American college graduates are largely adrift, but so are the schools they attended

For a long time, those of us who argue that higher education’s standards are eroding had to point to anecdotes to support our case. Many individual professors said that they had lowered the rigor of their courses for various reasons (student incompetence, student vindictiveness on evaluations, administrative pressure, and so on), and some students bragged about how they’d partied their way through college.

Unfortunately, there was scarcely any empirical evidence to show how little students learned.

Then, in 2011, sociology professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa published Academically Adrift. Their book presented evidence that a wide swath of American college students learn little or nothing that adds to their stock of useful knowledge and skill while in college. No longer could defenders of the higher ed status quo dismiss complaints about falling standards as just a few anecdotes.

Happily, the Arum/Roksa team decided to keep investigating the results we get for all of our huge investment in college education, and they have recently published their findings in a new book, Aspiring Adults Adrift. The authors focus on the post-college lives of 1,000 of the students they had surveyed for their first book to see how they were faring two years after graduation in 2009.

Their new book is a cold shower for the “We’ve got to put more young people through college!” crowd and it adds support for their earlier conclusion that college doesn’t do much good for many young Americans.

Crucially, a majority of the graduates they surveyed who hadn’t gone on for further formal education (53 percent) were either unemployed, employed only part-time, or working in jobs paying less than $30,000 annually. A quarter of them were living with their parents.

Those numbers are illuminating, again quantifying a trend that many of us have written about generally, but Arum and Roksa have found additional and pertinent information about recent graduates. One finding, contrary to what most people would assume, is that how well a graduate does in the labor market has little to do with whether or not he or she has a degree from a selective college.

Some graduates of selective colleges were working in jobs such as delivery truck driver and grocery store cashier, while some graduates of non-selective schools had found good employment. “Parents and the general public might be surprised that graduates’ earnings often do not closely track with the types of institutions they attended, but a significant body of social science research is consistent with this result,” the authors write.

That should make people question two common assumptions: first, that the high price of many of the nation’s selective institutions is worth paying because degrees from those schools almost guarantee later success, and second, that racial preferences in admissions that enable some students in minority groups to attend selective schools is a policy that necessarily benefits them.

“Go to the most prestigious college you can” is revealed to be bad advice. Similarly, the obsession with increasing the numbers of “underrepresented” students at top schools in the belief that this somehow improves their upward mobility (and “social justice”) looks like folly. Our selective schools, in short, are not all they’re cracked up to be and graduating from one is no guarantee of success.

That is because, Arum and Roksa maintain, our entire higher education system has pretty much succumbed to a non-academic mentality: “Educators have increasingly ceded their authority to students, and administrators have shifted institutional emphasis from students’ academic and moral development to their personal growth and well-being. Empowering and catering to students as consumers has only exacerbated these broader and deeper changes.”

Precisely. Whether they attend prestigious or non-prestigious schools, students often coast through to their degrees without much gain in knowledge and skill. After college, that hurts many of them.

Of course there are counter-examples. Quite a few departments and some entire institutions retain the academic seriousness of old. But as the authors write, “rigorous academic study has been largely abandoned through many parts of contemporary higher education.” Attracting students with pleasing amenities is a higher priority.

Just to cite one recent example, Charles Lane points out in this September 24th Washington Post article that Texas Tech University is spending $8.4 million on a new complex that will include a water slide and tanning deck, the better to appeal to students who want to enjoy la dolce vita.

While it is certainly possible for some students to master their course material and make strong gains in the competencies that are valuable across the board (complex reading, writing, problem-solving, reasoning) while enjoying themselves, the research Arum and Roksa (and others) have done shows that many of them don’t.

But most students believe that they learned a great deal in college, apparently because they usually received good grades. Some probably realize that low grades are now very rare in many courses, but nevertheless they’re convinced that college boosted their skills.

“Critical thinking led the way,” the authors write, “with more than three-quarters of students reporting high levels of skill development in that domain. Students thus embraced the message, prominent in higher education rhetoric…that critical thinking was a key skill developed during college.”

The key word there is rhetoric.

For years, college leaders have been proclaiming how they teach “critical thinking” to students, but as Professor David Clemens wrote here for the Pope Center, that does not mean instructing students in the art of reasoning. Far more often, Clemens observes, when professors say that they teach critical thinking, all they mean is that they impart ideas that are intended to make students critical of our economy, culture, and history.

Even though a large percentage of the students Arum and Roksa surveyed had not found the sort of employment they had envisioned and hadn’t become financially independent, they were overwhelmingly optimistic. The graduates reported that they believed that college had been “worth it” and would prove beneficial for them. The question is whether that is realistic thinking and the book leaves the impression that is isn’t.

Contemplating the objectively dreary landscape of higher education, the authors issue this declaration: “Consumer satisfaction is not a worthy aim for colleges and universities.” To change that, they want education leaders to make college more rigorous, emphasizing both subject-specific knowledge and generic competencies.

Laudable goals, but I think it is beyond the ability of higher education leaders to make much headway so long as most of the incoming students have the attitudes and expectations they do. Many are disengaged from academics, averse to serious intellectual work (such as reading for more than a few minutes and having to struggle to be certain of the meaning), and impatient with even the slightest criticism.

The authors understand that colleges have become “financially dependent on satisfying the demands of students acting as consumers,” but they don’t see how difficult it would be for schools to return to rigor (including bad grades when warranted) in the face of student bodies that will go elsewhere to avoid toil and trouble. Higher ed has sunk into the poor state that Arum and Roksa describe for a reason: It’s the way a great many students want it.

Education used to be a good that most Americans thought they should strive for. Today, it’s largely thought of as an entitlement that’s supposed to be delivered in a fancy package with water slides, tanning decks, sports, parties, and ego-boosting praise.

Until that changes, I don’t see how we can make the changes that the authors rightly call for.