Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

Two reviews of what may be the most important book on American Higher Education in Recent Years: Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa.

Academic Drift 1

by Scot McKnight

While college enrollment is at an all-time high, college learning may be at an all-time low

In their new stunning book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, a book that uses an ancient genre — the academic jeremiad — with exquisite accuracy, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa prove — not contend — that students are not learning what they should, professors are not doing all they could, administrators are not focused on education enough and, as if that weren’t a glassful, society is and will continue to suffer is something isn’t done about it.

This will have to be a series, and I am asking for your observations as we march through some of these themes, so today I want to sketch their four-fold areas of concern. Before I do that, though, I want to emphasize that we are talking degrees here and not either/or. It is easy to criticize educators and it is far easier to do so than to do something about it that improves the situation. I consider what I do to be a privilege and I love my students — well, most of them. This book focuses on problems in order to foster change and improvement.

Do you see these concerns? Any others?

So, now, on to the areas of concern:

First, students. Here is a set of facts: From the 1920s to the 1960s full-time college/university students spent approximately 40 hours in academic pursuits — classes and study. Today the students spend 27 hours. That means about 13 hours a week studying. Prior to the 60s it was about 25 hours.

This diminution of time has resulted in no appreciative change in grade point average or upon progress toward completion of the degree.

Second, professors.  The major shift has been toward “if you leave me alone I will leave you alone” posture. The big issues here are these: professors have increasingly been asked to spend more time on non-academic, non-teaching activities, have not been compensated sufficiently, and are increasingly more stimulated by and interested in research. Part of this is financial, but another part is the publication is seen as the #1 most important element of both recognition and promotion. Professors are therefore distracted from teaching — by their research, by committee work, by added responsibilities… Faculty spend about 11 hours on academic tasks like teaching and advising, and the rest of their time is spent on other things, often nonacademic institutional tasks. Many profs I know have to scramble to find time for research. The result is that less time is spent with students than one might think.

I add an observation: I find three kinds of professors. Some are research-oriented and scramble and work for time to do that research; some are much more focused on teaching and student interaction; and others seem more interested in the politics of the institution and work their way into administrative posts or into influence with the Senate or somehow shaping the institution itself.

Third, administrators. Their studies show that administrators too are distracted just as much, if not more, from the academic task of education to other things — like support staff, review, and raising funds. They call what has happened here over time ” nonacademic professionalization.” The Admin task is often concerned with the many facets of the school — like sports teams, community service projects, campus enhancement and alumni loyalty.

Fourth, education itself. This can be reduced to a simplicity that is accurate: the university/college has shifted in emphasis from preparing students for moral and civic lives of virtue to professional employability. Students increasingly see education as an instrument to get them to the next phase of life and less as a place of formation.

Continue series…


Academically Adrift: A Must-Read

By Richard Vedder

The most significant book on higher education written in recent years is out,Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia. While I have not read every word of this new University of Chicago Press book, I have read enough of it and an accompanying summary to know that it is very, very important, and extremely devastating in what it says about American higher education today. Basically, students study little and, as a consequence, learn little.

Arum and Roksa wed data from two very important but underutilized test instruments, the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), and the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). These instruments are used at hundreds of schools, and the Arum and Roksa book is based on detailed results from a good sized sample of students from 29 institutions. The CLA measures things such as aptitude with respect to critical learning and writing skills, while the NSSE mostly measures how students are engaged at school, in large part measured by how they use their time.

For the reader not familiar with some of the findings, Arum and Roksa conclude:

  • “gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills (i.e., general collegiate skills) are either exceedingly small or empirically non-existent for a large proportion of students”;
  • 36 percent of students experienced no significant improvement in learning (as measured by the CLA) over four years of schooling;
  • less than one-half of seniors had completed  over 20 pages of writing for a course in the prior semester;
  • total time spent  in academic pursuits is 16 percent; students are academically engaged, typically, well under 30 hours per week;
  • scholarship from earlier decades suggest there has been a sharp decline in both academic work effort and learning;
  • “students…majoring in traditional liberal-arts fields…demonstrated significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study. Students majoring in business, education, social work , and communications had the lowest measurable gains”;
  • 35 percent of the students sampled spent five hours or less a week studying alone; the average for all students was under 9 hours.

Critics will no doubt argue that the CLA is an imperfect test instrument or that the sample of schools was too small and unrepresentative. What strikes me most, however, is that these findings are similar to those found in other studies (e.g. the Time Use Survey of the Bureau of Labor Statistics), and with my own personal observations based on a half century of involvement in higher education in all types of institutions ranging from mid-quality state universities to elite private liberal-arts colleges and prestigious private research institutions.

Moreover, the survey seems to confirm that many of the modern-day trends in higher education have

lowered the quality of the educational experience…

Continue reading…