In their book, “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa discuss their findings on the usefulness of college education. The book, which draws on data collected from surveys, questionnaires and interviews of 2,300 college students around the nation, found that for many, college education delivers very questionable benefits.
Students participating in the Academically Adrift study took the College Learning Assessment tests, which are designed to measure the skills like critical thinking and analytical reasoning at different points throughout their college careers, and the results were alarming. According to Inside Higher Ed,
- 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college.
- 36 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over four years of college.
- Those students who do show improvements tend to show only modest improvements. Students improved on average only 0.18 standard deviations over the first two years of college and 0.47 over four years.
What this means is that a student who entered college in the 50th percentile of students in his or her cohort would move up to the 68th percentile four years later — but that’s the 68th percentile of a new group of freshmen who haven’t experienced any college learning.
Now the authors have released a follow up study “Documenting Uncertain Times: Post-graduate Transitions of the Academically Adrift Cohort,” and the outcomes aren’t very surprising. The follow-up interviewed nearly 1000 original participants and found that those who slacked off in college have a harder time in their post-college experiences. According to George Leaf of the Pope Center,
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.)
The findings also throw into doubt a commonly accepted idea that employers place high value on college majors and grade point averages of their perspective employees.
“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.”
Leaf attributes this to the perception that a college degree serves as a sign of “trainability” rather than as a means of acquisition of certain necessary skills.
The study’s authors feel that the only way forward is to make college experience more rigorous and academically challenging, so that future employers can count on graduates to be knowledgeable and not just “teachable.”
One way forward might be an idea suggested by Alex J. Pollock in his American Enterprise Institute paper titled “Fixing Student Loans: Let’s Give Colleges Some ‘Skin in the Game.” Pollock argues that there’s no disincentive for colleges to accept all-comers, since the loan dollars, both private and federal, that students bring with them, will allow schools to recoup their investment regardless of academic outcomes.
Pollock believes that federal education dollars should be treated like educational “mortgages,” and place schools “on the hook” to repay the money of students who either fail to graduate or fail to thrive after graduation. In other words, if the student fails to repay their student loans after getting their diploma, schools should be responsible for repayment instead.