In Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa paint a chilling portrait of what the university curriculum has become. The central evidence that the authors deploy comes from the performance of 2,322 students on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test administered to students in their first semester at university and again at the end of their second year: not a multiple-choice exam, but an ingenious exercise that requires students to read a set of documents on a fictional problem in business or politics and write a memo advising an official on how to respond to it. Data from the National Survey of Student Engagement, a self-assessment of student learning filled out by millions each year, and recent ethnographies of student life provide a rich background.
Their results are sobering. The Collegiate Learning Assessment reveals that some 45 percent of students in the sample had made effectively no progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing in their first two years. And a look at their academic experience helps to explain why. Students reported spending twelve hours a week, on average, studying—down from twenty-five hours per week in 1961 and twenty in 1981. Half the students in the sample had not taken a course that required more than twenty pages of writing in the previous semester, while a third had not even taken a course that required as much as forty pages a week of reading.
Results varied to some extent. At every institution studied, from research universities to small colleges, some students performed at high levels, and some programs fostered more learning than others. In general, though, two points come through with striking clarity. First, traditional subjects and methods seem to retain their educational value. Nowadays the liberal arts attract a far smaller proportion of students than they did two generations ago. Still, those majoring in liberal arts fields—humanities and social sciences, natural sciences and mathematics—outperformed those studying business, communications, and other new, practical majors on the CLA. And at a time when libraries and classrooms across the country are being reconfigured to promote trendy forms of collaborative learning, students who spent the most time studying on their own outperformed those who worked mostly with others.
Second, and more depressing: vast numbers of students come to university with no particular interest in their courses and no sense of how these might prepare them for future careers. The desire they cherish, Arum and Roksa write, is to act out “cultural scripts of college life depicted in popular movies such as Animal House (1978) and National Lampoon’s Van Wilder (2002).” Academic studies don’t loom large on their mental maps of the university. Even at the elite University of California, students report that on average they spend “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 thirteen hours a week studying.
For most of them, in the end, what the university offers is not skills or knowledge but credentials: a diploma that signals employability and basic work discipline. Those who manage to learn a lot often—though happily not always—come from highly educated families and attend highly selective colleges and universities. They are already members of an economic and cultural elite. Our great, democratic university system has become a pillar of social stability—a broken community many of whose members drift through, learning little, only to return to the economic and social box that they were born into.
universities have reshaped themselves over recent decades to support the current version of student life. Particularly in the natural and social sciences, professors are encouraged to feel that it is legitimate to devote most of their energy to research. When they make a discovery, they receive a reward: exemption from time in the classroom. Even those who don’t discover America, as the Italians used to say, spend as much time as they can in the lab or the library. Teaching has been reassigned, more and more, from tenured and tenure-track faculty to graduate students and adjuncts.
Is this a crisis? Arum and Roksa say no, since students and their parents continue to seek and pay for places at colleges and universities, and government and graduate schools continue to accept their products, and corporations continue to hire them (and to spend more than $50 billion a year to train their employees in the skills they need). But those already born into the wealthy and professional classes benefit disproportionately from the best educations. Acquire any sort of college education, and you’ll make more money than you would have if you didn’t. But don’t expect you’ll make what you would have if you had studied applied math at Stanford. And no one knows how long families will be able and willing to pay for four years of largely symbolic training that steadily becomes more expensive and loses impact.
Many reform proposals are circulating—mostly the sort that will make matters worse. In Texas, where the debate about public universities has reached an especially sharp pitch, articulate and well-funded critics demand that faculty teach more students at lower cost. But there’s only one way to accomplish that: pushing still more undergraduates into enormous lecture halls where they have no personal contact with the professor
Student motivation for learning, college policy on rewarding research vs. teaching, these are the two big problems that will be relieved by new technologies