Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

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Why Isn’t Our Children Learning?

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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?

Not 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.

In 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.

Surprise Me!