I am a fan of Richard Arum and Jospia Roksa’s first book, Academically Adrift, which examined predictors of growth in critical thinking skills during the first two years of college. In their new book, Aspiring Adults Adrift, Arum and Roksa follow the same cohort of students into the first couple of years after graduation.
While conservative commentators honed in on the top-line finding in Academically Adrift–that only a small number of students increased critical thinking much at all in those two years–in my view the most useful information is below that particular fold. They found, for example, that students who perceived their professors to have high expectations; who spent time studying alone; and who had classes in which they were required both to read at least 40 pages a week and to write at least 20 pages a semester were more likely to improve critical thinking skills than those who didn’t experience these. They also documented shockingly little time spent studying alone and on academic pursuits.
In Aspiring Adults Adrift, they trace the graduates’ economic transitions into the labor force as well as their personal and citizenship trajectories (though with less detail than their work lives). This book is less clear than the previous, in part because it addresses a stage of life in which there’s a lot of uncertainty. In essence:
- Many respondents didn’t work all that hard in college, but graduated with reasonably good GPAs anyway;
- There is wide variation in the job market experiences of these graduates two years after college;
- Academic success matters for economic, personal, and civic outcomes, but much of that success is explained by the selectivity of the colleges the respondents attended, not by the students’ relative success within those colleges.
After outlining the questions of interest, the book first turns to the low expectations many students lived up to during college: “What is remarkable about… [students’] definitions of academic engagement is their focus on fulfilling little more than minimum requirements” (p. 36). This is a theme often repeated: adequacy is rewarded with high marks, and excellence therefore neither well documented nor particularly encouraged. As Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton put it in their (also terrific) book Paying for the Party: “The party pathway is built around an implicit agreement between the university and students to demand little of each other.”
Measured using the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), which is the standardized critical-thinking assessment that forms the principal dependent variable for Arum and Roksa’s work, “students gained an average of 0.47 standard deviations on the CLA” after four years of college. There isn’t wide variation among fields of study, but the highest is social science and humanities, followed by science and math and then engineering and computer science.
Having graduated right around the beginning of the Great Recession, this cohort is particularly vulnerable economically, a point the book notes (p. 55) but doesn’t really seem to incorporate fully into its analysis. Unemployment among these recent graduates remained high (7%) in 2011, two years after graduation, though lower than among non-college-graduates. Fully 77% of those who weren’t back in school were employed full-time, though at low-paying jobs and in many cases jobs that didn’t require college degrees. This is presented as very negative (“53 percent of the college graduates… were unemployed, employed part time, or employed in full-time jobs that paid less than $30,000”, p. 57). But I’m not sure this pessimism is warranted given the state of the economy in 2011 and the fact that these are only two years out of college!
More importantly, though, CLA performance predicts higher-skill employment, even in that short 2-year window. So successful higher education does matter in the economic outcomes of graduates. My guess is that it will matter even more as their lives proceed, but that’s beyond the scope of this book.
The book asks explicitly whether academic success predicts civic activity—whether college education supports good citizenship. The measures are thin—reading newspapers (online or in print) and discussing politics with friends or family—and the findings are discouraging. There is a small effect of academic success (CLA score) on civic engagement, but it is explained entirely by the selectivity of the college.
The tone of the first four chapters is negative: the failings of colleges mean that graduates aren’t successfully transitioning to adult life, even though they remain optimistic about the future. “It is imperative that higher-education institutions and society at large consider better ways of supporting transitions to adulthood” (p. 114). “Why are contemporary colleges and universities not producing more success stories” (119)?
But my reading was that the glass was at least half full: even just two years out of college, in the worst economic climate in generations, many of the graduates were employed in various ways, and many more were studying further.
The final chapter then draws conclusions about how higher education could be improved. A lot of time is spent on “Beth,” whom they consider a success story: she has a good job and aspires to be civically involved. But Beth’s major was pre-professional; she was “helped” with the transition to adulthood at the cost of the kind of intellectual exploration that Arum and Roksa say they’re looking for in college! The book’s overemphasis on economic success, and in the short term, undermines the case they made in Academically Adrift that the focus ought to be on substantive academic achievement. Similarly, their endorsement of greater standardized testing (p. 131-2) is not really in line with those greater goals.
Happily, in the end they return to those goals: “Colleges also could do more to help students develop the attitudes and dispositions they need to reach their aspirations” (p. 134). “Graduating large numbers of students who have attained high grades with little effort and achieved limited improvement in competencies such as critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing is a disservice to the students, … the families, … and the larger society” (p. 135). I think that case is well demonstrated in both these books, and is truly urgent. Many students conceive of college in entirely instrumental terms, seeking to avoid serious intellectual challenge; many faculty collude in that avoidance. And as Armstrong and Long found, that cycle is an important mechanism in reproducing class inequality. Finding better ways to challenge those students and insist on academic commitment is, in my view, the most important task for higher education.