Are We All Poorly Directed? The Challenge of Aspiring Adults Adrift

Richard Arum and Josipa Roska shook the higher education world in 2011 with Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. A study driven curiosity and informed by data about how and what college students learn, the book raised a host of important questions about the primary function and utility of a college degree. Using that same data-driven approach, the authors have written Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates. The book is worth serious consideration.Aspiring Adults Adrift

The data in Aspiring Adults is drawn mostly from follow-up surveys of a thousand graduates who participated in the earlier study. An important warning: community college students are not part of the study. Findings are contextualized within other data sets and reports. Arum and Riska’s work was supported by the Social Science Research Council. Students’ performance on the CLA, an exam that tries to capture general learning at the institutional level, figures prominently. In addition to seeing how these students are faring, the authors also reference the broader concept of emerging adulthood.

Let’s start with key findings:

  • Average improvement on the CLA varied more across colleges than within colleges (the greater the institutional selectivity, the higher the scores – CLA scores correlate with SAT scores).
  • Students’ improvement in CLA scoring by their senior year was 18%, and most of the gains took place in the first two years of college.
  • Students self-reported that they believed that their skills were improving in the last two years of college (in contrast to the CLA scores, which showed that learning was relatively flat).
  • Students who graduates in the arts and sciences, especially math and natural sciences, are more likely to go to graduate school. Business majors are the least likely to attend.
  • Getting along with others – the development of the self and the social self – was seen as more important/valuable by most college graduates.
  • Average time reported by college seniors in class was 14 hours a week, with an additional 12 hours studying (9 hours alone; 3 with peers).  This is no change from what students reported as sophomores. Students report spending more time socializing and in recreation. These numbers are down significantly from studies of students twenty and thirty years ago.
  • Regardless of time spent studying, students’ graduating GPA was consistent. In other words, spending more time on academic work did have a strong relationship with higher grades.
  • More than half of all college seniors reported not having written a paper of 20 or more pages in their final year.
  • Nearly all graduates believe that their lives will be as good or better than their parents.
  • Two years after college, approximately 75% of the graduates receive financial assistance from their families.
  • Two years after graduation, approximately one-quarter live at home.
  • Two years after graduation, nearly one-quarter are unemployed or underemployed (and, unsurprisingly, this group is more likely to be living with their parents and receiving support).
  • Two years after graduation, just under half have full-time jobs with a salary of $30,000 or more.
  • Business majors are more likely to be employed after college and to make more than other majors.
  • Graduates of selective colleges are more likely to be employed after college.
  • CLA performance correlates with the likelihood of being employed after graduation. CLA performance also correlates with job satisfaction.
  • CLA performance and college selectivity does not correlate with salary two years after graduation.

Arum and Roska, who regularly return to the question of what colleges do, make several broad claims. They identify a general turn away from learning in higher education at the baccalaureate level and a focus instead on personal and social development. Complementing this shift is a heightened emphasis on credentialing – completion – that is reinforced through policy. Treating students as customers, in other words, has led academia astray and done many students a disservice. Students wander through higher education, spend their time on becoming adept social managers, and leave college without the skills or perspective to become fully functioning adults. Arum and Roska do not single out faculty, administrators or students, but instead see this problem as a confluence of factors. They do believe this can be changed if higher education has the will.

While everyone would like to see clear and consistent connections between education and job, the study underscores the difficulty of sorting out causality from correlation in the development of a young adult’s education and career. Employment paths are shaped by many factors. Further, the survey was taken at the trough of a financial downturn, which clearly affected millions of Americans and their opportunity and choices for employment.

As for the value of a college degree in achieving adulthood, it is time larger discussion about what adulthood entails. Obtaining a baccalaureate is an extremely important step, to be sure, but so is graduating from high school, finding a job, moving out on one’s own, having a family, and any number of social and personal responsibilities. One of the key characteristics of the literature of emerging adulthood is that it is a process that also involves how a person thinks about herself. We need to question the extent to which a college degree is an independent contributing factor to adulthood. Students’ expectations shape what they do in college, just as they influence which college they choose, their course of study, and many other decisions. This is not to put give colleges a pass on rigor, but rather to place institutional decisions and student decisions within a context.

The findings on rigor and student academic work are deeply troubling. They are evidence that we in academia are not sufficiently focused on academic quality, which rests on student learning. We know that learning is hard. It demands time and work, from faculty, staff, and students. It is not sexy and rarely increases enrollment. There are no shortcuts in learning, either. However, it is central to our mission. Bottom line for higher education – completion without meaningful learning undermines the value of an education and the development of an educated adult.

David Potash

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