Why Did ‘Academically Adrift’ Strike a Chord?

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by myself and Josipa Roksa  (2011) had 67 pages of statistical tables and was described as “a dense tome that could put Ambien out of business.” Yet it was one of those rare social science books that found a readership and influence outside of typical disciplinary boundaries. 

Why did Academically Adrift capture more attention than one would expect?  We can potentially find an answer to this question by considering a recent study by Pamela Barnhouse Walters and Annette Lareau that focuses on why some
educational research ends up being influential. Walters and Lareau argue that “it is the consistency of the research findings with prevailing political concerns, with prevailing understandings of what is wrong with schools and schooling, and
with already-formed policy preferences of powerful social groups” that
determines its influence on policy development.

According to Chester Finn, educational research shapes policy, “when
advocates, policy makers and journalists… (are) able to use these studies to
devise, justify, or sustain a reform agenda. Thus the research is less a source
of change and more an ‘arsenal’ for those already fighting the policy wars.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the most hostile response to the work came from those associated with promoting the expansion of student service infrastructure on college campuses.  In recent decades, as we noted in Academically Adrift, this is the area of colleges and universities that has grown most rapidly.  As full-time faculty positions have decreased in relative terms, quasi-professional staffing on campus has increased and been charged with taking greater responsibility for ensuring the general well-being and promoting the social engagement and attachment of students with college life.  Social engagement policy and programs on campuses were promoted in part to reduce the high attrition rates of college students – since the more individuals are integrated into campus social life, the less likely they are to drop out.

In recent decades, however, advocates of increased social engagement went a step further.  Educational researchers identified an association between self-reported learning and social engagement.  Based on these findings, social engagement was advocated as a strategy to promote both retention and learning.

Academically Adrift was an explicit challenge to this research and programmatic paradigm.  In our project, we found no evidence that social engagement was associated with positive learning outcomes.  Our work thus was understood as in direct opposition to those promoting such investments in college as well as a research apparatus that was dependent on the use of survey instruments focused on self-reported learning.  Criticism from these quarters sought to discredit the work by challenging the CLA measure. The CLA was argued to be incapable of measuring generic collegiate learning – regardless of the fact that in our study it was demonstrated to be sensitive to instruction         

Roksa and I, however, were the first to admit to the limitations of the CLA.  All
assessment instruments are by definition limited and imperfect.  Clearly, though, the CLA was an improvement over the widespread use of self-reported learning measures that some of our critics had utilized in their work.  In addition, other researchers relying on a different national sample and an alternative objective multiple-choice assessment instrument designed to track higher order generic skills, such as critical thinking and complex reasoning, generated largely similar findings as those we reported on the CLA measure.  In addition, the low levels of
academic engagement we found in our work were consistent with a large number of other studies, including findings form some of our critics own survey
research.  We were not exaggerating the limited learning occurring in these setting, but instead attempting to report descriptive findings on the state of higher education accurately.

This is an excerpt from a paper delivered in New York City October 24 at a conference, “Changes in Higher Education Since the 1960s,” sponsored by Manhattan Institute and the journal Society.


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