This commentary originally appeared in The Hill on October 1, 2014.
The higher-education world was rocked three years ago by the publication of the landmark study of collegiate learning, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. Between 2005 and 2009, the authors tracked over 2,000 college students from both public and private institutions, measuring their fundamental academic skills in their first and fourth years with the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA). Their alarming findings: After four years invested in college, 36 percent of students demonstrate "small or empirically non-existent" gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills.
Were more proof needed, the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education conducted aparallel survey using a comparable testing instrument and found virtually the same results. Having taught undergraduates at several institutions, public and private, over the past 20 years, I needed no corroboration. From my experience, I have long suspected what Adrift and the Wabash Study confirm. It's hard for me to believe that my fellow academics don't also know this in their bones.
But if any "Adrift deniers" remain out there, Arum and Roksa are back, this time with Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates. In Aspiring Adults, the authors track roughly 1,000 "recent [on-time] college graduates' successes and hardships, and the extent to which post-college outcomes are associated with collegiate experiences and academic performance."
What Aspiring Adults reveals should give us all pause. Two years after graduation, 24 percent of graduates have been forced to move back home with their parents. No less shocking, 74 percent of college graduates "are receiving financial support from their families." Moreover, 23 percent of graduates who are "in the labor market are unemployed or underemployed," that is, they find themselves in jobs in which they work fewer than "20 hours per week" or where the majority of peer employees "have not completed even a year of college." Finally, a mere 47 percent of working graduates enjoy full-time jobs that "pay $30,000 or more annually," and this at a time when the average debt load for students who borrowed to attend college stands at $29,400, according to the Project on Student Debt, which adds that 71 percent of students who graduated last year "had student loan debt."
To be sure, Arum and Roksa are quick to point to the economic stagnation "associated with the 2007-2009 recession" as a partial driver of these disturbing after-college outcomes. But this, they argue, "cannot explain everything." After all, amid this widespread underachievement, some recent graduates are "flourishing." What accounts for their ascendancy, even under straitened circumstances?
It should come as no surprise that Arum and Roksa find that the college major in which a student enrolls, as well as the selectivity of the school from which he or she graduates, helps separate the anchored from the adrift. In addition — and here the enduring importance of Academically Adrift becomes manifest — those students who performed better on the CLA prove less likely to face "early-career unemployment, underemployment, and job loss." Their success in the job market translates into their also being able to live on their own sooner and to do so with their own earnings, rather than those of their parents.
Counterintuitively, Arum and Roksa find that, despite the difficulties today's graduates face, they remain largely "optimistic about their futures." No fewer than 95 percent of these graduates "report their lives will be the same or better than their parents'." Such optimism is not limited to those with full-time, college-degree-requiring jobs. Graduates suffering from unemployment or underemployment "had similar levels of optimism." In fact, a little more than "60 percent reported that their lives would be better than their parents'."
Surveying these last results, one's first inclination is to say "good for you!" to those up-against-it graduates who remain nonetheless cheery about their job futures. But I also worry that their sunny dispositions might be the product, not of rational analysis or dogged determination, but rather of the unrealistic expectations bred into them by a K-12 culture that awards trophies for "participation" — and by a higher education system in which, today, an A is the most common grade awarded nationwide (43 percent), while 73 percent of all college grades are As or Bs. Raised with this sort of "feedback," what new graduate would not be "optimistic" about his or her future?
Much firmer ground for optimism regarding life after graduation is provided by the recommendations Arum and Roksa offer in light of their latest findings. Given the demonstrated dependence of post-graduate success on choice of academic major, school selectivity and scores on the CLA, they urge our colleges and universities to "enhance academic rigor and assessment to improve student learning," and therewith, "early life-course success."
True enough. But how to do that? Keen to the crisis that Academically Adrift brought to light three years ago, roughly 200 schools last year decided to administer the CLA to their students in an effort to identify stronger and weaker majors. This is a welcome development, coming not a moment too soon.
Perhaps even more encouraging is an effort that has been underway for two years in my home state of Texas. Last year, the Higher Education committee of the Texas Senate heard a bill that would require all of the state's public universities to administer the CLA to all students in their first and fourth years in college. The proposed legislation also would require that the results of the CLA, broken down by major and school, be published online, so that prospective students, their parents and taxpayers might discover which majors and which universities significantly increase students' capacities to think critically, engage in complex reasoning and write clearly — and which do not.
While the bill did not pass last year, its supporters indicate that they will resume their quest next January. Were a state the size of Texas to pass such legislation, the benefits would not long be confined to the Lone Star State. Other states could be expected to follow Texas's bold move toward enhancing higher-education accountability. In the process, fewer graduates would be left to drift aimlessly into life after college.
Lindsay directs the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and is editor of SeeThruEdu.com. He was deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under President George W. Bush. He recently published, with Gary D. Glenn, Investigating American Democracy (Oxford University Press).