Academics Adrift?

By Sarah E. Igo

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

It verges on redundancy to review Academically Adrift, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s blockbuster study of “limited college learning” that appeared early this year. Its findings have been rehearsed in venues from the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed to the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the New Yorker, National Public Radio,, the Huffington Post, and ABC’s Nightly News. In a fashion that is rare for a serious social scientific work, it has contributed to—and amplified—an ongoing debate about the value of undergraduate education in the United States, supplying new force and empirical heft to narratives already in circulation. Indeed, one of the most significant facts about Academically Adrift, a surprise even to its authors, is that attention to its contents has not noticeably diminished in the months since its mid-January release.

For those who somehow missed the media blitz, sociologists Arum (of New York University) and Roksa (of the University of Virginia) followed twenty-three hundred college students at twenty-four institutions spanning the US higher education spectrum in order to determine whether undergraduates were indeed developing the higher-order skills that many colleges claim to prize and even use to define their mission: “critical thinking,” complex reasoning, and clear written communication. To do so, they relied on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), a tool the authors rightly describe as state of the art in the assessment world, if still clunky and imperfect. The results can only be described as bleak: 45 percent of students showed virtually no gains on the CLA between their first and second year—and the numbers don’t look much better by senior year, judging by Arum and Roksa’s follow-up studies. Moreover, instead of dissolving, class differences on the test persisted, and racial gaps widened over time. (Less remarked on but equally distressing are the study’s findings about college graduates’ low engagement with public affairs, as measured by their reading of newspapers and their discussions with family and colleagues one year beyond commencement.)

Relying on student surveys, Arum and Roksa go on to supply damning evidence of not just limited learning but limited effort by undergraduates. College students, they found, spent an average of just twelve hours a week studying (compared to forty-plus hours socializing), with a rather shocking 37 percent devoting less than five hours a week to preparing for class. Some of the blame—and there is plenty of it to go around in this account—may be chalked up to the minimalist requirements of their professors. Half of the students in the sample reported that they had not taken a class in the last semester requiring more than twenty pages of writing in the entire course, and a third had not taken a class requiring more than forty pages of reading a week. The good news, at least for the fun-maximizing and work-avoiding students that the authors profile, is that the mean grade point average still hovers around 3.2.

Critics have of course already questioned the study’s framework and statistical methods, charging that the usefulness of its findings is limited, on the one hand, by its focus on “critical thinking” at the expense of discipline-specific knowledge or leadership skills gained from extracurricular involvement, and, on the other, by its dependence on an instrument like the CLA. Humanists have objected and will object to the book’s framing of the life of the mind in the economistic language of incentives, investments, inputs, and outcomes. Some of these quibbles are doubtless warranted. But given Academically Adrift’s careful construction and consonance with other well-respected studies, including the National Survey of Student Engagement, it is imperative to situate the book in contemporary discussions of American higher education and to ask what its analysis might mean for us as academics and university educators.

The study’s greatest strength may be in its demystification of higher education, the “system” if you will, for those within it. In this way it is reminiscent of Anne Matthews’s more ethnographic Bright College Years, which, chapter by chapter, chronicled the contemporary university through the eyes of different constituencies, revealing the fundamentally different orientations among various parties ostensibly sharing the same institution. Academically Adrift similarly dissects the working pieces of higher education to reveal a jumble of “stakeholders,” with each group—students, faculty, administrators, parents—pursuing its own agenda. Each gets something different out of the equation. But—and here is the crux of the matter—all collude in their studied neglect of undergraduate learning. Students and faculties develop informal “treaties” wherein faculty offer low expectations in exchange for glowing course evaluations; administrators concentrate on building upscale dorms and gyms; parents get the degrees they want for their children. Long-term goals, the territory of no one in particular—whether democratic citizenship or global competitiveness—have little traction compared to short-term incentives: obtaining tenure and other professional benefits, lifting specific institutions in the rankings, or obtaining workforce credentials with the least amount of pain. In other words, everyone games the system. It is only those on the outside, private-sector employers and legislatures (neither the favorite audience of academics), who are applying pressure on the question.

In a recent conversation, Josipa Roksa explained that the authors of Academically Adrift didn’t anticipate that their book would attract so much publicity: “We expected two or maybe three weeks of interest.” She has been further surprised by how much the book’s message has resonated within higher education circles, by the nods of recognition that the book’s portrait of college culture elicits. Although she notes the attempt by some campuses “high up in the status hierarchy” to exempt themselves from the picture—an academic’s or administrator’s version of “not in my backyard” (despite Arum and Roksa’s finding that “limited learning” is systemic and universal, with more variation within than among institutions)—many see in the numbers a confirmation of what they know more impressionistically from their own professional lives. The fact that many institutions have adopted internal self-assessment measures in recent years, she suggests, may account for the familiarity.

Outside the academy, the authors’ presence on the talk-show circuit is hardly accidental. Some of the problems Arum and Roksa identify have been long in the making and are indeed central to higher education’s formation in the United States. The “massification” of postwar universities, the “mission creep” that has existed at least since the coining of the term “multiversity” in the 1960s, the shift toward a reward system that favors research and outward orientation over teaching and institutional service, the declining moral and pedagogical authority of college and university instructors in the face of consumerist prerogatives, the increasing weight given by administrators to rankings and institutional reputation—none of this is new. And students’ instrumental attitudes toward their studies and intense focus on sociability are perhaps the least modern aspects of the modern university.

But sobering evidence in Academically Adrift of all these trends has arrived in a climate of straitened budgets, international comparisons suggesting that US college graduates are falling behind, and new pressures on universities to “perform” or reform: a moment when public confidence in American institutions of higher learning has perhaps reached a historic low.

In the aftermath of the economic crash, for example, David Leonhardt of the New York Times opined that if one “were going to come up with a list of organizations whose failures had done the most damage to the American economy in recent years,” one should begin with Wall Street and regulatory agencies, move on to the auto industry, and then turn to public universities. Citing growing dropout rates and pointing to “failure factories” that graduate only a small fraction of their entering students, Leonhardt claimed that universities were no longer succeeding in turning teenagers into educated adults. Similar conclusions have been drawn in the American Prospect, which called for the Department of Education to compile “a lemon list of schools that charge too much and deliver too little” (complete with “buyer beware” warnings), and the corridors of Congress, where “truth in tuition” plans have been floated. The 2006 report of then–Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education, of course, was already headed down this road, demanding “much-needed transparency and accountability” from the nation’s higher education establishment.

Peter Brooks recently observed that whereas older complaints about the academy were culture-war screeds about tenured radicals and multicultural curricula, the new ones are about stratification and “failing to educate.” Unlike ideological attacks, such charges must be answered by people who work in and run colleges and universities. The prescriptions Arum and Roksa outline for institutional and system-level reform hint at the depth of the problem. They do not recommend external accountability measures, a No Child Left Behind for universities that would impose crude rubrics rather than address something we still know very little about: college-level learning. Instead, they argue for reform from within. Institutions, under strong university leaders, must rededicate themselves to creating “cultures of learning.” All perverse incentives aside, colleges must themselves recognize their responsibility to oversee the moral and academic lives of their charges and develop a counternarrative stressing intellectual rigor over consumer-driven fun. More concretely, the authors suggest monitoring academic requirements, setting benchmarks and higher expectations, offering more writing- and reading-intensive courses, integrating teaching in a serious way into graduate training, and tying educational-innovation grants to documented student progress in learning.

These are sensible, if gentle, suggestions. But, for reasons Arum and Roksa make clear, few within the academy are interested enough to embrace them strongly, at least as a full-time project. It should be said that other organizations have stepped into the breach, hoping to refocus higher education on learning. These include the Association of American Colleges and Universities (with its Liberal Education and America’s Promise project), the National Survey of Student Engagement, the Lumina Foundation, and the New Leadership Alliance. Each of these organizations, however, has struggled to get colleges and universities, especially elite ones, to take notice. For, as Arum and Roksa explain, higher education is quite explicitly not in crisis, the language routinely employed to describe the K–12 system, 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.” Seeing a system in stasis, the authors don’t really expect anything will change, absent an unspecified “exogenous shock.”

One wonders if that shock might come from the combination of a new discourse about higher education’s failures (prompted by books like Academically Adrift) and the agenda of parties rather less sympathetic to academics’ expertise and commitments than the organizations noted above. As Josipa Roksa points out, powerful DC lobbies are ready and eager to propose new metrics to define an “effective” college education. So are governors and state legislatures, backed into a corner by taxpayers and wielding punitive budget cuts, who believe they need to “do something” to fix their public universities. The judgments of those who work within institutions of higher education, whether public or private, will likely become less and less relevant in this context. Given this reality, the crisis may be closer at hand than Roksa and Arum think.

As such, their study’s visibility—and its call for change—ought not to be dismissed as a media event that will eventually pass. Ignoring the increasing drumbeat of “accountability” or the new scrutiny of undergraduate learning may work for now, but should we who spend our lives in universities risk this, either ethically or strategically? The financial and political pressures of the moment make doing so a roll of the dice. More to the point, isn’t it time that administrators and academics enter this debate about the quality and purposes of higher education and play a central role in steering it? Academically Adrift is a book that we cannot ignore, for reasons of pragmatic politics as well as professional pride. It would be a shame if the rest of the world sits up and takes notice of its findings while scholars remain adrift.

Sarah E. Igo, associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University, is the author of The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public and the codirector of the National Forum on the Future of Liberal Education. Her e-mail address is [email protected].