Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Two Kinds of College Students

In their famous book Academically Adrift, academics Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa argued that "American higher education is characterized by limited or no learning for a large proportion of students." The argument is supported by the evidence that we have on the subject, but it must be said that the evidence isn't very good. Nobody has ever tried very hard to figure out how much college students learn. College graduates do better in life in many ways, but this might be because the same personal characteristics that enabled them to finish college -- perseverance, attention span, intelligence, family background, decent mental health -- also help them get ahead in life.

Now Arum and Roksa have dug up some new data on student learning and its effects:
While press coverage of Academically Adrift focused mostly on learning among typical students, the data actually show two distinct populations of undergraduates. Some students, disproportionately from privileged backgrounds, matriculate well prepared for college. They are given challenging work to do and respond by learning a substantial amount in four years.

Other students graduate from mediocre or bad high schools and enroll in less-selective colleges that don't challenge them academically. They learn little. Some graduate anyway, if they're able to manage the bureaucratic necessities of earning a degree. . . .

Now Arum and his colleagues have revealed what happened to those two groups after they left college and entered the unforgiving post-recession economy. Despite a barren job market, only 3.1 percent of students who scored in the top 20 percent of the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which measures critical-thinking skills, were unemployed. . . . 
They were also more likely to live away from their parents, and to be married.
Graduates who scored poorly on the CLA, by contrast, are leading very different lives. It's true that business majors, who were singled out for low CLA scores in Academically Adrift, did better than most in finding jobs. But over all, students with poor CLA results are more likely to be living at home with their parents, burdened by credit-card debt, unmarried, and unemployed.
I really don't think college is for everyone.

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