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Taking Back America By Taking Back Our Schools

New Book “Academically Adrift:” Students Not Career Ready

5 September 2014 The Report Card

(Editor: The Chamber of Commerce reports that business spent $3 Billion in 2012 on remedial education for new employees. ACT says only 25% of high school graduated are college ready. The National Association of Scholars cites Bowdoin College’s panoply of nonsense courses related to race, class gender grievances as examples of studies that benefit no one. One example listed in the course catalog:

“Courses in Gender and Women’s Studies investigate the experience of women and men in light of the social construction of gender and its meaning across cultures and historic periods. Gender construction is explored as an institutionalized means of structuring inequality and dominance.”

With courses like these dominating the course catalogs, is it any wonder that students are unable to provide the knowledge, skills and judgment needed by employers.

Academically Adrift’s authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa demonstrate that colleges are failing to help students become productive adults).

By Melissa Korn WSJ

It’s time to stop debating the value of a college education, say a pair of professors from New York University and the University of Virginia. Instead, they say in a new book, parents and employers should ask whether schools are doing much to help students become productive adults.

Sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa tracked more than 1,600 students during college and about 1,000 for two years after their 2009 graduation dates. Their findings are dismaying: Of the students who didn’t go immediately into graduate school, slightly more than a quarter earned above $40,000 a year in a full-time job two years after graduation. Nearly three-quarters relied on their parents for at least some financial assistance.

Profs. Arum and Roksa, from NYU and UVA, respectively, have stinging words for American colleges.

Their 2011 book, “Academically Adrift,” rankled administrators with their finding that schools reward students for minimal effort.

Aspiring Adults Adrift” picks up where the earlier work left off, saying that colleges focus too much on students’ social lives at the expense of a strong academic and career road map. What’s more, the authors say, schools have given their charges an unrealistic sense of what it takes to achieve their life aims, resulting in overwhelming—and possibly unrealistic—optimism among young people about their prospects.

Many college leaders may take issue with the book’s critiques, but a recent Inside Higher Ed/Gallup poll of more than 800 college presidents found that few felt that their schools are successfully teaching critical-thinking skills and connecting students with internship opportunities during school.

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University of Virginia’s Josipa Roksa University of Virginia Curry School of Education

In a recent interview, Profs. Arum and Roksa discussed ways to improve the college-to-career transition. Edited excerpts:


WSJ: You argue in the book that people should stop asking whether it pays to attend college. What’s the right question?

Prof. Arum: In a society with increasing economic inequality, it absolutely pays to go to college. We think the question is, “Are students getting the value for their time and money that they should be?”

Students aren’t getting value for their money. We’ve reached these exorbitant costs in the U.S. not because we’re investing in academic programs, but [because of] new student centers, athletic facilities. That has no relationship to the academic outcomes that one would hope students achieve.

Prof. Roksa: While the amenities and social engagement don’t seem to matter for labor-market outcomes, some things that happen in college do matter. When students get internships in college, that leads to better employment outcomes afterward.


WSJ: Why are college graduates struggling to establish themselves?

Prof. Arum: They weren’t adequately prepared during college to make successful transitions. They didn’t develop critical thinking, complex reasoning [skills] and the ability to communicate in writing. [And] they didn’t develop the attitudes and dispositions during college associated with adult success.

For many, [students'] typical experience was they studied alone little more than an hour a day, and for that effort they received high grades. The students in our study who studied alone five or fewer hours a week had a 3.2 grade average. So they learned in college that success comes relatively easily.

Prof. Roksa: Students don’t blame colleges for their current difficulties in transitions in the labor market. Even when they’re unemployed and living at home, they have a remarkable sense of optimism about the future. They don’t necessarily see their current situation as problematic.


WSJ: Is their optimism unwarranted?

Prof. Arum: Optimism itself is good. It’s associated with resilience and psychological health. The problem is the lack of grounding in skills, competencies, attitudes, dispositions, in knowing what it takes to realize the high expectations that the students hold.


WSJ: What are the broader implications of young adults’ difficulty establishing themselves after college?

Prof. Roksa: We don’t think that they’re going to be a lost generation.

While middle-class and upper-middle-class students have the luxury of going to college and not having quite figured out what to do and then spending the rest of their 20s exploring, students from less advantaged families don’t necessarily have that luxury to support this prolonged transition to adulthood. Inequality may grow even further.


WSJ: Should colleges think about doing things differently?

Prof. Arum: We would recommend higher education administrators focus on improving academic rigor and increasing the academic standards at their institutions. Those factors are associated with the development of general competencies—critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing—which are associated with a broad set of positive outcomes in terms of transitions to adulthood.

[We would also recommend] programs that facilitate school-to-work transitions, in terms of internships, apprenticeships, job placement programs. Business majors often make extensive use of those, and we see the utility for successful labor market transitions.


WSJ: How should colleges measure outcomes?

Prof. Roksa: Lots of the outcomes that you observe after college are much more a function of who students are and what they bring to college than what happens there.

We should evaluate college based on what it has primary control over: critical thinking, complex thinking, writing, as well as subject-specific skills. Colleges themselves don’t necessarily have direct influence on the labor market. But they do have the ability to influence how much students learn [and] whether they develop the right attitudes.

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