'Aspiring Adults Adrift'

September 2, 2014

In their 2011 book Academically Adrift, authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, argued that colleges are failing to educate students. Many undergraduates, the authors wrote, are "drifting through college without a clear sense of purpose," with more than a third of students not demonstrating any significant improvement in learning over four years in college.

Now Arum and Roksa have revisited a large sampling of those same undergraduates for a new book examining how they've fared after graduation. They're no longer students, the authors write, but they are still adrift.

Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates, published today by the University of Chicago Press, is the story of a generation's difficult transition to adulthood. Based on surveys and interviews with nearly 1,000 recent college graduates from the cohort featured in Academically Adrift, the book reports that a large number of graduates are having difficulty finding jobs, living somewhere other than a parent's house, assuming civic and financial responsibility, and even developing stable romantic relationships.

Podcast With Book Co-Author

Josipa Roksa, co-author of Aspiring Adults Adrift, will discuss the book on "This Week," Inside Higher Ed's free online news podcast, on Friday. Sign up here for notification of new editions of "This Week."


"In the world of 'emerging adulthood,' the late teens and early 20s are an age of discovery and exploration," the authors write. "A four-year residential college experience is particularly conducive to fully experiencing this stage of life, as it affords students time and opportunity to learn about themselves and others."

But now this experience extends far after graduation, and colleges, the authors argue, share a large part of the blame.

"Colleges are implicated in this," Arum, a professor of sociology and education at New York University, said in an interview. "They've legitimated this. Students are going away to college for a longer and longer time. Colleges are disinvesting in faculty and investing in amenities."

Many four-year universities attend to students' social adjustment rather than developing their characters, he said, allocating resources toward what will attract teenagers to their campuses rather than what will help them learn. Campuses cater to satisfying consumer preferences instead of providing rigorous academics and connecting what students learn to the real world, Arum and Roksa write. Like students and aspiring adults, they argue, colleges and universities are also adrift.

"Both students and the schools they attend exist in larger structural and cultural contexts that have created the conditions under which the observed learning outcomes occur," the authors write. "Widespread cultural commitment to consumer choice and individual rights, self-fulfillment and sociability, and well-being and a broader therapeutic ethic leave little room for students or schools to embrace programs that promote academic rigor."

The result: Colleges are producing graduates with happy memories of their time in college but little sense of purpose or any "clear way forward."

One in four of the students surveyed and interviewed for the book reported that they were living at home two years after graduation, a proportion that is nearly double than in the 1960s. More than half said their lives lacked direction. Seven percent reported being unemployed, 12 percent said they had part-time jobs, and 30 percent were working full-time but earning less than $30,000 a year. Half of those graduates were earning less than $20,000.

College selectivity did not significantly affect the graduates' chances of employment, the authors write, and neither did gender, race or parental education. 

Field of study had little effect on the probability of whether a graduate was working an unskilled or skilled occupation two years after graduation -- except for students who studied engineering and computer science. While the probability of graduates who studied social sciences, humanities, science, math, and communication working an unskilled job hovered between 14 and 17 percent, the probability for graduates who studied engineering and computer science was just 4 percent.

Field of study did affect the probability of unemployment, with graduates who studied business and STEM-related fields having lower unemployment rates than those who studied social sciences, liberal arts, and the humanities. Business majors had a 2 percent unemployment rate among the graduates surveyed for the book, while social work, education, and health majors were at 8 percent unemployment. Communications majors had an unemployment rate of 9 percent. 

Many of those living at home and looking for skilled, full-time work were still financially dependent on their parents, and were "meandering" to and from potential career paths and jobs.

"There's a difference between meandering and exploration," Roksa, an associate professor of sociology and education at the University of Virginia, said in an interview. "There's no grand mission or purpose behind it. And the consequences of meandering can be very different based on the types of families a student comes from. For working class young adults, they don't have the support system and luxury to leave college and have a decade figuring out what they want to do."

Josh Jarrett, co-founder of Koru, a startup that helps graduates develop skills to find employment, said he doesn't fault colleges and universities as much as Arum and Roksa for aspiring adults' being adrift. There are other societal factors at play, he said, including the recent recession. In their book, the authors briefly note the effects of the recession, as well. Most of the students they studied graduated when the recession was at its worst in 2009.

It may not entirely be colleges' fault that graduates are having so much difficulty transitioning into adulthood, Jarrett said, but it is up to them to find a solution. 

"It’s not only at the seat of the academy that we can place these issues," he said. "It's what’s happening in society as well. But that does not take away the responsibility of higher education to take action. They may not have totally created this problem, but it's their problem they have to address.”

Not all of the graduates interviewed by Arum and Roksa found themselves at home with an uncertain future. 

A particularly disciplined first-generation college student named Beth devoted nearly 25 hours a week to studying. That's more than double the amount of time her average peers invest in studying, the authors write. She majored in a health-related field, but made sure to complement her curriculum with liberal arts coursework like a history course about Islamic civilization. Two years after Beth's graduation, the authors found that she had married, was financially independent, and was employed in a "desirable position." 

But Beth may be an outlier.

"Large numbers of students today do not apply themselves or develop academic skills in college," the authors write. "Thirty-six percent of full-time college students reported studying alone less than five hours per week."

Indeed, for every Beth, the authors interviewed several students who "were wading through their early 20s --- much as they had waded through college -- aspiring but adrift." Lucy, a biology major from a less-selective college, found work after graduation but only as a temporary receptionist. Linda, a psychology major from a selective college, was unemployed two years after graduating. Alice, a foreign language and literature graduate from a selective college, worked as a cashier at a cooperative food grocery store. Sonya, a public health major from a selective university, was living at home and working as a full-time baby sitter.

Nathan, who majored in business administration and graduated with a 3.9 grade point average, was a delivery driver for a chain of pharmacies. He found the job on Craiglist and earned less than $20,000.

"I can definitely do better," Nathan, who also moved back in with his parents, said to the authors. "I feel like I'm not using my degree at all. I put a lot of money on this thing and I feel like I'm not getting much out of it at the moment, but I think I will in the future."  

Despite their lack of success after graduation, many of these graduates -- Nathan included -- remained hopeful. The authors note a shared feeling of optimism among the adults in the study, despite some of their circumstances.

Ninety-five percent of the graduates said they expected their lives to be better than their parents'.

"They believed things would work out, even if they did not necessarily have plans for how that would happen," the authors write. "They were also convinced that their lives would be as good as those of their parents, if not better. This optimism in the face of challenges may be characteristic of the Academically Adrift cohort's generation. It may also reflect new ways of understanding adulthood that are tied more closely to subjective sentiments than to objective accomplishments, and that focus on the journey rather than the final destination."

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