Researchers created quite a stir last year -- to say the least -- with the release of Academically Adrift , the book about a longitudinal study that found many students don’t learn much in college, particularly in the way of skills like critical thinking and analytic reasoning. The culprit, the authors argue, is a lack of academic rigor in most classes that required little reading, writing and studying.
If true, those findings alone are grim enough. But a new study from the same authors says the data’s implications for students extend beyond their time in college and into their early years as graduates.
The new study found a positive correlation between poor performance on the Collegiate Learning Assessment -- the test used in Academically Adrift to measure gains over the students’ time in college -- and unemployment, credit card debt, and likelihood of living at home.
“It documents that these skills and competencies that are measured by the CLA matter for many important early-adult life-course outcomes. They matter for successful adult transitions,” said Richard Arum, professor of sociology and education at New York University and co-author both of the original book and of the follow-up study, Documenting Uncertain Times: Post-graduate Transitions of the Academically Adrift Cohort. “These are dramatic kinds of relationships that track with each other, that really point to the importance of colleges focusing on developing these skills.”
Arum and his co-author, Josipa Roksa, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, also confirmed the widely acknowledged reality that students who graduated during the recession are having a tough go of it.
Arum and Roksa surveyed 1,000 students from the Academically Adrift cohort, who began entering college in fall 2005. Seven percent of all those who were not enrolled full-time in graduate school were unemployed, and nearly a quarter reported living at home with parents or relatives. Sixty-five percent said they had student loans, owing an average of $27,200 (15 percent owed more than $50,000), and nearly three of four were still receiving financial assistance from parents. Forty-six percent reported having credit card debt, owing an average of $1,800.
“As a whole, they’re struggling,” Arum said. “If they find jobs, they’re often part-time. And even if they’re [working] full time, they’re often not providing the income that is able for them to really assume adult responsibilities in terms of paying off their loans and living independently.” Among those who did find jobs, the average pay is $34,900.
In what Arum calls a “really stunning” finding, graduates who were among the 20 percent of lowest-performing students on the CLA were three times likelier to be unemployed in spring 2011 than were those who performed in the top quintile (9.6 percent of the former were in search of a job, compared to 3.1 percent of the latter).
Furthermore, compared to graduates who scored in the top quintile on the CLA, those who scored in the bottom quintile were twice as likely to be living at home (35 percent as opposed to 18 percent) and had “significantly more” credit card debt (51 percent vs. 37 percent).
More Than the Job Market
Because the researchers looked at many pairs of factors in isolation, it’s difficult to weigh the precise relationship between CLA performance and a student’s postgraduate circumstances versus the weight of other things. For example, good CLA performance was associated with less debt and likelihood of living at home, but so was having parents who went to college and attending more selective colleges. (You’d think the federal government would look into this further to figure out exactly how much student learning affects postgraduate prospects, Arum said, given the billions of dollars spent on higher education.)
Regardless, Arum says, there’s no denying the relationship between CLA score and each of these pieces on an individual basis. And while, of course, the awful job market hasn't done anything to help these graduates, the relationships documented in the study would probably still exist in a healthier economy, he said.
“Indeed, the difficulties they are facing are in part to do with the difficult current economic conditions,” Arum acknowledged. But, he added, the growth in returns associated with a college degree began diminishing even before the recession began; the idea that all one needs to be successful is a degree has become “simply erroneous.”
“Perhaps, then, students and their families will start asking more of the higher education institutions where they’re enrolled. They’ll start to ask for more than simply a credential and a personally rewarding and enjoyable experience,” Arum said. “Maybe the economic climate, if you will, will force a certain discipline onto the system as a whole, as well as onto the students themselves.”
Arum noted that because the study includes only those students who graduated from their four-year institutions within six years and didn’t transfer, the report’s findings, however discouraging, probably understate the extent of the difficulties college students are facing.
Based on student surveys, transcripts and CLA scores that students received before and throughout college, Arum and Roksa determined in Academically Adrift that 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college, and 36 percent didn’t do so over four years of college. Students reported spending only about 12-14 hours studying each week -- much of it in groups. Half said that in no semester did they take any classes that required them to write more than 20 pages over the entire course, and 32 percent didn’t take any courses that assigned more than 40 pages of reading per week.
The research faced some criticisms  at its release. Some people were skeptical of the CLA as a tool of measurement, given that students who are about to graduate may be less motivated to do well on exams and any laziness could be taken as lack of knowledge. The test also does not address subject-matter knowledge. Others took issue with the book's assertion that group study is less valuable than solitary study, because students weren't questioned on details about what their study sessions entailed. However, even most of the critics generally agreed that the research resonated.
Phil Gardner, director of research for the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University, wasn’t surprised that students who scored low on the CLA aren’t doing as well in the job market.
“There’re a lot of young people going through college today that really don’t come out much different than they came in. They don’t have a sense of why they’re there, they don’t do the things that we need them to do,” in order to be employable, Gardner said. Students don’t have to put as much effort into college than they used to and aren’t held accountable, Gardner said, but some fault also lies with colleges that aren’t giving students a sense of what it takes to get hired.
“I think universities have to put a little more resources up front and get these kids to understand what it means to be a professional and what’s going to be expected of them,” Gardner said, “what your life’s going to be like -- credit card debt and all that.”
The study’s findings regarding civic engagement were particularly disturbing to Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. According to the research, the likelihood of students being civically engaged in the years after graduation -- be it by volunteering or reading news and discussing politics and public affairs -- was strongly associated with higher levels of parental education, academic engagement and growth while in college, and better CLA performance.
“Today’s graduates face a difficult economy that forces them to succeed against the odds. But any American, employed or not, can stay abreast of political, global and local developments. These findings show that civic engagement is stratified by socioeconomic background,” Schneider, who contributed to a recent report  calling for more civic knowledge and democratic engagement among students, said in an e-mail. “Colleges can and should do much more to foster civic learning and democratic engagement for everyone. It is a mistake to make democracy optional.”