Drawing on survey responses, transcript data, and results from the Collegiate Learning Assessment (a standardized test taken by students in their first semester and at the end of their second year), Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa concluded that a significant percentage of undergraduates are failing to develop the broad-based skills and knowledge they should be expected to master. Here is an excerpt from Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press), their new book based on those findings.

 

 "With regard to the quality of research, we tend to evaluate faculty the way the Michelin guide evaluates restaurants," Lee Shulman, former president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, recently noted. "We ask, 'How high is the quality of this cuisine relative to the genre of food? How excellent is it?' With regard to teaching, the evaluation is done more in the style of the Board of Health. The question is, 'Is it safe to eat here?'" Our research suggests that for many students currently enrolled in higher education, the answer is: not particularly. 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. At least 45 percent of students in our sample did not demonstrate any statistically significant improvement in Collegiate Learning Assessment [CLA] performance during the first two years of college. [Further study has indicated that 36 percent of students did not show any significant improvement over four years.] While these students may have developed subject-specific skills that were not tested for by the CLA, in terms of general analytical competencies assessed, large numbers of U.S. college students can be accurately described as academically adrift. They might graduate, but they are failing to develop the higher-order cognitive skills that it is widely assumed college students should master. These findings are sobering and should be a cause for concern.


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While higher education is expected to accomplish many tasks—and contemporary colleges and universities have indeed contributed to society in ways as diverse as producing pharmaceutical patents as well as prime-time athletic games—existing organizational cultures and practices too often do not put a high priority on undergraduate learning. Faculty and administrators, working to meet multiple and at times competing demands, too rarely focus on either improving instruction or demonstrating gains in student learning.

More troubling still, the limited learning we have observed in terms of the absence of growth in CLA performance is largely consistent with the accounts of many students, who report that they spend increasing numbers of hours on nonacademic activities, including working, rather than on studying. They enroll in courses that do not require substantial reading or writing assignments; they interact with their professors outside of classrooms rarely, if ever; and they define and understand their college experiences as being focused more on social than on academic development.

Moreover, we find that learning in higher education is characterized by persistent and/or growing inequality. There are significant differences in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills when comparing groups of students from different family backgrounds and racial/ethnic groups. More important, not only do students enter college with unequal demonstrated abilities, but those inequalities tend to persist—or, in the case of African-American students relative to white students, increase—while they are enrolled in higher education.

Despite the low average levels of learning and persistent inequality, we have also observed notable variation in student experiences and outcomes, both across and within institutions. While the average level of performance indicates that students in general are embedded in higher-education institutions where only very modest academic demands are placed on them, exceptional students, who have demonstrated impressive growth over time on CLA performance, exist in all the settings we examined. In addition, students attending certain high-performing institutions had more-beneficial college experiences in terms of experiencing rigorous reading/writing requirements and spending more hours studying. Students attending these institutions demonstrated significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than did students enrolled elsewhere.

The Implications of Limited Learning

Notwithstanding the variation and the positive experiences in certain contexts, the prevalence of limited learning on today's college campuses is troubling indeed. While the historian Helen Horowitz's work reminds us that the phenomenon of limited learning in higher education has a long and venerable tradition in this country—in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, "college discipline conflicted with the genteel upbringing of the elite sons of Southern gentry and Northern merchants"—this outcome today occurs in a fundamentally different context. Contemporary college graduates generally do not leave school with the assumption that they will ultimately inherit the plantations or businesses of their fathers. Occupational destinations in modern economies are increasingly dependent on an individual's academic achievements. The attainment of long-term occupational success in the economy requires not only academic credentials, but very likely also academic skills. As report after blue-ribbon report has reminded us, today's jobs require "knowledge, learning, information, and skilled intelligence." These are cognitive abilities that, unlike Herrnstein and Murray's immutable IQ construct, can be learned and developed at school.

Something else has also changed. After World War II, the United States dramatically expanded its higher-education system and led the world for decades, often by a wide margin, in the percentage of young people it graduated from college. Over the past two decades, while the U.S. higher-education system has grown only marginally, the rest of the world has not been standing still. As Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, has observed: "In the 1990s, however, as the importance of a college-educated work force in a global economy became clear, other nations began making the kinds of dramatic gains that had characterized American higher education earlier. In contrast, by the early 1990s, the progress the United States had made in increasing college participation had come to a virtual halt. For most of the 1990s, the United States ranked last among 14 nations in raising college-participation rates, with almost no increase during the decade."

For the first time in recent history, many countries today graduate higher percentages of their youth from college than does the United States. While the United States still ranks second among Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in terms of adult workers' bachelor-level-degree attainment, it has dropped to sixth when higher-education attainment of only the most recent cohort of young adults is considered. "We may still have more than our share of the world's best universities. But a lot of other countries have followed our lead, and they are now educating more of their citizens to more advanced levels than we are," the recent federal report "A Test of Leadership" observed. "Worse, they are passing us by at a time when education is more important to our collective prosperity than ever."

The U.S. higher-education system has in recent years arguably been living off its reputation as being the best in the world. The findings in our study, however, should remind us that the system's international reputation—largely derived from graduate programs at a handful of elite public and private universities—serves as no guarantee that undergraduate students are being appropriately challenged or exposed to educational experiences that will lead to academic growth throughout the wide range of diverse U.S. colleges and universities. While the U.S. higher-education system still enjoys the competitive advantage of a sterling international reputation, in recent decades it has been increasingly surpassed in terms of quantity (i.e., the percentage of young adults it graduates), and its quality is coming under increasing scrutiny. The U.S. government's recent decision to participate in international efforts led by the OECD to measure higher-education academic performance on a comparative basis cross-nationally, following the less-than-stellar comparative results observed in international comparisons of adult literacy, provides little reassurance that the system's reputation will not become increasingly challenged and debated. In an increasingly globalized and competitive world system, the quality and quantity of outcomes of a country's education system is arguably related to a nation's future trajectory and international economic position.

The changing economic and global context facing contemporary college graduates convinces us that the limited learning that exists on U.S. campuses—even if it has been a part of the higher-education landscape since the system's inception—qualifies today as a significant social problem and should be the subject of concern of policy makers, practitioners, parents, and citizens alike. While the phenomenon can accurately be described as a social problem, the situation that exists on today's college campuses in no way qualifies as a crisis, and we have consciously avoided the use of rhetoric here that would point to "a crisis in higher education."

Limited learning in the U.S. higher-education system cannot be defined as a crisis, because institutional and system-level organizational survival is not being threatened in any significant way. Parents—although somewhat disgruntled about increasing costs—want colleges to provide a safe environment where their children can mature, gain independence, and attain a credential that will help them be successful as adults. Students in general seek to enjoy the benefits of a full collegiate experience that is focused as much on social life as on academic pursuits, while earning high marks in their courses with relatively little investment of effort. Professors are eager to find time to concentrate on their scholarship and professional interests. Administrators have been asked to focus largely on external institutional rankings and the financial bottom line. Government funding agencies are primarily interested in the development of new scientific knowledge. In short, the system works. No actors in the system are primarily interested in undergraduates' 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.

Richard Arum is a professor of sociology and education at New York University and director of the Education Research Program of the Social Science Research Council. Josipa Roksa is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. Their book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, is being published this month by the University of Chicago Press.