In Defense of Colleges

Academically Adrift misrepresents the college education

On January 18, sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa released a book entitled Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses which essentially accuses the current American collegiate environment of not nurturing the same level of reasoning skills in its students as it once did. These two sociologists conclude that more than a third of American college seniors are no better at crucial types of writing and reasoning tasks than they were in their first semester of college. Already, the book has elicited a great deal of discussion in academic circles, being the subject of a column by Bob Herbert in The New York Times two weeks ago. Even though we as Harvard students cannot claim to represent a typical American collegiate experience, we still believe that the study appears to sensationalize what is by now a common complaint—that “kids these days” don’t know anything and don’t care about learning. What the book does not emphasize is that students are still learning, even if they do not classify the time they spend learning strictly as “studying.” The book’s methodology does not encompass the ways in which the information age has changed how new generations of students think, communicate, and interact.

First and foremost, on a methodological level, we believe that the conclusions drawn from the book cannot be applied as widely or definitively as its authors intend. Although the strict definition of learning utilized in it is fair, its reliance on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test administered to incoming freshmen and graduating seniors, as an indicator for academic development in college is undue and problematic. As an exam, the CLA has two components: Performance Tasks and Analytic Writing Tasks. Performance Tasks “ask students to engage in a ‘real-life’ activity (such as preparing a memo or policy recommendation), that requires reviewing or evaluating several documents.” Analytic Writing Tasks are composed of sections that ask students to “Make-an-Argument” and “Critique-an-Argument.” A comparison of these components between freshman year and senior year is meant to provide a definitive assessment of how much a student has learned during his or her four years in college.

We question the ability of such an exam to accurately represent the intellectual gains that students make during college, especially given that the administrators of the exam admit that “The CLA does not control for self-reported student effort.” Admittedly, they do use students’ previous SAT/ACT scores as a control, but when it comes to evaluating colleges, the CLA administrators shift blame onto the institutions whose students they survey: “In addition, higher education institutions do and should instill in their students the habit of devoting due effort to any task that they agree to undertake, whether that be taking a course, engaging in volunteer work, or participating in an assessment because their college asked them to do so… In that sense, student willingness to perform well on the CLA is one indicator of institutional impact.”  While such normative ideas can be charming, realistically speaking, one cannot expect even the most motivated and benevolent college senior to necessarily strive to represent him or herself, let alone the alma mater, accurately on a test that has relatively little clout on a public scale.

Departing from a technical critique, however, we believe that the greatest problem of the book lies in its insufficiency in accounting for students’ different learning style in the 21st century. The book is guilty of more than generalization when it comes to learning, which is a highly individualized and unique process. What this book does not reflect is that in the information age, students are responsible for much more information than previous generations have been. While we recognize that these sociologists consider growth in “critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time,” the fact remains that the CLA does not measure how much tangible knowledge students have acquired over their time in college. Even if the CLA accurately reflected the degree to which students acquire measurable liberal arts skills, it does not account for the intellectual growth students gain from reading news articles, debating with peers, holding jobs, or any number of activities in which students engage informally.

To be sure, we understand that these sociologists have caught onto a trend of “getting by” that is all too frequent on college campuses. However, their study comes across as nothing short of damning of a social and academic environment that is undeniably formative for every single college student in one way or another. College is a diverse environment full of a dazzling spectrum of people and opportunities that expand the horizons of its students in ways they could have only imagined at home. We believe it superfluous, therefore, to question the motives to send high school graduates to college, for different generations learn in different ways. There is much intellectual growth that happens on campus that cannot be measured, a tantalizing datum that sociologists would do well to accept might be unreachable.