Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

Historic Trends

  • Traditionally, U.S colleges have embraced both academic and moral education. Over time, however, administrators and staff have largely withdrawn from oversight of manners and morals. They often find it politically expedient to avoid collective regulation of student behavior. There is little institutional responsibility for moral development or social regulation. One example is the increase of self-reported cheating, which doubled between 1963 and 1993. Schools now focus on meeting client needs though ever-expanding services.
  • As government support has shifted from institutions to individuals, student loans have become the fastest growing source of funding. From 1997 to 2007, private sector loans in constant dollars increased almost seven times. In 2007, the average debt per borrower increased to $22,700. This does not include the increase in credit card debt, which in 2008 averaged $4,100! This has increased the distraction from coursework as paid employment has become more important. Since colleges treat students as consumers, there is no guarantee that students prioritize academic learning. Their focus seems to be more on receiving services and obtaining valuable academic credentials with the least possible effort. Personal objectives seem to prioritize frequent socializing, travel, and entertainment.

2. Origins and Trajectories

  • At this time, access to college is widespread, concerns about inadequate academic preparation are prevalent, and drifting through college without a clear sense of purpose is apparent. This is the historic context for the observations in this book that concludes that many undergraduates are not learning much.
  • Arum and Roksa use the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) in order to study the progress students are making in college. For more information on this assessment check the website. The assessment features real-world performance and analytical writing tasks rather than specialized information. They used a sample of 2,322 student from 24 four-year institutions.

Results of the Study

  • During the first two years of college, students in the sample only showed an average seven percentile gain. Furthermore, 45 percent of the sample showed no statistically significant gain. Other studies support these results, which paint a disconcerting reality. A Wabash Nation Study also found that students’ academic motivation and interest declined during their first year in college.
  • The belief that education is a solution to social inequality and other problems is widespread. A less optimistic view supported by the authors is that education reproduces social inequality. Schools expect, but do not teach cultural competencies. Gaps that exist in CLA performance across family backgrounds do not change. For African Americans, it gets worse. Women are the one historically disadvantage group that has managed to catch up or move ahead in some cases. Although schools tried to do away with tracking, students track themselves by taking more demanding courses. Academic preparation (high GPA, four or more AP courses) has a strong relationship to CLA Growth. It can overcome poverty and family education gaps. Being surrounded by high-performing peers can help improve achievement of all students. Well prepared students attend colleges with higher concentrations of well prepared students. This implies that higher education is a contributor to social inequality. “College for all” looks like a policy designed to warehouse students who would be at risk of unemployment and criminal behavior.
  • 3. Pathways Through Colleges Adrift

    • Undergraduate education is fundamentally a social experience. Most students see social learning as more important than academics. The goal for most is to maximize the social and minimize the academic. This single most important source of influence on growth and development is, therefore, the peer group. After the peer group, faculty relationships are the next most important. Institutional leaders are responsible for college climates where these factors operate. Student-focused institutions can facilitate development. Students who have interactions with faculty outside of class do better. The same factors that promote success come into play when we look at frequency of faculty contact outside of class and satisfaction with peer support. Faculty generally focuses attention outside of class on the best students, which increases existing performance gaps. The more selective the school, the more faculty contact.
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