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Academically Adrift

Limited Learning on College Campuses

by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa

Paperback, 259 pages, Univ of Chicago Pr, List Price: $25 |


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

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Book Summary

Discusses the results and implications of a research study based on survey responses, transcript data, and the Collegiate Learning Assessment that looks at college students' improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills during their first two years of study.

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Excerpt: Academically Adrift

Academically Adrift

Limited Learning on College Campuses

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-02856-9


Acknowledgments.....................................................ix1 College Cultures and Student Learning.............................12 Origins and Trajectories..........................................333 Pathways through Colleges Adrift..................................594 Channeling Students' Energies toward Learning.....................915 A Mandate for Reform..............................................121Methodological Appendix.............................................145Notes...............................................................213Bibliography........................................................237Index...............................................................249

Chapter One

College Cultures and Student Learning

"Colleges and universities, for all the benefits they bring, accomplish far less for their students than they should," the former president of Harvard University, Derek Bok, recently lamented. Many students graduate college today, according to Bok, "without being able to write well enough to satisfy their employers ... reason clearly or perform competently in analyzing complex, non-technical problems." While concern over undergraduate learning in this country has longstanding roots, in recent years increased attention has been focused on this issue not only by former Ivy League presidents, but also by policy makers, practitioners, and the public. Stakeholders in the higher education system have increasingly come to raise questions about the state of collegiate learning for a diverse set of reasons. Legislators—and privately, middle-class parents as well—increasingly have expressed worry over the value and returns to their investments in higher education. Business leaders have begun to ask whether graduates have acquired the necessary skills to ensure economic competitiveness. And increasingly, educators within the system itself have begun to raise their voices questioning whether organizational changes to colleges and universities in recent decades have undermined the core educational functions of these institutions.

These diverse concerns about the state of undergraduate education have served to draw attention to measuring whether students are actually developing the capacity for critical thinking and complex reasoning at college. In a rapidly changing economy and society, there is widespread agreement that these individual capacities are the foundation for effective democratic citizenship and economic productivity. "With all the controversy over the college curriculum," Derek Bok has commented, "it is impressive to find faculty members agreeing almost unanimously that teaching students to think critically is the principal aim of undergraduate education." Institutional mission statements also echo this widespread commitment to developing students' critical thinking. They typically include a pledge, for example, that schools will work to challenge students to "think critically and intuitively," and to ensure that graduates will become adept at "critical, analytical, and logical thinking." These mission statements align with the idea that educational institutions serve to enhance students' human capital—knowledge, skills, and capacities that will be rewarded in the labor market. Economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, for example, have recently argued that increased investment in U.S. higher education attainment is required for both economic growth and reduced economic inequality. Goldin and Katz's recommendations rest on the assumption that increased college graduation rates will likely have such desirable economic outcomes because the labor market values "the highly analytical individual who can think abstractly." But what if increased educational attainment is not equivalent to enhanced individual capacity for critical thinking and complex reasoning?

While there has been a dearth of systematic longitudinal research on the topic, there are ample reasons to worry about the state of undergraduate learning in higher education. Policy makers and practitioners have increasingly become apprehensive about undergraduate education as there is growing evidence that individual and institutional interests and incentives are not closely aligned with a focus on undergraduate academic learning per se. While as social scientists we want to avoid the pitfalls of either propagating historically inaccurate sentimental accounts of a romantic collegiate past followed by a tragic "fall from grace" or, alternatively, scape-goating students, faculty, and colleges for the current state of affairs, it is imperative to provide a brief description of the historical, social, and institutional context in which the phenomenon under investigation manifests itself to illuminate its multifaceted dimensions.

Higher Education Context: Continuity and Change

Historians have noted that from the inception of U.S. colleges, many students often embraced a collegiate culture that had little to do with academic learning. While some students who used colleges to prepare for the ministry "avoided the hedonism and violence of their rowdy classmates" and focused on academic pursuits rather than extracurricular activities, the majority of students chose another path. For many students in past decades, college was a time when one "forged a peer consciousness sharply at odds with that of the faculty and of serious students." Undergraduates as a whole historically embraced a college life—complete with fraternities, clubs, and social activities—that was produced, shaped, and defined by a peer culture oriented to nonacademic endeavors.

Sociologists have long cautioned about the detrimental effects of peer cultures on an individual's commitment to academic pursuits in general and student learning in particular. Many students come to college not only poorly prepared by prior schooling for highly demanding academic tasks that ideally lie in front of them, but—more troubling still—they enter college with attitudes, norms, values, and behaviors that are often at odds with academic commitment. In recent cohorts of students, Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson have described the prevalence of "drifting dreamers" with "high ambitions, but no clear life plans for reaching them." These students "have limited knowledge about their chosen occupations, about educational requirements, or about future demand for these occupations." They enter college, we believe, largely academically adrift.

While prior historical scholarship reminds us that U.S. undergraduates have long been devoted to pursuing social interests at college, there is emerging empirical evidence that suggests that college students' academic effort has dramatically declined in recent decades. Labor economists Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, for example, have recently conducted critically important empirical work that meticulously examines data from twelve individual-level surveys of student time use from the 1920s to today. They have found that full-time college students through the early 1960s spent roughly forty hours per week on academic pursuits (i.e., combined studying and class time); at which point a steady decline ensued throughout the following decades. Today, full-time college students on average report spending only twenty-seven hours per week on academic activities—that is, less time than a typical high school student spends at school. Average time studying fell from twenty-five hours per week in 1961 to twenty hours per week in 1981 and thirteen hours per week in 2003. The trends are even more pronounced when Babcock and Marks identify the percentage of students who report studying more than twenty hours per week: in 1961, 67 percent of full-time college students reported this level of effort; by 1981, the percentage had dropped to 44 percent; today, only one in five full-time college students report devoting more than twenty hours per week on studying. Babcock and Marks carefully explored the extent to which changes in student effort simply reflect the fact that different types of individuals currently attend college and course taking patterns have changed. They found that such compositional explanations were inadequate: "Study time fell for students from all demographic subgroups, within race, gender, ability and family background, overall and within major, for students who worked in college and for those who did not, and at four-year colleges of every type, size, degree structure and level of selectivity."

Students' lack of academic focus at today's colleges, however, has had little impact on their grade point averages and often only relatively modest effects on their progress towards degree completion as they have developed and acquired "the art of college management," in which success is achieved primarily not through hard work but through "controlling college by shaping schedules, taming professors and limiting workload." Biostatistician Valen Johnson has taken advantage of unique data from Duke University on student course evaluations, grades, and enrollment decisions to demonstrate that students "preferentially enroll in classes (and subject areas) with instructors who grade leniently." For example, an undergraduate in Mary Grigsby's recent study of collegiate culture at a Midwestern public university commented:

I hate classes with a lot of reading that is tested on. Any class where a teacher is just gonna give us notes and a worksheet or something like that is better. Something that I can study and just learn from in five [minutes] I'll usually do pretty good in. Whereas, if I'm expected to read, you know, a hundred-and-fifty-page book and then write a three-page essay on it, you know, on a test let's say, I'll probably do worse on that test because I probably wouldn't have read the book. Maybe ask the kids, what's in this book? And I can draw my own conclusions, but I rarely actually do reading assignments or stuff like that, which is a mistake I'm sure, but it saves me a lot of time.

Grigsby's student not only saved a great deal of time with his approach to classes—hours that could be reapportioned to leisure pursuits—but also was able to do well by conventional standards of his grade point average and progress towards degree. The student observed: "You know I can get out of here with a 3.5 but it doesn't really matter if I don't remember anything.... It's one thing to get the grade in a class and it's another to actually take something from it, you know."

Students' ability to navigate academic course requirements with such modest levels of individual investment and cognitive effort points to a second set of social actors responsible for growing concern over undergraduate learning on today's campuses: the college professoriate. If one is to cast aspersions on student cultures that exist on college campuses today, one would do well to focus equal attention on the faculty cultures and orientations that have flourished in U.S. higher education. Learning at college, after all, is an activity that ideally emerges from an interaction between faculty and students. "What students and teachers mean by 'taking' and 'teaching' courses is determined not by subject or levels alone, but also by the intentions of the participants," Arthur Powell and his colleagues observed two decades ago about U.S. high schools. In these settings, formal and informal "treaties" often emerged: where teaching was "perceived as an art of capturing audiences and entertaining them," and teachers and students "arrange deals or treaties that promote mutual goals or that keep the peace." Higher education researcher George Kuh has extended this insight to colleges and universities, arguing that a "disengagement compact" has been struck on many contemporary campuses between faculty and students. This compact is described by Kuh as

"I'll leave you alone if you leave me alone." That is, I won't make you work too hard (read a lot, write a lot) so that I won't have to grade as many papers or explain why you are not performing well. The existence of this bargain is suggested by the fact that at a relatively low level of effort, many students get decent grades—B's and sometimes better. There seems to be a breakdown of shared responsibility for learning—on the part of faculty members who allow students to get by with far less than maximum effort, and on the part of students who are not taking full advantage of the resources institutions provide.

If students are able to receive high marks and make steady progress towards their college degrees with such limited academic effort, must not faculty bare some responsibility for the low standards that exist in these settings?

When discussing the extent to which faculty are implicated in condoning and accommodating low levels of student commitment to academic coursework, it is important to acknowledge how varied faculty work lives are given the differentiated structure of U.S. higher education. In many lower-tier public colleges and universities that in recent years have faced growing resource constraints, traditional forms of faculty direct instruction have themselves been undermined by the replacement of full-time tenure track faculty with adjunct, graduate student, and other alternative forms of instruction. Recent government reports indicate that the percentage of full-time instructional faculty in degree-granting institutions declined from 78 percent in 1970 to 52 percent by 2005. The changes in lower-tiered public institutions have often been even more pronounced. Full-time faculty in resource-poor institutions likely feel increasingly overwhelmed and demoralized by the growing institutional demands placed on them and their inability to identify sufficient resources to maintain traditional levels of support for undergraduate education.

In other settings where the costs of higher education have increased at roughly twice the rate of inflation for several decades and resources are therefore less constrained, faculty are nevertheless often distracted by institutional demands and individual incentives to devote increased attention to research productivity. Christopher Jencks and David Riesman, for example, astutely noted four decades ago that "large numbers of Ph.D.s now regard themselves almost as independent professionals like doctors or lawyers, responsible primarily to themselves and their colleagues rather than their employers, and committed to the advancement of knowledge rather than of any particular institutions." Throughout the higher education system, faculty are increasingly expected to focus on producing scholarship rather than simply concentrating on teaching and institutional service. This faculty orientation is deep-seated, as graduate training programs that prepare the next generation of faculty are housed primarily at research universities and offer little focus or guidance on developing instructional skills. As Derek Bok observed, "in the eyes of most faculty members in research universities, teaching is an art that is either too simple to require formal preparation, too personal to be taught to others, or too innate to be conveyed to anyone lacking the necessary gift."

Ernest Boyer's work in the late 1980s highlighted the changing "priorities of the professoriate" as well as the institutional diffusion of the university research model to faculty at institutions throughout the system. Boyer noted that while 21 percent of faculty in 1969 strongly agreed with the statement that "in my department it is difficult for a person to achieve tenure if he or she does not publish," two decades later the percentage of faculty agreeing with that statement had doubled to 42 percent. By 1989, faculty at four-year colleges overwhelmingly reported that scholarship was more important than teaching for tenure decisions in their departments. For example, in terms of the significance of teaching related assessments for tenure, only 13 percent of faculty at four-year colleges reported classroom observations as very important, 5 percent reported course syllabi as very important, 5 percent reported academic advisement as very important, and 9 percent reported student recommendations as very important. Interestingly, the only form of instructional assessment that more than one in eight faculty considered as critical for tenure was student course evaluations: 25 percent of four-year college faculty reported these instruments as very important for tenure decisions. To the extent that teaching mattered in tenure decisions at all, student satisfaction with courses was the primary measure that faculty considered relevant: a measure that partially encourages individual faculty to game the system by replacing rigorous and demanding classroom instruction with entertaining classroom activities, lower academic standards, and a generous distribution of high course marks. Research on course evaluations by Valen Johnson has convincingly demonstrated that "higher grades do lead to better course evaluations" and "student course evaluations are not very good indicators of how much students have learned."