The Economic Price of Colleges’ Failures

Kevin Carey:

Four years ago, the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa dropped a bomb on American higher education. Their groundbreaking book, “Academically Adrift,” found that many students experience “limited or no learning” in college. Today, they released a follow-up study, tracking the same students for two years after graduation, into the workplace, adult relationships and civic life. The results suggest that recent college graduates who are struggling to start careers are being hamstrung by their lack of learning.

“Academically Adrift” studied a sample of students who enrolled at four-year colleges and universities in 2005. As freshmen, they took a test of critical thinking, analytic reasoning and communications skills called the Collegiate Learning Assessment (C.L.A.). Colleges promise to teach these broad intellectual skills to all students, regardless of major. The students took the C.L.A. again at the end of their senior year. On average, they improved less than half of one standard deviation. For many, the results were much worse. One-third improved by less than a single point on a 100-point scale during four years of college.

This wasn’t because some colleges simply enrolled smarter students. The nature of the collegiate academic experience mattered, too. Students who spent more time studying alone learned more, even after controlling for their sociodemographic background, high school grades and entrance exam scores. So did students whose teachers enforced high academic expectations. People who studied the traditional liberal arts and sciences learned more than business, education and communications majors.