In the end, Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa strike an optimistic tone. Colleges are paying more attention to student learning now than they did five years ago, the authors said in an interview. Employers and policy makers are asking tougher questions about students’ success. Even among students and recent graduates, said Ms. Roksa, there may be "a slow dawning that they may need more out of college than a good time."