Cut the Sniping—It’s a Great Book

The sniping has begun about Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s great new book Academically Adrift. Predictably, people are saying the test instruments used (especially the Collegiate Learning Assessment or CLA but also the National Survey of Student Engagement or NSSE) are imperfect, they look at only a small number of relatively anonymous schools, etc. These complaints on the survey have some validity, but the reality is the higher education community has not collected the data or developed the test instruments that could allow for a broader wider test. Why, for example, don’t we have a test of general knowledge, something of an extension of the Adult Civic Literacy Test developed by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, that is administered widely at the beginning and end of the college careers of students at any institutions receiving (or whose students receive) federal grant or loan money? Why aren’t the NSSE results published for the hundreds of schools using it? Or, why not at least administer the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam given to 17 year olds again to 21 or 22 year olds near the end of their college career? Higher education has fought transparency and accountability, so researchers have to use the limited information available.

Basically, Arum and Roksa argue that students work little in college and consequently learn little. Most of us who have been in higher education for decades know that this is true, even when we don’t want to admit it. But why? You don’t have to read very far in Academically Adrift to find the answers. Below are a series of quotes either from the authors or from sources they cite, one from each of the first 10 pages of the book:

Page 1 “Colleges and universities, for all the benefits they bring, accomplish far less for their students than they should…” (former Harvard University President Derek Bok);

Page 2 “…there is growing evidence that individual and institutional interests and incentives are not closely aligned with a focus on undergraduate academic learning per se;”

Page 3 “Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks… have found that full-time college students through the early 1960s spent roughly 40 hours per week on academic pursuits…Today, full-time college students on average report spending only 27 hours per week on academic activities…;”

Page 4 “students preferentially enroll in classes (and subject areas) with instructors who grade leniently.”(Biostatistician Valen Johnson);

Page 5 “If students…receive high marks…with such limited academic effort, must not faculty bear some responsibility for the low standards that exist…?;

Page 6 “faculty are increasingly expected to focus on producing scholarship rather than simply concentrating on teaching and institutional service;”

Page 7 “…student satisfaction with courses was the primary measure faculty considered relevant: a measure that encourages … faculty to game the system by replacing rigorous … instruction with entertaining classroom activities, lower academic standards, and… high course marks;” (reporting on research of Ernest Boyer)

Page 8 “the faculty’s student orientation was negatively related to salary compensation;” (reporting on research of Alexander Astin)

Page 9 “…hours not used for teaching courses, for grading papers, or for meeting with students become available for research… for consulting… and other professional activities…” (William Massy and Robert Zemsky);

Page 10 “… undergraduate education… is not perceived as being significantly rewarded” (commenting on the word of several scholars.

Enough is enough. I believe every one of the above statements is largely, if not completely correct. I have been arguing for the past year that genuine change in higher education involves three “I’s”: information, incentives, and innovation, and that the last of these, innovation, will largely take care of itself if we solve the information and incentive problems. The realignment of incentives away from mindless publication of third-rate research in fourth-rate journals on trivial topics for near non-existent audiences must stop (the point from page 2 of Arum and Roksa). The claims that Academically Adrift inadequately characterizes higher education is largely a claim about information—if the CLA and NSSE are so bad, for example, come up with a test or small number of tests widely used across the country that measure the value added by colleges to the stock of human capital that each student has.

One thing that is discussed later in the book is that there are wide variations in performance within and between institutions and disciplines. One of the strongest opponents of any sort of information requirements for colleges in my experience has been the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents mostly liberal arts colleges. Yet the authors show that emphasis on traditional training in the liberal arts is associated with better performance—higher critical learning skills, for example. It seems to me that these schools, which are typically far less research oriented and less neglectful of undergraduate education, would shine as a whole if the world had good measures of performance of their students relative to those at large research universities that use lots of adjunct professors, de-emphasize undergraduate teaching and advising, etc.

I tend to abhor government regulations, but I think if governments are going to subsidize schools and their students, the requirement that schools report to the world the value added to the student from the educational experience at their institutions is not an unreasonable one. Universities and colleges respond to one thing, money. Force them to realign incentives or lose government grants. Cut off subsidies to schools where the correlation between professorial pay and devotion to undergraduate teaching is negative. Perhaps divide large grant-funded research universities into two parts—a research institute and an instructional institution, with most general state subsidies going to the instructional component. There are all sorts of way to effect change, but the generally correct Academically Adrift hopefully will be a wakeup call to governments and private donors who blindly subsidize higher education with no real knowledge as to what their money is buying.


  • Richard Vedder

    Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at Ohio University, a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, and a board member of the National Association of Scholars.

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