How Colleges Fail Their Students—and Society

American higher education has seriously misguided priorities. Across the country, schools are lowering their academic standards while increasing amenities. Indeed, given the proliferation of luxurious dorms, world-class student exercise facilities, and gourmet dining halls, one might say that American colleges and universities emphasize recreation over education.

Unsurprisingly, students are losing out. In their new book, Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa show that college graduates pay for the decline in academic rigor in low labor market success and unsatisfied employers. Also, poorly trained graduates are delaying their transition into productive adulthood.

Aspiring Adults Adrift follows the cohort first discussed in Academically Adrift, the authors’ previous work. In Academically Adrift, the authors used results from the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), a post-college exam that tests students’ gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication. to conclude that students learn very little during college. Though Aspiring Adults Adrift doesn’t break much new ground, it’s invaluable for concretely demonstrating that higher education now treats students as consumers rather than as pupils.

Related: Why Did ‘Academically Adrift’ Strike A Chord?

According to a recent study of University of California undergraduates, students spent an average of almost 46 percent of their time socializing and recreating — not counting time spent on extra-curriculars. Adults Adrift finds similar trends. Almost 40 percent of students in the study spent less than five hours a week studying.  Half of students did not have a single class during college that required at least 20 total pages of writing during the entire semester. To that end, the authors suggest that colleges teach, and students believe, that “personal development” is about successful social endeavors rather than academic achievement.

Unfortunately—but perhaps somewhat predictably–minimal student effort coupled with dismal overall academic gains leads to poor labor market experiences for many graduates.  In total, about 15 percent of graduates in the study were unemployed in 2011; 4 percent were considered “underemployed,” working less than 20 hours a week; and 15 percent were working full time but earning less than $20,000 a year. On the other hand, almost 30 percent of graduates were working full-time and earning more than $40,000; 21 percent were working full-time earning between $30,000 and $40,000.

Students’ academic growth over four years, as measured by the CLA, accounted for much of the variation between high and low levels of labor market success, as did choice of college major. Controlling for background factors such as race and college selectivity, students who demonstrated high gains in academic growth had an unemployment rate of about 5 percent. By contrast, about 7 percent of students who showed poor gains were unemployed.

In some cases, choice of college major counteracted the effects of low engagement and poor academic improvement. Still, the likelihood of being fired from a job within two years of graduation was highly related to CLA growth. While about 10 percent of low academic gainers were let go from jobs, only about 7 percent of those with high gains on the CLA lost their jobs. While 15 percent of low-performing students were employed in non-skilled jobs after graduation, just 10 percent of high gainers were employed in such jobs.

Related: Let’s Scuttle the University as Hotel

The authors made a more startling discovery, though. Despite pitiful levels of academic engagement, poor improvements on assessments of collegiate skills, and for many graduates, unremarkable success in the labor market, students themselves were blissfully ignorant of their modest achievements. In fact, the vast majority of students were inexplicably proud of their poor success. Among students who did not make any real progress on the CLA, fully 81 percent reported that college had significantly improved their critical thinking skills; and 65 percent said college had improved their writing skills.

Such unwarranted optimism harms students in the long run. If students don’t acquire the academic skills they need to become successful adults in come, they likely won’t obtain them anywhere else. There are national consequences, too. Arum and Roksa argue that colleges and universities remain the best institutions we have for sustaining and growing the nation’s human capital. Decreased academic gains means diminished national growth.

The authors lay the blame squarely on our colleges.  “Rather than providing rigorous academic experiences to promote undergraduate learning and character formation,” they write, “colleges and universities have embraced a model that focuses on encouraging social engagement and sociability, supporting students’ psychological well-being, and catering to satisfying the consumer preferences of emerging adults.”

Aspiring Adults Adrift shows that when higher education treats students as consumers, it does a great disservice both to them and to the country. Unless colleges discard the ethos of entitlement for one of real achievement, they’ll find themselves in the garbage bin.

Peter Sacks

Peter Sacks

Peter Sacks is an author, economist, essayist and social critic.

One thought on “How Colleges Fail Their Students—and Society”

  1. When your administrators try to dictate what you teach and how you grade (so they can continue to collect loan money from students), your standards will go down. High standards require administrative backing of the teaching faculty. (Notice I didn’t say professorate, since many of them don’t teach.)

    Since a good 2/3 of all teaching faculty are adjuncts–and adjuncts are the most vulnerable to administrative action–the administrators end up destroying the incentive of 2/3 of their teaching faculty to make true academic demands on their students. If an adjunct gives an F and a student complains, the administrator is far more likely to back the paying student than the disposable adjunct. The F student gets a C (or even A), the adjunct gets cowed or canned, and academic rigor dies without a fight.

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