Limited Learning on College Campuses
“This might be the most important book on higher education in a decade . . . In this new era of college for all, their analysis refocuses our attention on higher education’s fundamental goals.”
- James Rosenbaum, Northwestern University
“In Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa paint a chilling portrait of what the university curriculum has become."
- Anthony Grafton, The New York Review of Books
“Before reading this book, I took it for granted that colleges were doing a very good job.”
- Bill Gates, The Gates Notes
In spite of soaring tuition costs, more and more students go to college every year. A bachelor’s degree is now required for entry into a growing number of professions. And some parents begin planning for the expense of sending their kids to college when they’re born. Almost everyone strives to go, but almost no one asks the fundamental question posed by Academically Adrift: are undergraduates really learning anything once they get there?
For a large proportion of students, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s answer to that question is a definitive no. Their extensive research draws on survey responses, transcript data, and, for the first time, the state-of-the-art Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test administered to students in their first semester and then again at the end of their second year. According to their analysis of more than 2,300 undergraduates at 24 institutions, 45 percent of these students demonstrate no significant improvement in a range of skills—including critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing—during their first two years of college. As troubling as their findings are, Arum and Roksa argue that for many faculty and administrators they will come as no surprise—instead, they are the expected result of a student body distracted by socializing or working and an institutional culture that puts undergraduate learning close to the bottom of the priority list.
Academically Adrift holds sobering lessons for students, faculty, administrators, policymakers, and parents—all of whom are implicated in promoting or at least ignoring contemporary campus culture. Higher education faces crises on a number of fronts, but Arum and Roksa’s report that colleges are failing at their most basic mission will demand the attention of us all.
- In terms of undergraduate learning, higher education is “academically adrift.” While higher education is expected to accomplish many tasks, existing organizational cultures and practices too often do not prioritize undergraduate learning. Large numbers of college students report that they spend a very limited amount of time studying; they enroll in courses that do not require either substantial reading or writing assignments; they interact with their professors outside of college classrooms rarely, if ever; and they define and understand their college experiences as focused more on social than on academic development. Faculty and administrators, working to meet multiple and at times competing demands, rarely focus on improving instruction and demonstrating gains in student learning.
- Gains in student performance are disturbingly low—a pattern of limited learning is prevalent in contemporary higher education. On average, gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills (i.e., general collegiate skills) during the first two years of college are either exceedingly small or empirically non-existent for a large proportion of students. Forty-five percent of our students did not demonstrate any significant improvement in CLA performance during the first two years of college.
- Learning in higher education is characterized by persisting and/or growing inequality. There are significant differences in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills across students from different family backgrounds and racial/ethnic groups. More importantly, students not only enter college unequal; but inequalities tend to persist, or in the case of African American students, increase during students’ enrollment in college.
- There is notable variation in experiences and outcomes across institutions. While the average trends indicate that students are embedded in colleges where very limited academic demands are placed on them and limited learning occurs in general during the first two years of college, there is notable variation across students, and particularly across institutions. Students attending certain institutions have more beneficial college experiences (in terms of reading/writing requirements, meeting with faculty, time use, etc.) and demonstrate significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills over time. We focus in particular on examining unique college experiences and significantly more encouraging learning trajectories of students attending highly selective institutions.