After College, What?

Last year, the higher education policy world saw the publication of a smash, blockbuster book. Well, what passes for that in our little domain anyway—Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. The book was a blockbuster because it put a granite peak of data on the mountain range of anecdotal evidence that lots of young Americans graduate from college without learning much.

The message from colleges and universities to families and the public at large is that they need and deserve support because they’re vital to “investing” in the next generation of human capital. Academically Adrift proves that claim to be at best a considerable stretching of the truth.

Arum and Roksa, aided by two researchers, have now published a follow-up study, “Documenting Uncertain Times: Post-graduate Transitions of the Academically Adrift Cohort.” They surveyed nearly 1,000 students from their original cohort to find out about their post-college experiences.

What the study found is not the least bit surprising. Students who learned little in college (as evidenced by scoring in the bottom quintile on the College Learning Assessment) were three times as likely to be unemployed as students who scored in the top quintile, twice as likely to be living at home, and somewhat more likely to have run up credit card debts.

Those findings throw cold water on the smiley face idea that going to college is necessarily a good “investment.” Even some of the top graduates were unemployed and living with their parents and a much higher number of low-performing graduates were. Unfortunately, the study did not seek to find out how many of those graduates were “underemployed” in jobs that high schoolers can do. (Perhaps no further evidence on that is necessary, though, in view of this study.)

Another particularly interesting finding from “Documenting Uncertain Times” is that employers pay little attention to what students majored in and how good their academic records were. The authors write, “That nearly two-thirds of these recent graduates’ employers did not require them to submit transcripts speaks to the perceived limited value and trust employers currently place in this traditional record of achievement in higher education.” If, as I have argued for years, many employers are simply using the presence of a college degree as a screening device, that behavior makes perfect sense.

A company that, for example, needs to hire someone to handle a car-rental desk might insist on a college degree as evidence of trainability, but not think it worth the added cost of checking to see how he or she did in college. Whatever education might have been absorbed is irrelevant; all that matters is the credential itself.

Let’s take stock of the situation. Large numbers of young Americans go to college even though they have mediocre to poor academic skills and scant interest in learning beyond the minimum needed to pass the test.  A good description of this sort of student was given by history professor Thomas Reeves:

These amiable young people read little or nothing. Reading books and magazines outside the classroom is not something they would even consider doing. In short, they have no intellectual life and see no need for one. They can talk about several things, including their jobs, television, sports, and Rock, but they are often baffled and sometimes irritated to hear from their professor that there is more to life. If that “more” requires reading, they aren’t interested.

Because it is not necessary to have an intellectual life to get a college degree these days, we find large numbers of young Americans graduating from college with very little improvement over their weak high school skills—among them, the ability to write. In his book The Lowering of Higher Education in America, Rutgers University sociology professor Jackson Toby noted that in a seminar course he taught for juniors and seniors, “the majority of the papers were so muddled that I felt the Cs and Ds I awarded should have been Fs.” (Rutgers is a state flagship university regarded as “very competitive.”)


After they leave college, many of these students, especially the weakest ones, are not finding good jobs and getting on the kind of adult life/career path their parents had.

What is to be done?

Arum, Roksa, and their co-authors write that their findings “reinforce the importance of rigorous educational experiences as well as the commitment of practitioners and policymakers to focus on improving the quality of higher education.”

That sounds good, but how do we get there?

Falling standards in college is not a new problem. Some professors have been complaining about the declining levels of ability and interest in their students, as well as the pressures to water down their courses to keep them content, for years. Others have been quite willing to follow the easy path of lightening their own workload and being more popular with students by reducing course content and inflating grades.

Moreover, administrators at the huge number of colleges and universities that will accept just about any applicant realize that a return to academic rigor would mean losing a lot of their “customers.” The kind of student Professor Reeves was writing about is not likely to enroll if he knows that earning a degree will entail a lot of work. Current incentives lead college officials to pay lip service to educational excellence while turning a blind eye to the fact that, for many students, college is just a Five-Year Party.

Here is an idea that could be a game-changer: What if colleges that accept federal student aid money had to bear some of the risk that students they have enrolled will default on government loans? Alex Pollock of the American Enterprise Institute recently advocated exactly that in an article entitled “Fixing Student Loans: Let’s Give the Colleges Some ‘Skin in the Game.’”

Pollock argues that just as the housing bubble was largely due to the fact that mortgage originators bore none of the risk of default, so too with higher education. Colleges, he observes, “are the effective originators, the promoters, and the chief financial beneficiaries of student loans. It is their rising costs which result in ever more debt and more risk of default for student borrowers and for taxpayers.”

The one ingredient Pollock doesn’t mention is their low academic standards. As Arum, Roksa, et al show, students who breeze through college without learning much are far more likely to have trouble finding employment that pays well enough for them to handle their repayment obligations.

What if, as Pollock advocates, colleges that accept funds from federal student loans had to maintain a 10 percent first loss share in those loans? Thus, when a student defaulted, the school would take the loss rather than the taxpayers. The way for administrators to reduce their risk would be to become more selective as to the students they admit and to shift their focus away from merely granting as many credits as possible toward ensuring that credits are only granted for serious work.

I think it would be best if the federal government got out of college financing entirely, but Pollock’s idea has a lot of merit and might be politically feasible.