Students Who Learn Little or Nothing

I can’t recall a book on higher education that arrived with so much buzz, and drew so much commentary in the first two days after publication. The book is Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum, and Josipa Roksa (University of Chicago Press). Arum is a professor of sociology and education at New York University and Roksa is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia.
Inside Higher Ed reported on the work yesterday, hailing it, if that’s the right word, as “a damning new book… asserting that many college students graduate without actually learning anything.”
After looking at data from student surveys and transcript analysis of 2300 students around the country, the authors concluded that 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” in their first two years of college, and 36 percent showed the same lack of significant progress over four years. Students improved on average only 0.18 standard deviations over the first two years and 0.47 over four years. “What this means,” Inside Higher Ed reported, “is that A student who entered college in the 50th percentile of students in his or her cohort would move up to the 68th percentile four years later—but that’s the 68th percentile of a new group of freshmen who haven’t experienced any college learning.”
Since our copy of the book arrived only today, we haven’t finished reading it, but we assume that its huge welcome in educational circles has a lot to do with the many books and articles deploring the lack of study on our campuses, the large number of college grads working at low-level jobs, books arguing that partying is the main activity of a great many collegians, and articles such as Peter Sacks’ here reporting on the all too common disengaged and academically tone deaf college students of today. We will have more to say later about Academically Adrift.

John Leo

John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

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