Academically Adrift?

February 22, 2011

As you probably know, that’s the title of a new book that takes a long and deep look at whether students at American colleges and universities are learning.  By Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses was recently published by the University of Chicago Press (2011).

It has occasioned a great deal of commentary.  Partly that’s because it makes the striking claim that 45 percent of the more than 2,000 students tested in the study failed to show significant gains in reasoning and writing skills during their freshman and sophomore years.  But partly the commentary has been occasioned by the breadth and depth of the study: a larger sample of students and a more sophisticated methodology than any previous study of whether students are learning.

The 2000 students are drawn from 24 quite varied colleges and universities — not named, but broadly representative of higher education institutions in the United States.  The students were each given the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a relatively new test that probes students abilities at writing, analytic reasoning and critical thinking, and no, it’s not a multiple choice test.  Test-takers write essays in response to complex problems about which they are given a range of materials to examine.

Two of the commentaries that seem to me to say important things about Academically Adrift are by Alexander Astin and Kevin Carey.  Both appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  (The Chronicle is gated so you’ll need a subscription to read their articles in their entirety.

Astin is as respected a figure among higher education researchers as any person alive.  For years, based at UCLA, he oversaw the important yearly CIRP study of entering first year students across the nation.  He is sharply critical of the methodology of Academically Adrift in his February 14 essay.  He simply doesn’t think the research supports the claim that 45% of American college students aren’t learning anything in their first two years.  He isn’t making the opposite claim, that the students are learning; he’s simply saying the study’s conclusions overreach.  “With a different kind of analysis, it may indeed be appropriate to conclude that many undergraduates are not benefiting as much as they should from their college experience. But the 45-percent claim is simply not justified by the data and analyses set forth in this particular report.”

Kevin Carey, on the other hand, does think the study is worth attending to.  He’s Policy Director of Education Sector, a respected education thinktank.  He titles his January 18 piece “Trust Us Won’t Cut it Any More.”  He says it’s time we have evidence that students are really learning, and that this study raises serious doubts that they are.  Or rather he puts it this way:

“The study makes clear that there are two kinds of college students in America. A minority of them start with a good high-school education and attend colleges that challenge them with hard work. They learn some things worth knowing. The rest—most college students—start underprepared, and go to colleges that ask little of them and provide little in return. Their learning gains are minimal or nonexistent. Among them, those with a reasonable facility for getting out of bed in the morning and navigating a bureaucracy receive a credential that falsely certifies learning. Others don’t get even that.”

I agree with Astin that Academically Adrift overreaches in its conclusions.  But I agree with Carey that we already have reason to suspect that many colleges and universities don’t put high enough expectations before their students, and don’t put enough of a focus on student learning in the allocation of resources and the establishment of rewards for faculty and administrators.

The new book may not advance our understanding very far, but we shouldn’t take any comfort from that: we know what it takes, and at many institutions we aren’t doing what it takes.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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