The Trouble With Rigor

The big news in higher education last week was the issuance of findings from Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, a scientific study of how much college students progress intellectually during their four years on campus. Two researchers, Richard Arum, professor of sociology and education at New York University and director of the Education Research Program of the Social Science Research Council, and Josipa Roksa, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, charted scores on the Collegiate Learning Assessment to determine changes from the time of their arrival to senior year. The CLA isn’t subject-based, so the study couldn’t gauge changes in domain knowledge, but it does aim to calculate abstract thinking and analytical “competencies.” The results were abysmal. (An excerpt is here)
For nearly half of the students (45 percent), no significant improvement took place during the first two years of college.
For more than one-third (36 percent), no significant improvement took place over four years’ time. They are, in the authors’ words, “academically adrift.”
Why the poor showing? Several reasons, the authors say.
One, more and more students “report that they spend increasing numbers of hours on nonacademic activities, including working, rather than on studying.” For all too many of them, the classroom is a part-time thing.
Two, more students “enroll in classes that do not require substantial reading or writing assignments.”
Three, they “interact with their professors outside of classrooms rarely, if ever.”
And four, “they define and understand their college experiences as being focused more on social than on academic development.”
The response to Academically Adrift has been voluminous and mixed. One common negative reply is to challenge the methodology (the CLA is limited, etc.), while a common positive reply is to agree and denounce higher ed corruptions. (See here and here and here and a video of one of the authors here.
But colleges are in a bind either way. They are under pressure to open access and keep retention rates high. But the obvious solution to the low-learning problem—raise standards, assign more reading and writing, increase rigor—might improve test scores, but the other rates will fall. That is, if homework goes up and assignments get more rigorous, dropouts and flunk-outs will rise as well. At the very least, grades will plummet. Reaction will follow. Colleges are under intense pressure to get kids in the door and keep them there. If the retention rate falls, they have a lot of explaining to do in public.
So keep that dilemma in mind. The more you make students work, the fewer students will cross the finish line.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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