The Book That Shook the Campuses

9780226028569.jpgNeither liberals nor conservatives take the education part of higher education very seriously. Instead, college gets used as an arena for special interest promotion and ideological dispute. The right publishes lists of “The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America” while fulminating about post-modernism and the hedonist student culture. The left pours endless billions of taxpayer dollars into student financial aid programs without holding anyone accountable (or at least not traditional non-profit colleges) for how that money is spent. Everyone is simultaneously horrified and entertained by college sports.
This happens in large part because everyone assumes that the core business of higher education doesn’t require much scrutiny. Our K-12 schools may be mediocre, but we all know our colleges are the best in the world. Just ask them!
Now Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s landmark study, Academically Adrift, has blown a gaping hole in the wall of assumed competence that has long shielded colleges and universities from criticism. The warranty that accompanies the college degree–that students have undergone a rigorous course of study and emerged ready to tackle the challenges of the workplace and further education–turns out to be, in many cases, a fraud.
During their four years of college, 36 percent of students studied made no progress at all on the most widely-used measure of collegiate critical thinking, analytic reasoning, and written communication skills. The average gain was less than half of one standard deviation. Results for minority students and those from academically disadvantaged backgrounds were even worse.
The list of culprits is long: Poor preparation, lax accreditation standards, faculty incentives that privilege scholarship over teaching, a low equilibrium of mutual expectation where professors ask students to do little and provide little in exchange. The modern university has evolved haphazardly over time to accommodate a huge variety of interests, functions, and concerns. Somewhere along the way, the core business of educating undergraduates faded from view.
But this learning-deficient ecosystem only persists because there is little or no outside pressure to become otherwise. Contrast this with the vigorous national conversation about elementary and secondary education. A whole constellation of organizations from across the ideological spectrum exist to analyze, criticize, and improve schooling for children. Many disagree, often stridently, about the necessary means, with perspectives ranging from big government regulation to wholesale privatization and many points in between. But they all begin from the same underlying premise: too many American K-12 students are failing to learn.

As a result, a rough reform consensus has emerged that combines market-driven charter schools, rigorous new common academic standards, and a shift of government oversight from counting inputs to measuring outcomes. Even those who advocate different solutions entirely agree that there should be solutions, and that entrenched interest groups should be restrained from accumulating money and power at the expense of students and the public good.
There is no parallel dynamic in higher education. Higher education policy debates in Congress and statehouses tend to be quiet one-way conversations between institutional lobbyists and trusting legislators, many of whom are proud alumni themselves. Colleges have struggled in recent years to compete for funding with health care, K-12 schools, and other public services. But hardly anyone questions whether money for college is well-spent.
Academically Adrift, therefore, should mark the beginning of a new era of scrutiny of higher education, one that liberals and conservatives engage in with equal vigor. It’s time to put aside tired arguments about whether the professoriate has an ingrained liberal bias resulting in a program of widespread socialist indoctrination. (For the record: Of course it does, and of course there isn’t.) It’s time to stop writing blank checks to public colleges and pumping every-increasing amounts of money into student aid programs without asking serious questions about the quality of teaching students receive in exchange.
It’s time, in other words, to start taking higher learning seriously as matter of vital public interest and ask hard questions about what, exactly, colleges are doing with our money, our children, and our nation’s economic future.
The good news is that Academically Adrift offers a way forward along with its dire diagnosis. When colleges set high expectations for students, assign them a lot of books to read, and give them a lot of papers to write, students respond. This is true across a range of liberal arts and science majors. Whether students prefer a traditional curriculum focused on the classics or want to explore the outer reaches of new thinking is less the issue — the most important thing is that they have the chance to attend a college staffed with well-trained teachers who are committed to helping their students work, engage, struggle, and improve
In the long run, liberal and conservatives should both have the courage of their convictions–they should believe that when students have the opportunity to seriously engage with the great minds and ideas of the ages, they will come to some sense of truth. For that reason, we all have an interest in making college better than it is.


  • kcarey

    Kevin Carey is director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation.

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