College Graduates Are Academically Adrift

Repost I meant for this to run two days, but events overtook. Therefore, I’m restoring it to the top for the remainder of the day.

Academically AdriftAcademically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa

In his justly famous Introduction to Logic, Irving Copi asks us as homework to identify the fallacy in this argument:

Our nation is a democracy and dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal. We believe in equality of opportunity for everyone, so our colleges and universities should admit every applicant, regardless of his or her economic or educational background [7th ed., pp 127-128].

I will not be surprised if you do not see it; indeed, this argument is universally taken as sound. But the fallacy, hidden by layers of unconsciously assimilated politics, shines if you replace “colleges and universities” with (say) “major league sports franchises” and “educational background” with “athletic ability.”

One reason the fallacy passes for truth is because people (and professors) assume they know what college means. They often do not. College provides three functions: research, job training (majors like “business” and “nursing”), and imparting wisdom (what is thought of as a classical education). These functions, though they have little in common, are usually housed in the same facilities so the confusion about which is meant when using the word “college” is natural.

Arum and Roksa define by implication: college is a mixture of job training and (what I will call) traditional college. This is important because the majority of kids entering college do so for job training and arrive finding a strange and unfortunate mixture of training and rigor which characterizes undergraduate education in America.

A “growing proportion of high school graduates are entering higher education” because of the increase in “access.” But the problem is that too many kids are coming. Whether it is because of inability or inadequate preparation, many can’t hack the work. These facts explain the authors’ thesis: “We find disturbing evidence that many contemporary college academic programs are not particularly rigorous or demanding.” This is so because if the traditional rigor were not slackened at the same rate as the increase in enrollment, too many kids would be flunked out (taking with them valuable diversity and money).

The authors never make this connection, but they do that say students “expect”—this is the key word—“to enroll in college and complete bachelor’s degrees, even when they are poorly prepared to do so.” Since enrollments are still increasing, it is a safe prediction that the performance of the average graduate will decrease (this can be so even if the number of top performers remains fixed).

The authors offer no theories nor recommendations: the closest they come is to suggest tying school-level grants to student outcomes. Their goal is to instead provide statistics about who is doing well and who poorly. They excel at this; but the prose is so dry that the reader is advised to extinguish all flames while reading: this is a book by specialists aimed at the same; a third of the bulk is taken by footnoted charts.

Most statistics come from a pre- and post-test of the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) test given upon matriculation and after two years, a period during which it is presumed students learn something. The CLA works by providing a jumble of materials surrounding a theme, which students must plow through to write a memo. The memo is graded for its analytical reasoning, writing effectiveness and mechanics, and problem solving.

Whatever weaknesses the CLA has—there are critics and all tests are imperfect—it surely mimics a routine task of cubicle dwellers, i.e. those ex-students hired because they have “degrees.” Surely kids should become better at these tasks after paying two full years of tuition. However, kids only average about a “seven percent gain.” And many students’ scores decrease: “With a large sample of over 2,300 students, we observe no statistically significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills for at least 45 percent of the students in our study.”

The real kicker is this: “There is some evidence that college students improved their critical thinking skills more in the past than they do today.” I would only quibble with the word some; it should be plenty. Anyway, the results are in line with the increasing-enrollment-decreasing-rigor theory.

There are no surprises in the results, not even a mild one: students with better educated parents did better, students who were better prepared did better, whites and Asians did better, students with better SAT scores did better, students who had more contact with their professors outside the classroom did better, students who studied alone did better.

In every measure, Business students did worst, followed closely by Education or Social Work majors. Science and Math students did best (and quite well), followed by Humanities majors. Health, Communications, Engineering, and Computer Science students were in the middle. Blacks studied less than whites, and were more likely to enroll in easier courses. Students with educated parents studied more.

My experience teaching adds to the evidence that Business students are the poorest and least motivated: for many (not all!) of these kids, college is the place to receive their “degree” without which they cannot progress. The idea that they should be made to learn anything that isn’t immediately useful mystifies most of them.

But credit hours must be earned! So students avoid difficult courses and instead take ones which are “soooo easy” (a direct quote). “Students often embraced a ‘credentialist-collegiate orientation’ that focused on earning a degree with as little effort as possible…12 percent of coursework was devoted to other subjects that included courses on their transcripts in areas as diverse as golf, tennis, and ‘ultimate Frisbee.'” More “courses on student transcripts had the terms race, gender, or sex in their titles…[others] had the words cinema, film, or movies in their course titles…and [more] had the term sexuality in their titles.”

They quote studies from Mary Grigsby, who found “that 70 percent of students reported that social learning was more important than academics…which they referred to as ‘work’ in contrast to social learning, which was regarded as ‘fun.'” Only an academic could prefer the euphemism “social learning” over “partying,” but let that pass: these books and papers must get past peer review.

Some trivia: a survey of time spent showed 24% sleeping (estimated), 9% playing working, 51% socializing, and only 9% in class and 7% studying. Yes, only 16% working. “Consistent with other studies, we find that students are not spending a great deal of time outside of the classroom on their coursework….37 percent of students reported spending less than five hours per week preparing for their courses.” That’s self report, incidentally, so it would not shock to learn the real number was even less. In banal language, they announce that the “limited number of hours students spend studying is consistent with the emergence of a college student culture focused on social life and strategic management of work requirements.”

Why are so many kids going to college instead of finding a job or searching for a trade school? The authors cite James Rosenberg’s research of high school guidance counselors: “[Kids] receive ‘motivational platitudes’ that emphasize a ‘warm, fuzzy approach” focused on ‘personal growth.’ Students are told: ‘to believe in themselves,’ ‘put forth more effort,’ or ‘establish themselves a little more as a person.”

Seeing college as a business and students in the role of “consumers” does “not necessarily yield improved outcomes” and there is no reason to expect that “consumers will “prioritize learning…Growing numbers of students are sent to college at increasingly higher costs, but for a large proportion of them the gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication are either exceedingly small or empirically nonexistent.” Students “might graduate, but they are failing to develop the higher-order cognitive skills that it is widely assumed college students should master.”

There is not one lever to pull to fix the situation, but many. First, research and graduate apprenticeship training should be separated from undergraduate education, which itself should be split in two: traditional classical education, reserved for the demonstrably best and brightest, and technical training, where the great mass of students would flow. The latter would train all those whose main purpose in attending college is to get a job.

This training, depending on the difficulty of the subject, should be for one to three full years (counting summers): business students would be out earning money in a year, nurses and engineers who have to accumulate more information would take three. We have to stop asking students to do what they cannot do and have no interest in doing.


  1. Speed

    It’s interesting that the rush to make government funded higher education available for all hasn’t included Medical Schools. Econ 101 tells us that limiting the supply of doctors tends to drive up the price of medical care and quality of graduates is assured by the requirement to pass a standard test.

    At least one for-profit is filling the void.
    American University of the Caribbean

    Separately, the governor of Ohio is promoting three year university programs …

    Under his proposal, a faculty member would teach an extra class every two years. Universities also would have to develop three-year undergraduate degrees.

    … the idea of a three-year undergraduate degree gained prominence in October 1991 when S. Frederick Starr, then president of private Oberlin College, wrote in an opinion piece for the New York Times that higher education was too expensive and that one solution would be to offer students a degree in three years.

  2. Katie

    When the time and course requirements for (what should be) a four-year degree slip—why not make things easier all around and designate such schools that provide truncated programs as “community colleges.”

  3. Ray

    I became an engineer. I liked and considered majoring in physics, but opted for EE because you didn’t see any want ads for physicists in the papers. One of my friends received a BS in physics and later went back to school for an MSEE because he coulldn’t find work as a BS physicist, everybody wanted a PhD. Sometimes trade school (engineering) is better than a degree in a science. BTW, you would have to take a killer course load to complete engineering school in three years going full time. When I went to graduate school I went full time for two years and that got old real quick.

  4. Marty

    I’m sure it’s wishful tinking, but wouldn’t it make sense to look at each field and make a judgment as to how much post-secondary education is actually necessary before one is prepared fro an entry-level or even (god forbid) apprenticeship position?

    The old normal schools certainly were more effective than our current bloated Schools of Education. I’m old enough to remember that B-schools really taught MBA’s in the general busisness area, and undergrads learned actual fields like Finance or Marketing.

    But in any case, if one’s goal is a job, we would all be better served by minimizing the time spent in school and then getting the person out into their field.

  5. JH

    The first paragraph is… uhm.. interesting.

    Instead of replacing words to show the fallacy, I would examine its contrapositive statement.

    I haven’t heard any statements like that in any meetings on campus. The way it is now, all students who want to go to college will have the opportunity because they can find a college that will accept them. Community colleges exist for good reasons. I don’t think it has nothing to do with equality of opportunity.

  6. JH

    I don’t think it has “anything” to do with equality of opportunity.

  7. Hasdrubal

    Can’t really blame the schools or the students when the real drive for degrees is coming from business hiring practices. While having a degree has pretty much always been a competitive advantage for job seekers, more and more businesses are flat out requiring a degree (don’t matter what degree, just a degree) to even submit a resume.

    My anecdote: A company I worked at had a team comprised entirely of contractors. A new manager came in and decided he wanted that group insourced. So all the contractors, everyone with 2-5 years experience in position, applied for their own jobs. The hitch: Company policy required a bachelors degree to be an employee, no exceptions. So none of the contractors resumes even made it past the initial HR screening, every person was canned and replaced with new hires that had 0 experience but bachelors degrees. Quality of work plummeted, but hey, at least everyone was qualified for the position!

    Why employers are requiring a bachelors is a whole other question, but that’s the way the world is turning. So anyone who wants a job outside of low level retail or manufacturing pretty much has complete a college education.

    One of the big tricks for overhauling the education system will be to get employers to accept the credentials that it puts out.

  8. Mark T

    There’s another fallacy that was not mentioned… equality of opportunity is not the same as equality of outcome. This is often confused by collectivists and the otherwise undeducated. Equality of opportunity means that you have a right to apply for any education you want. Equality of outcome means you have a right to receive any education you want. With the former you still have to pass the test to get in. With the latter, well, we get what your post articulates in such a detailed manner (which, I have seen, seems to be your norm!)

    I am fortunate that my degrees are in a field that will likely always be in shortage (EE,) and my specialty is one that not just any idiot can jump into because he thinks he has a right to (signal processing.) I feel sorry for History majors… not because their educations are worth less and less with every new graduate, but because they think their educations are worth more than reality dictates.


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