Late each summer, soon after excited new students arrive at four-year colleges across the country, deans try to sober them up. Some warn that successful students spend “three hours studying outside of class for each hour spent in class.” For at least one moment, students get the impression that they must work hard—more than 40 hours per week—to succeed.
But a funny thing happens on the way to graduation. The average student spends approximately 27 hours per week on academic work and receives high grades anyway. The students profiled here by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa graduated “with an average of a 3.33,” a little better than B-plus, “despite low levels of academic engagement.” Such students have reason to think that they have accomplished much and to be optimistic about their futures. But because little has been asked of them, many are ill-prepared for post-college life. As one recent graduate says, “I’m feeling OK about the way my life is going. It would be cool if I had a job.”
She is no outlier. “Almost one quarter of the college graduates” Arum and Roksa followed in their research are “living back at home with their parents two years after finishing college”; but a “stunning 95 percent reported that their lives would be the same or better than those of their parents.” Graduates “who were working in unskilled jobs, and even those who were currently unemployed, were as optimistic as their counterparts who were working or employed in better jobs.”
Arum, a professor of sociology at New York University, and Roksa, a professor of education at the University of Virginia, are not so optimistic. They have already contributed to the higher education debate with Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (2011). Arum and Roksa used the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), “a measure of critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication,” to determine how much students improve in those skills over the first two years of college. The answer, at least for the more than 2,300 students at 24 colleges and universities they considered, was “uh oh.”
Take an incoming student who scores in the 50th percentile on the CLA. Two years and $50,000 later, sit him down with a group of incoming freshmen similar to those he first sat with. He will now be in the 57th percentile. That’s underwhelming; and, of course, others gain less. At least with respect to the kind of learning the CLA measures, gains were “exceedingly small or empirically non-existent” for many students. Aspiring Adults Adrift follows part of the Academically Adrift cohort up to graduation, and two years beyond, in order to learn how they are doing in a poor economy and how “post college outcomes [are] associated with collegiate experience and academic performance.”
The news is still bad. By the end of senior year, the average student has made only modest progress in the critical thinking and writing skills the CLA measures. Recall where we left our example student at the end of his sophomore year: not good enough to break out of the middle of a pack of recent high school graduates. Four years of college have moved him into the 68th percentile of a similar pack.
Low CLA scores, even after controlling for other factors, such as institutional selectivity and major, are associated with negative job market outcomes. Low-scoring graduates, compared with high-scorers, are more likely to be unemployed, more likely to lose a job if they have one, and more likely to work in an unskilled occupation. Senior CLA performance is “associated with the likelihood of success in the job market two years after . . . graduation.”
Of course, it’s possible that colleges can’t do more to teach the skills the CLA measures. Perhaps critical thinking, like IQ, is hard to budge very much. But Arum and Roksa come as close as one can to demonstrating that we can do better. Students who attend highly selective colleges improve more on the CLA than students who attend less selective ones, “even when models are adjusted for students’ background and academic characteristics.” Moreover, Arum and Roksa note, education researchers Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini have presented strong evidence that critical thinking gains in college a few decades ago were, on average, about double what they are now.