Is College Still Worth It?

By Christopher NewfieldSeptember 29, 2014

Is College Still Worth It?

Aspiring Adults Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa

WHEN DID American universities switch from being a national glory to a national problem? One likely year is 2010, when total student debt became larger than total credit card debt, and the dam burst on public frustration with endless tuition hikes and mushrooming loans.

Around that time, after years of ambiguous fiscal messaging, public universities finally started to blame their bigger-than-ever tuition increases on bigger-than-ever state cuts to public funding. University managers observed that cuts created deficits that only high tuition could replace. This claim might have generated public support for restored public funding, but then came strike three. Major media reported that in spite of all the money they were paying for college, students were learning nearly nothing. High tuition, high debt, and “limited learning” — universities had struck out. The country entered a confused, conflicted higher ed policy period that shows no sign of ending.

The major vehicle for the thesis that students don't learn in college was a book called Academically Adrift (2011), by education sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. Their new book is the sequel, and it’s hard to take it on its own terms. Is it like Lord of the Rings 2: The Two Towers, a very good movie in its own right? Or like Men in Black 2, a disappointing coattails production? Or like I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, which should never have been made? Off the bat I’d answer “coattails.” But the authors’ arguments are now completely entangled with the miseducation of America about the problems of American education, making the publication of this new book an occasion to reflect on where the higher ed debates have gone wrong, and how we should fix them.


Academically Adrift did at least two valuable things. It broke through standard statistics about degree attainment — like what percentage of enrolled students get BA degrees — to ask what graduates actually learned while getting their degrees. And it separated college learning from college brand. Judging from the results of the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), which tests generic skills, it turns out that many students don’t learn even at the most selective colleges, while at less selective places many students learn well. The book asked the country to see college quality as a function of real college learning, not of selectivity or the other metrics found in rankings like U.S. News & World Report’s. This in itself would have been a major contribution.

But Arum and Roksa didn’t call their thesis “uneven learning,” didn’t title the book Some Students Left Behind and offer the dos and don’ts of better pedagogy. They called it “limited learning,” used the title Academically Adrift (meaning colleges and students in general), and focused on averages rather than variances. On the level of press relations, this was a stroke of genius. The book now had a shock doctrine, which was nicely summarized by the senior higher education journalist Scott Jaschik: “if the purpose of a college education is for students to learn, academe is failing.” The book had numbers: 45 percent of students learned next to nothing during their first two years and 36 percent learned next to nothing over four years. Just as bad, student learning, on average, was half as large as the gains of the students of the 1980s. This was very bad news, and it was easy to conclude that the aspiring middle class was spending money it no longer had to buy counterfeit degrees.

The Eye of Sauron now fell on America’s colleges, but Frodo did not appear to restore their powers. Academically Adrift gave comfort to the Right, which has been trying to downgrade public colleges for decades, and to people who thought colleges should be run like corporations, and to educational technologists like the 2012-13 class of MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) enthusiasts, who could excuse their products’ poor educational results by saying that yes MOOCs weren’t perfect, but they “could not be worse” than what professors were doing in person.

The howls of outrage drowned out the actual findings of Arum and Roksa’s book. For in reality, their data traced much of the learning deficit back to substandard high schools for which colleges could not compensate. More importantly, Adrift identified simple things that the majority of good learners did.

What were those simple things? Students had to take many demanding courses, defined as those that require 20 or more pages of writing per term and more than 40 pages of reading per week. They had to spend much more time studying than the current norm, preferably alone (say double the 12-13 hours per week average). And they had to work directly with faculty members who had high expectations.

Oh. So to learn in college you have to read, write, and study — all with a professor? Didn't we already know this? What parent hasn’t said more than once, “I’m not paying for college so you can party!” What self-supporting student hasn’t said that to themselves, as they take a second minimum-wage job to cover rent? Students constantly hear advice like “Challenge yourself.” “Don’t take gut courses.” “Ask your TA to read a first draft.” “Take notes like this. Do problem sets like that.” Every student gets endless variations on RuPaul’s old standard, “you better work.”

It was helpful for Academically Adrift to offer a minimum threshold for reading and writing. But the surprise was not so much that a large minority of college students don’t learn much, but that their problem might be as simple as studying half as many hours as their parents did, who seem to have put in 25 hours per week. In addition, only nine percent of students meet with their professions outside of class. Couldn’t today’s students study more and start working with their professors? There wasn’t much marketable news here, just a lot more work ahead for students, advisors, counselors, teaching assistants, and professors.

Adrift had an answer but also a problem, because its answer raised a major funding question: if students needed more contact time not only with their books and notes but also with their instructors, wouldn’t colleges need to put more money into staff and equipment? More learning required more instructional contact, and that contact had to be funded. Just when the country was most tired of paying for college, would it have to pay more for college, not less?

The second big surprise in Adrift pointed in exactly this direction. A good way for a student to lower her learning was to shift from an academic to a vocational major. Students who majored in business, educational administration, health technologies, and the like learned less than students in the traditional liberal arts and sciences — chemistry, art history, cell biology, literature, physics, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, and so on. “Limited learning” was a problem all right — in practical majors. In traditional liberal arts and sciences majors, students learned fairly well (see Figure 6). This was the most grossly under-reported finding in the study.

When I read through the book’s appendices and reviewed some CLA results at various universities, another possibility occurred to me. Perhaps universities could close most of the gap between good 1980s learning and limited 2000s learning by moving all students from vocational to liberal arts and sciences majors — or by raising all vocational courses to the more rigorous standard of the liberal arts and sciences. What if the solution to the learning crisis was for the country to turn its thousands of community colleges and state universities into large scale versions of liberal arts colleges?

This remained an unthought possibility in the book. It certainly sounds cost-prohibitive. But that is because Arum and Roksa, like most higher ed scholars, didn’t detail the costs of not investing, or outline the concrete better practices that reinvestment could buy. Adrift identified behaviors like fewer hours of studying for the same or higher overall grades and traced them to moral failures like disengagement, not to teaching and learning conditions that have been degraded by years of underinvestment.

Student study hours are a case in point. Rising tuition and shifts in aid from grants to loans force students — particularly many who are most at risk of limited learning — to work 8, 16, 24 hours a week for tuition, rent, books, and food. A second explanation is academic labor. Tenure-track faculty already have 60- to 75-hour work weeks loaded with duties beyond teaching. University administrations have been replacing permanent with contingent faculty: the 1970s ratio of 2:1 or 3:1 has been reversed, so that contingent faculty now teach 70 percent of college courses. Public systems like Cal State University expect tenured professors to teach four courses at a time while grading papers for over 100 students a term (see the slice of state college faculty life in “Drowning and No One Cares”). What happens when an overworked professor is also contingent, teaching you in one of four or five courses at three universities, and her rehire next term depends on your high teaching evaluations? Can you really expect her to assign 20 or more pages of writing to 100 or 150 students, giving each student meticulous comments week after week throughout the term?

Arum and Roksa also omitted the structural issue of budget cuts. After 2008, many colleges were forced to double or triple class sizes, eliminate discussions and grading assistance for many large lectures, and in general reduce contact hours between teachers and students. These cuts came on top of long-term disinvestment by states, who have cut their appropriations to higher education by nearly one-third over the past 25 years. If you divide the overall expenditures of public colleges by their number of students, gross per-student revenues have increased. And yet this new, private money comes with conditions and costs. As a result, in most periods, only a fraction of tuition increases show up as increased spending on instruction: from 2000-2010, public research universities increased net tuition by 65 percent, and increased their instructional spending 4 percent. In community colleges, instructional spending fell 12 percent in constant dollars. Reduced homework, less writing, shallow feedback: these things do limit learning, but they are not moral choices so much as adaptations to resource constraints that have been deliberately imposed by governments.

Finally, in higher ed, de facto state policy is that poor colleges get poorer. The least selective schools have a third to a half of the per-student resources of public flagships, and one-fifth to one-twentieth the per student budget of the most selective schools. This further limits the learning of the students who’d gotten the least out of K–12. Limited learning is at its root not an attitude problem: it’s a resource problem. Adrift helped weaken the case for reinvestment, since it did not trace the learning crisis to the underinvestment that students still suffer.

And yet Academically Adrift did offer a choice between two stories. The visible media story was that colleges keep jacking up prices on a shoddy product. Students and faculty have agreed to ask almost nothing of each other while covering that up. To keep the money coming in, university management stresses student engagement rather than academic rigor. Therefore, what colleges need are tougher discipline, reduced subsidies, mandated focus on learning outcomes, and rigorous learning assessment, coming from managerial bodies not controlled by the faculty.

The book’s second story was the reverse. Colleges aren’t too far from business but too close. They have been making their students business-ready for years by bolting vocational majors to the liberal arts and sciences core. It turns out that these vocational majors offer limited learning, which are the main college source of post-1980s declines. The college crisis was not that college was offering bad academic subjects, but that college had added a lot of non-academic subjects in an effort to address workforce needs. Therefore, the best way to fix academia would be to let it be academic again, renewing its focus on the liberal arts and sciences. This would mean getting business out of the way.

It was of course “our failing colleges” that got the A-side listing. The B-side, “our failing pragmatism: how a market focus hurt college learning” — never got played.


The workplace fixation brings us to Aspiring Adults Adrift, which sustains the “adrift” brand while shifting the focus to recent graduates in the workforce. Arum and Roksa have administered surveys and conducted interviews with 80 of these graduates. We need a much clearer sense of what is happening to our Great Recession generation, and their research on this has real value. The same is true of the authors’ interest in tying job market success to college achievement. Do students who tested as good learners do better getting and holding jobs? Do they have higher job satisfaction? Do they have hope for the future? In short, is college still worth it? The answer in all cases is yes. CLA scores, the authors write, which measure general-skills learning, “track closely with the avoidance of unemployment, underemployment, unskilled employment, and job loss.” They conclude that a college degree has value as at least an insurance policy against this generation’s struggle to find and keep decent jobs.

On its face, this thesis is too obvious to send the pundits running to their keyboards. The authors add some further nuance: the degree’s benefit is proportional to the extent that it reflects strong “generic competencies — such as critical thinking, complex reading, and writing.” The authors cite work showing that generic skills are, more than content knowledge, useful because they are “transferable across jobs, occupations, firms, and industry” and may “also have relevance for other aspects of individuals’ lives, including citizenship.” In other words, students should study skills because learning is earning — most of the time.

But whom now might the Eye of Sauron fix upon, in finding fault and laying blame? Faculty are the generic hobbits, but they don’t control the job market. And this time out, Arum and Roksa acknowledge in passing that faculty have all along been trying to get students to study about three times more than they actually do, which spoils their standing as learning villains. This finding weakens the A-side story about a “disengagement compact” between faculty and students that is sapping the workforce.

Following the results of the previous book, the Eye might instead land on the vocational majors that lower learning overall. But that would be awkward, given the new book’s job data. Business majors get less learning than liberal arts and sciences majors in college, but have more salary and more employment in the workforce. Sauron likes instant employability above all else, so the Eye needs now to fall on — what? Public defunding of state colleges and universities? The offshoring of high-skill jobs? Excessive deference to foundation and vendor advice? Bank exploitation of aspiring students?

What the Eye spies this time are the students themselves, and their wider culture. Arum and Roksa conjure 1950s sociology in claiming that students are too other-directed, and that college administrations enable this by pushing sociability rather than learning, which they trace to a turn towards a “student services model” in the 1920s, not to mention a “therapeutic ethic” that emerged during student protests in the 1960s, which also locked in “student rights.” “Educators have increasingly ceded their authority to students, while administrators cater to students’ “personal growth and well-being” while “empowering […] students as consumers.”

All this permissive catering would be bad enough, but worse is that students have been brainwashed by it. After graduation, most think their college years were good and that they learned a lot. Ninety percent of graduates are satisfied with the college experience. How bad is that? Very: graduates are wrong to think they’ve really learned, Arum and Roksa remind us by repeating their limited learning findings. They push too hard on this point: as we’ve seen, most graduates are right to say they’ve learned quite a bit. They also have content knowledge, shovel-ready social skills, special individual abilities, and personal experiences and insights that the authors’ test doesn’t cover.

But what about the job market? Surely that’ll teach these grads that they threw college away on the “personal development message”! And yet these overly sociable students are doing well with jobs. Two years out in a stuck economy, only 7 percent are unemployed, while another 13 percent are underemployed in the sense of holding jobs not requiring college skills. So about four-fifths of the sample have, within two years, found a job their education prepared them for, half making more than $30,000 per year and half making less. Low CLA scores increase the chances of unemployment from 5 percent to 10 percent, but this difference is overshadowed by the greater benefits to all of completing a degree.

Perhaps the job market news isn’t so bad, and graduates are right to think college mostly worked for them. Arum and Roksa then turn to the high share of young graduates still living with their parents. At 40 percent, it’s twice the rate of the 1960s. Another third of recent graduates live with friends, and 70 percent of young graduates get some money from their families — as do 75 percent of all 18-25 year olds. But again, is this really the fault of college? Further, how do we know that these living situations are bad? Are these graduates really adrift, or are they showing self-discipline by cutting expenses in a bad economy? There is one clear tie to college: we know that this generation is servicing students debt of a size that their parents can barely imagine, and that this may be dampening home buying. We also know that the reigning “new economy business model” promises them neither job security nor stable income growth. So rather than missing the “markers of adulthood,” these cautious at-home students are more likely hitting them. They are the markers of Great Recession adulthood — house sharing, public transportation, deferred buying, and reliance on family.


I don’t find the A-side, “adults adrift” narrative more convincing for graduates than I did for students and their colleges. For all three, I like “adapting" better than “adrift,” as in “Aspiring Adults Adapting” — to lower wages for high-skill jobs, to the destabilization of career paths, to the decline of the middle class, and to the defunding of middle-class institutions like public colleges and universities. Some graduates may respond to this bipartisan neoliberal bargain by trying to rekindle Occupy-style social movements. Others may build alternative economies. Most adapt by staying upbeat and flexible, displaying civility instead of confrontation, building their own professional networks, being willing to work 16 hour days, and keeping a permanent lookout for the next job, especially while socializing.

Universities have performed a similar adaptation to Google Rules of Order, and with the same good-sport eagerness not to fall behind. Arum and Roksa don’t critique business leaders and policymakers for demanding underfunded neoliberal universities, yet they criticize students, universities, and graduates for adaptive neoliberal behaviors.

This book’s A-side fits all too well with the current higher ed policy consensus. A is for Audit, in which governments, businesses, and foundations rate college programs rather than rebuilding them. A is for Austerity, in which public higher education can and must be continuously cheapened. A is for Avoidance, as in tax avoidance, in which high-tech companies help keep social investments low and the public sector poor. A is for alleged “skills shortages,” which blames supposedly deficient workers rather than failed tax and investment policies for all problems with wages and employment. Our authors’ policy solutions are in tune with this: they call for more rigorous teaching of generic competencies, better campus pathways to work experience, and more systematic (though university-based) assessment of learning. Were it not drowned out for the moment by the sounds of Excellent Sheep, you’d be hearing the “adults adrift” A-side right now.

But what about its B-side? As in the first book, this is much better stuff. Arum and Roksa are right that all students need to learn. They are right that the United States is hooked on selectivity overkill modeled on elite schools. They are right to worry about students with inadequate cognitive skills. They are right that few faculty follow new pedagogical research, and that we all can improve. They are right that majors need to be more coherent, that electives have been overused, that learning pathways should be simplified, that students need real advising. They are right that instructors need feedback beyond student evaluations, that assessment is useful, and that assessment should not be absorbed into audit authorities run by business, the state, or the feds. They might agree that we need more individualized instruction, more and faster feedback to students, more immersive learning, more specialists to tutor students, and more cultivation of unique competencies to make students individually distinctive. Arum and Roksa’s secret B-side title is “great colleges for all.”

It would be easy if we could manage our way to greatness — if auditing could replace rebuilding, if better skills could fix the post-middle class economy, if businessed universities led to learning for all. But it can’t, it can’t, and they don’t. A-side assessment, with flat or declining investment in students, when community colleges spend a fraction per student of their elite private counterparts, all under a mushroom cloud of suspicion, will never get massive B-side learning upgrades.

If we want either effective or democratic higher education, we have to learn to say to ourselves, “it’s the liberal arts and sciences, stupid.” And then we need to open our wallets to build equal access to that.


Christopher Newfield is a professor in the English Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

LARB Contributor

Christopher Newfield is distinguished professor emeritus of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara and director of research at the Independent Social Research Foundation, London. He is the author of The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (2016), among other books.


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