Preparing for the ‘after’ life in higher ed

A new book argues that colleges don’t do enough to promote post-graduate success
By: | Issue: October, 2014
September 22, 2014

When Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa published Academically Adrift in 2011, it exposed the shortcomings of undergraduate learning.

In their new book, Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates, Arum, a sociology professor at NYU, and Roksa, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia, find many recent graduates are ill-prepared to land decent jobs and to assume civic and financial responsibility. Part of the reason, they say, is that the higher ed pendulum has swung too far toward consumerism and away from academics, leaving students with little direction.

In fact, Roksa says, too many students operate “on autopilot.” “They have no idea where they want to take their degree and what they want to do,” she says. “They are merely responding to what their parents and friends think they should be doing.”

One of the arguments in your book is that higher education has all but abandoned academic rigor to promote social engagement.

Arum: There is definitely a move in that direction, but it isn’t new. The historical antecedents to that go back to the 1920s, when higher education providers adopted a model that was developed in the army to focus on individuals’ well being and psychological adjustment. But it has only been in recent decades, after the student-rights revolution and the beginning of catering to students as consumers and clients, that we see the balance between academic and social aspects of college really tilting in a dramatic way.

You say this student service model continues to grow despite evidence that it doesn’t impact student outcomes. Why is that?

Arum: Higher education, just like any organization, has its own internal institutional and political dynamics. Unfortunately, the camp that is in ascendance in higher education right now is the one that caters to student social well-being and psychological adjustment. The ones that have been marginalized are the ones that focus on academics.

Roksa: Those notions of well-being and psychological adjustment have become coupled with the idea that students are consumers, so we end up with what we call “well-adjusted consumers.” The 18- or 19-year-olds who are looking at colleges are interested in the college experience.

That experience is largely about socializing—the clubs and activities, meeting people and doing things. Colleges can’t persuade 18-year-olds to enroll by talking about the hard classes they’ll have to take. Every school has English 101 and Biology 101—there’s no way to distinguish that from school to school—so instead they talk about the social side. It’s very difficult to break out of that cycle.

Arum: That is particularly true when the faculty—the people who should focus on academic quality and rigor—are often distracted by other professional interests. Institutions increasingly reward faculty who focus on research and scholarship rather than instructional practice, so there isn’t that counterweight needed to keep the system in balance and appropriately focused on academic quality and standards.

Roksa: These days, about half of faculty are not following a tenure track. They don’t have much say or influence at the institutional level, and they are heavily dependent on students for their jobs. So much of the professoriat is put in a position of catering to consumer demands that they don’t have the leverage to do much more than fill their classes if they want to keep their jobs.

You write that we are creating an oversupply of creative types at a time when there aren’t jobs available for them. Is that the college’s fault or is it a reflection of the consumerism you mentioned? Should students be directed to follow other paths?

Arum: Our point is that it’s fine for students to pursue whatever occupational interest they choose, but they are poorly served if that pursuit comes at the expense of general competencies in things like critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing. Those higher-order competencies are ultimately what is rewarded in the labor market, and they are also the ones that are essential for democratic citizenship.

It’s not appropriate to respond to the professed needs of 18-year-olds as consumers and clients by letting them simply follow whatever paths they choose without the guidance of us as educators. It is our responsibility to provide guidance and to develop a curricular program that provides students with the academic skills they need to be successful adults.

As I read about schools being reluctant to challenge the role of students as consumers, the phrase that ran through my mind was “the inmates running the asylum.”

Roksa: Yes, there is a certain amount of that in terms of students being the ones who set priorities, while faculty is focused on research and other things. In some ways, it certainly fits that analogy.

The Obama administration has called for more college graduates, but what good is that if we are graduating students who are, as you put it, adrift?

Arum: It is not enough to just graduate more individuals. We really need to do a better job of educating the ones who are already passing through our institutions, as well as the greater numbers we all aspire to reach in the future.

Pundits and the public are increasingly asking whether a college degree is worth it. What do you say to them?

Roksa: I think it is very clear that it is worth it in the sense of the economic return of a college degree relative to those who only finish high school. We try to make a different point—that what matters more is what you are getting for that degree, and whether schools are doing all they can to impart the skills, knowledge and tradition to prepare students for their life after graduation, both in the labor market and as participants in society. That’s where we believe colleges are falling short.

Higher education is a major investment for most people, and there is growing pressure to determine whether students are actually learning. You write, “Each institution and, more to the point, each program at each institution has been asked to develop its own way to measure learning outcomes.” How can we get an accurate picture when there are so many methods?

Roksa: Measuring learning outcomes is a fairly new endeavor for higher education, so it will take some time to develop these methods and test them to make sure they are valid and reliable.

Arum: But we do believe it is within reach. Many faculty are working to pay greater attention to this area, but they need greater institutional support to develop the tools that can measure student skills more broadly.

It is difficult but important work. In many of the disciplines, we see these “tuning” initiatives under way, where faculty are brought together to define and form consensus on what student learning outcomes should be in fields like history or biology or economics. Once they define these outcomes, they can better develop the assessment tools to measure success according to these fields.

The way you describe it, higher education seems like a ship that has been on the same course for many years now. How can it be turned around?

Roksa: It is not going to happen overnight. It has taken a long time to get here and it will take some time to turn around, but there is lots of external pressure to change.

The public is not very happy to be paying for an education system that is really quite expensive, particularly when compared to other countries. Should we keep sustaining this kind of system when much of what it does is provide students with entertainment and social amenities, without the academic rigor that should accompany that?

We think that just keeping consumers—the students—happy is not good enough. Just filling seats is partly a result of state policies that distribute funding based on enrollment and, in their defense, schools are doing what they need to do to secure that funding.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can change that and begin rewarding schools based on outcomes. There are a number of states that are starting to have that conversation, but I don’t think anybody has figured out yet how to do it particularly well.

Schools will have to move away from the blind consumer model to begin thinking carefully about what they are doing and why they are doing it. It’s not going to happen tomorrow and it’s not going to be easy, but we’ll have to change external environments as well as internal practices to make it a reality. We are encouraged to see signs of movement in that direction.

Tim Goral is senior editor.