Sunday, September 7, 2014

When Colleges Fail

Four years ago Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa wrote a book called, Academically Adrift.

Colleges and universities, they explained, were not doing their job. They were not teaching anyone how to think. They were also, the book implied, devaluing hard work and promoting sloth. College was more about fun than learning.

Colleges are no longer in the education business. They are, Arum and Roksa claim, in the credentialing business.

But, what are these credentials worth if employers in the marketplace discover that having a degree from Brown makes you an undesirable employee.

Today’s students are not being taught the character skills required for success in the business world. They are taught to have a good time, to party hard, and to enjoy themselves. Too many of them are majoring in fun. They are not taught the virtue of showing up, of persevering in the face of difficult assignments, and in working hard to improve their skills.

Professors require very little of their students. The students do not need to do very much hard work. They rarely even attend lectures. No matter what they hand in, they tend to get good grades.

Unsurprisingly, Arum and Roksa discovered that students who did more work learned more.

And yet, regardless of how much or little they learn, college students always feel good about themselves.

They exit college with high self-esteem and a low skill set. Follow-up studies have shown that these same students have more difficulty succeeding in business.

If the business of education were really education, most colleges would go out of business.

Kevin Carey reported on the new study in The New York Times today:

Today, they [Arum and Roksa] released a follow-up study, tracking the same students for two years after graduation, into the workplace, adult relationships and civic life. The results suggest that recent college graduates who are struggling to start careers are being hamstrung by their lack of learning.

If you would like to measure how many minds self-esteemism has undone, these paragraphs are a good indication:

When asked during their senior year in 2009, three-quarters reported gaining high levels of critical thinking skills in college, despite strong C.L.A. evidence to the contrary. When asked again two years later, nearly half reported even higher levels of learning in college. This was true across the spectrum of students, including those who had struggled to find and keep good jobs.

Through diplomas, increasingly inflated grades and the drumbeat of college self-promotion, these students had been told they had received a great education. The fact that the typical student spent three times as much time socializing and recreating in college as studying and going to class didn’t change that belief. Nor did unsteady employment outcomes and, for the large majority of those surveyed, continued financial dependence on their parents.

And also:

Yet those same students continue to believe they got a great education, even after two years of struggle. This suggests a fundamental failure in the higher education market — while employers can tell the difference between those who learned in college and those who were left academically adrift, the students themselves cannot.


Anonymous said...

I don't know what to make of your post. I value your thoughts and have made use of your insights in my life.

I'm nearly 50. I struggled for a top-end electrical engineering degree at a good state college fighting every arab and asian for a few points "above the curve". I made it, and I regret it.

I struggled and struggled for years after that, and military service: but we don't even make things I can make here anymore.

We've outsourced our building and insourced our fun.

My struggle wasn't redeeming and it wasn't worth the struggle. If I was going to struggle anyhow, at least I coulda had some fun...

If those kids you describe are going to struggle like I have, at least they had a few years of fun. Maybe they are behaving rationally. Economics is all about rational behavior...

What if they are behaving rationally to circumstances as they find them?

What if it didn't really matter what they studied 'cuz they would end up in the same place anyhow?

This is the problem, not them, and not the colleges.

Now what?


Dennis said...

As strange as this sounds colleges/universities are in many ways wasted on the young. A large percentage of young adults have no idea as to what they want to do with their lives and wound up matriculating in areas of study That sound like it would be perfect for making big money but leave them less than pleased with the resulting challenges.
Along with the growing emphasis on money and material pursuits comes the realization that significant large numbers of students pick the same courses of studies that exacerbates the job market and lowers the amount of money and gravitas involved.
Far too many educational institution put self esteem as a primary goal without the understanding that striving to be the best one can be with a real affection for the work involved is as important if not more so.
I would posit that the reason we find so many unhappy people is that the education institutions poorly serve the students at every level by the emphasis on the material aspects of life and that one has to have a college degree to be happy.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Spot on, Dennis.

One of the biggest problems we have today as a nation is that a great many of our college graduates are drawn to finance, non-profit institutions, and "public service." Any one of these is an honorable choice if discerned properly, but I suspect these are most often chosen for (a) their materialist value; and/or (b) out of a desire to control others' lives; and (c ) because they are protected from real accountability... being above the law or superior to those in the "rat race." Perhaps this has changed a bit in banking since retail/commercial became a de facto public utility and ward if the state, but many of our best minds still pursue vast riches in investment banking and private equity. For-profit business is a tough road to hoe today, despite all the glorification of entrepreneurs who became billionaires starting out of their garage. That said, one does feel more alive when he is accountable for the upside or downside of his choices. That's what fuels integrity. I have no illusions about some imagined higher nobility in business, but when done properly there are few better places to test one's mettle. Except the military, of course.