Why Isn’t Our Children Learning?

March 10, 2011 | 2 books mentioned 11 5 min read

Anyone who has attended or sent a child to college in the last thirty years has to be asking themselves: what do universities do with all that tuition money? Sure, the dorms are nicer than they used to be and the dining hall food is closer to something a person might actually eat, and, yes, some university presidents are paying themselves like CEOs, but a few new buildings and some overpaid executives cannot possibly cause tuition to rise at four times the rate of inflation for a generation. So, where is all that money going?

coverNot toward making undergraduates smarter, according to a hard-hitting new report, Academically Adrift, by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. The authors followed 2,322 students at 24 universities around the U.S. and found that after two years in college, 45 percent of them had made no appreciable progress in “critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills” – the very things college students are supposed to be learning during their freshman and sophomore years. After four years of college, according to follow-up figures available online, only 36 percent of students made gains in those areas. Perhaps even more damningly, the authors found that these students spent an average of only 27 hours a week on their coursework, down from 40 hours a week in the early 1960s. The average high school kid, the authors say, spends more time on school work than today’s college students do.

Arum and Roksa pin the blame for this grim state of affairs on a campus culture that emphasizes social rather than academic pursuits and rewards professors for publishing articles in their fields more than for teaching their students. “As a college class, they deserve and have earned our sympathy,” the authors say of their subjects.

Unfortunately their inflated ambitions and high aspirations have not institutionally been met by equivalently high academic demands from their professors, nor have many of them found a sense of academic purpose or academic commitment at contemporary colleges.

Given how important – and timely – this report is, it’s a shame that its authors cannot write any better than this. Reading Academically Adrift is like being harangued over Thanksgiving dinner by your grumpy Uncle Fred, who just happens to have brought along a stack of bar graphs and regression analyses. Like your Uncle Fred, Arum and Roksa repeat themselves, a lot. They also have a gift for the laboriously documented statement of the obvious. (Turns out that teachers who expect more from their students tend to teach those students more. Who knew?) And, like your Uncle Fred, they are shocked – shocked, I tell you! – that the average 19-year-old, given a choice between studying and partying, will reach for the beer bong every time. But just because your Uncle Fred is a long-winded old fogey doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

As someone who has spent the past fifteen years teaching writing to college freshmen and sophomores, I picked up this book expecting to disagree with it. I like my students. I’ve taught my share of dullards, but as a group, the young people in my classes are smart, hard-working, and willing to learn. But I came away from Academically Adrift with the unpleasant sense that its authors had put their fingers on an ugly truth: that we are not asking near enough of college students these days. This isn’t because the youth of today is any lazier or more debauched than their forebears or because my fellow profs are bunch of careerist bums, or even because the administrators are craven capitalists. The problem on the contemporary American college campus has little to do with bad people or bad faith and everything to do with a complex system of skewed incentives.

At the heart of all university funding is an economic disconnect: the people footing the bill, primarily parents and the federal government, have a strong interest in seeing students get the best education they can, but they’re not the ones picking the college the student will attend. For the most part, the students themselves make that call, and while some are burning for knowledge and will go to any length to get it, many more want the degree and are aware that some studying might be involved, but mostly they just want to spend four years creating memories that will last a lifetime. Add to this the fact that modern universities have become factories for all manner of societal goods, from cutting-edge scientific research to star wide receivers, that have nothing to do with teaching kids to think, and you have a recipe for educational mediocrity.

As Arum and Roksa put it:

No actors in the system are primarily interested in undergraduate academic growth, although many are interested in student retention and persistence. Limited learning on college campuses is not a crisis because the institutional actors implicated in the system are receiving the organizational outcomes that they seek, and therefore neither the institutions themselves nor the system as a whole is in any way challenged or threatened.

This is godawful prose, but still an incisive insight: the system isn’t working, but no one is raising the alarm because everyone is getting what they want. Administrators are getting ever-increasing tuition payments. Professors are getting paid good money to work on their obscure intellectual obsessions. Parents are getting prestigious decals to put on the back windows of their SUVs. The U.S. government is getting a machine that churns out intellectual capital and draws smart immigrants from around the world. And students are getting four fun years of thirty-hour weeks and all the beer they can drink, with the promise of a valuable degree at the end.

Arum and Roksa argue that we can do much better – and that, in fact, we must. Not only did college students fifty years ago work harder than their grandchildren do today, but students at better schools are being asked to put in about 50 percent more hours of studying a week than kids at less prestigious schools. Now, as anyone who has taught at a state university can tell you, students there put in many more hours at off-campus jobs to pay their way – but not that much. Arum and Roksa cite one study of University of California students who put in 13 hours a week studying outside their classes, but “also spent twelve hours [a week] socializing with friends, eleven hours using computers for fun, six hours watching television, six hours exercising, five hours on hobbies, and three hours on other forms of entertainment.”

Nice work if you can get it, kids.

coverIn the final chapter, the authors speak half-heartedly about making universities report how much their students are actually learning during their four years rather than simply touting the SAT scores of their incoming freshmen, but even they admit that isn’t going to happen any time soon. In a society like ours, where tuition at public universities is going up not down, the problems seem particularly intractable. Except for one potentially heartening fact: Arum and Roksa focused on students entering college in 2005, at the peak of a national madness in which people believed one could get rich by merely buying a home and living in it. It’s not hard to imagine that nineteen-year-olds, watching their parents flip through bestsellers like The 4-Hour Work Week, might think all they needed to do to get a great job was hang out for four years doing bong hits until the degree came through. But it’s also not hard to imagine that kids entering college in the face of today’s rampant unemployment and the rise of China and India might decide that they’d better learn something, quick, or spend their twenties living above their parents’ garage.

Let’s hope they do. For better or for worse, college students are the customers, and they’re paying top dollar. If they want that money spent on hotel-quality dorm rooms and state-of-the-art gym equipment, that’s what they’ll get. But if they start demanding good teaching and training in the skills that will help them in the decades to come, then the educational-industrial complex will have to shift its gears to give them what they want.

is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Salon, and The Economist. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, and The Cortland Review. His debut novel, Blithedale Canyon, is due out from Regal House in June, 2022


  1. First, although the drinking age was 19 when I was a student, last I checked, it is now 21. Why is this not being enforced? Strictly? We need to decide if these are children (mom and dad MADE me go to college!) or adults (you’re old enough to kill children overseas. Pay your own tuition and drink all you want.) Why are doing this generation a great disservice by letting them have their cake and eat it too. You don’t wanna be here? Don’t. Get a job. Travel. Join the Peace Corp. Or the millitary. Not every life path needs college, and what’s the harm of starting at 20? 21? College is a priviledge, not a right, and I think we should start treating it was such.

    I just heard a disturbing commercial from Dunkin Donuts while in the car. A college girl was extolling the virtues of DD coffee because it allows her to stay up all night and cram, then forget everything an hour after the tesr. Ha ha, right?

    I think the problem starts much earlier, though. I love teaching writing on the college level, but I also teach grade and high schooler in workshop settings. I am appalled at how poorly educated some of these TEACHERS are! Of course, the children can’t think critically if there is no depth to the teaching. Here is a field where it seems, tragically, all you need to do is warm the seat for six years and you’ll get to mold yound minds. Heck, the Department of Ed will hire you before you finish; who needs those expensive, experienced teachers, anyway? And so what if your child’s teacher doesn’t know the difference between “there”, “their” and “they’re”, or can’t use. ” ‘s ” correctly?

    We need to raise the standards across the board and impliment some tough love. No, everyone doesn’t get to be a teacher. It’s a calling, not a space-holder till you get married. And no, if you have no desire to persue academics, you are not welcome on campus at this time. Call us when you’re ready. YOU, not your parents.

    But that’s just my opinion.

  2. I would ask a different question, why go to college for four years and waste most of your time drinking and partying? It is throwing all that money down the drain! Last week I was listening to a talk show about how amazing it is that so many individuals go to college and just pass their classes,or do not pass at all. Listeners called in and confirmed that this is the truth. One individual said that in her first two years of college she learned nothing. She had a great party life and barely attended class.
    I think one way to solve this problem is to shorten the years of undergrad that a student has to attend. When students know that they have four years to decide what they want to do and accomplish that they have a lot of time to fool around and study later. It is all the mind set. If college students know that they have only two years to graduate they might be more serious because they know they don’t have as much time to fool around.
    I think colleges are not bothering to deal with this problem because if their students are happy, keep coming, and they get their money they are happy. It will make life too difficult for them to try to change the situation.
    If institutions start to crack down on their students and ensure they are going to class and doing their work things would change. In the future all their students will thank them.

  3. How about the attitude issue of students with a sense of entitlement who put no value in what they learn, instead treating the college years as a place-keeper as they move on in life? As an older student who returned to college full-time after nearly a twenty-year gap, I am amazed at the complete lack of drive as well as pride that younger students exhibit.
    Maybe colleges should focus less on inclusive drives to push up enrollment and instead work on motivating those that truly want to be there. When you have a classroom with 22 students and 15 are openly texting, there’s little incentive to excel. I see teachers trying hard to fight the mindset of “I deserve to go to school-my parent’s pay for it-so deal with it” sort of students who are catered to instead of hauled out.

  4. I think the education problems start much earlier than college – they start at home with uninvolved parents who let their kids float through school and life. THAT is the biggest problem, and the fact that teachers do not have enough control of their classrooms anymore b/c they are contantly hamstrung by ill informed, ignorant parents who think that “little Johnny” can do no wrong and paronoid administrations who let the parents make the rules. Teachers aren’t allowed to teach and discipline their students anymore and we are now seeing the result. It seems that teachers are slso, more and more, responsible for trying to instill life lessons and other things that SHOULD BE the job of parents who obviously aren’t getting it done!! This takes time and money away from the things that students should be learning in school. That being said, I also think that standards are not high enough for teachers anymore. I don’t want to criticize all teachers here, but as one commentor already mentioned, when you have teachers who can’t even write properly, you know something is broken in the system. I don’t care if you are a math teacher who never even teaches writing, you should still be able to string a sentence together that is grammatically and structurally sound! These are certainly not the only problems in the education system but I do believe they are at the core of the problem!

  5. If it is possible to hang out and party for four years at someone else’s expense then why not go for it? If at the end of that four years you have made enough contacts that you have a large number of choices of career-track jobs then you would be stupid not to go for it.

    This is the myth. Get into Harvard. Party for four years making sure to become friends with a few sons and daughters of CEOS. Graduate and start working for six figures at your friend’s father’s company.

    This works for a few, I’m sure, but it’s probably as successful a strategy as buying lottery tickets.

    Lately our grade school and high school students have been imposed on more and more: more homework, more music lessons, more activities, more community services opportunities, etc. The ultimate goal being to fill a resume with enough stuff that one will be rewarded with the golden pass to Harvard.

    We are quickly generating an educational system similar to that in Japan and elsewhere: pressure cooker K-12, followed by four years of binge drinking in college, followed by career at company with college drinking buddies.

    An uninspiring, but tolerable, life if one can achieve it.

  6. It’s important to remember that most of our grandparents never went near a university. Neither of my maternal grandparents ever stepped foot in high school, for that matter (they’re both working-class european immigrants). Fact is, fifty years ago there were a lot less people attending college than there is now.

  7. I think you will find that the actual question is…

    ‘Why aren’t our children learning’

    Stop mangling the English language and then maybe, just maybe, your children will learn.

  8. Phew, I thought for a second my English grammar flew down the drain [re: isn’t/aren’t], and English isn’t even my 1st language.

    Furthermore, seriously? 27 hours per week, around 3-4 hours per day are not enough to sit down and study outside the academic institution? Hmm.

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