Adrift without a Paddle

Academically AdriftWhile it is always good to examine evidence for or against one’s views, I strongly suspect that most college faculty greeted the recent publication of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa with a high degree of “I could have told you so!” As reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Huffington Post, some 45% of students “did not demonstrate any statistically significant improvement in Collegiate Learning Assessment [CLA] performance during the first two years of college.” Moreover, 36% demonstrated no improvement after four years. After 30 years of teaching, none of this surprises me. In truth, my experience would have predicted more dismal results.

A Wider Cultural Problem

Rather than discuss the book (which I have yet to read), I want to draw attention to a wider cultural problem that has developed during the past 40 years or so. The simple fact is that a traditional, liberal arts education is no longer valued positively by many important stakeholders in society. In the absence of social scientific evidence confirming that assertion, consider the following:

  • In recent decades, universities have continually reduced the number of liberal arts and science courses required for graduation.
  • Similarly, students majoring in the humanities have declined in favor of more “practical” majors leading directly to employment.
  • Most students avoid liberal arts courses as much as possible, considering them a waste of time and money in their quest for an employment credential.
  • As Arum and Roksa report, fewer college courses require intensive reading or writing.
  • Community colleges and four-year institutions are devoting more resources to providing remedial (“developmental”) instruction in basic writing and numeracy, reflecting the collapse of secondary schooling.
  • Overwhelming anecdotal evidence suggests that students are pestering their instructors more frequently for higher grades, despite lack of achievement that would warrant such marks. (Because of administrative pressures, such pestering often succeeds.)
  • For-profit institutions emphasize programs devoted to pre-employment training and exclude or heavily de-emphasize the liberal arts.
  • The number of full-time permanent faculty continues to decline while the number of contingent faculty skyrockets.
  • In a time of severe budget reductions, humanities programs suffer disproportionately in favor of STEM, employment-related, and athletic programs.
  • Hiring officers for most businesses and other organizations focus on applicants’ sector-specific skills and experience, not on basic skills of communication, critical thinking, and judgment, despite their companies’ public proclamations to the contrary.
  • Financial benefactors prefer to fund residence halls, technology centers, and athletic facilities (thereby raising overhead costs) rather than instructional costs which bring them no notoriety or public acclaim.
  • Public officials, political candidates, and media pundits often denigrate “academics,” “intellectuals,” and the “educated elite.”

The above trends, among many others, indicate an ever deeper descent into an anti-intellectualistic, narcissistic culture in which students pursue pre-employment, technical training with single-minded purpose while, nevertheless, they expect to be rewarded with high grades and degrees apart from real achievement.

Who Will Pay for Education?

Make no mistake: the big squeeze is on. State legislatures are slashing education budgets across the country. The Federal government is unlikely to pick up the slack in any significant way, and might cut funding significantly. Private institutions scramble for increased enrollment (including more online offerings) while raising tuition and decreasing operating budgets. In this swirling confusion, students, officials, and the general public increasingly perceive education (really, “training”) to be a private benefit to individuals. The social benefits of higher learning are sinking from view.

Because of this individualization and commodification of education, government loan programs and other funding sources maximize individual student choice. That puts students in the position—for which, I would argue, they are generally unprepared—to decide for themselves which education programs are in their best interest. If they are highly concerned about career and employment prospects, they will choose programs that they perceive to be directly relevant to those goals, ignoring courses that might be more beneficial over the longer term or that might require them to acquire new communication and critical thinking skills.

This situation also compels institutions to “cater to the marketplace” in order to maintain adequate enrollment and the revenue that student tuition and loans produces. For-profit institutions provide an extreme example of such pandering, but “meeting student demand” has become a hallmark of program development and marketing for traditional institutions as well. This means that over the years faculty have increasingly relinquished control over what counts as “an education” worthy of a degree. Worse, faculty have been compelled to allow standards to slip so as not to drive “paying customers” away.

In my view, we have lost almost all vision of higher learning as a social benefit, as an activity that benefits not just individual students, but society as a whole. In previous posts, I have mentioned some aspects of the social benefit of higher learning. Without such a perception by officials, students, and the general public, there will be little motivation to fund the liberal arts programs that have traditionally comprised a college education. As others have already pointed out, such programs will be allowed to wither.

The way out of this mess will be difficult. As Kevin Carey noted in a recent article, “‘Trust Us’ Won’t Cut It Anymore,”

Deep down, everyone knows that learning has long been neglected. But they don’t want to know. Policy makers who have poured gigantic sums of money into financial-aid programs designed to get people into college don’t want to know that many of the graduates, leaving with degrees in hand, didn’t learn anything. College presidents don’t want to know, because fixing the problem means arguing with faculty. Faculty don’t want to know, because it would expose the weakness of their teaching and take time from research. Students don’t want to know, because they’d have to work harder, and it would undermine the value of their credentials.

In my next post, I will offer some suggestions on how we might turn toward some sort of safe harbor. Leaving large numbers of students adrift is not in anyone’s best interest.


12 responses to “Adrift without a Paddle

  1. Read your post on HuffPo. Thanks for providing this link. I’m curious to read your next post.

  2. Thanks, Nicki. I’ll be posting the sequel in a couple of days.

  3. Interesting post, especially as the UK govt has withdrawn funding for all Humanities based University courses. Why are the Humanities so undervalued? As a English post grad and mother to 3 daughters who are very good at English, history etc & not so good at the sciences etc I worry for their future, will the humanities be still taught when they get to go to Uni?

    • Thanks for your comment, Jan. I’m very concerned about the current state of the humanities in higher education, in the UK as well as the US. The budget cuts to universities in the UK are nothing short of draconian and are viewed with alarm here in the US, since the same sort of thing can happen here albeit in a slightly different way. On both sides of the Atlantic, it seems that policy makers and the general public have come to view education as an individual benefit rather than a social good. You might be interested in other relevant posts on this blog regarding the humanities, beginning with “Why Market the Humanities?” at

      On a personal note, I should mention that my undergraduate major at Wabash College was English (not American!) literature and that the college’s curriculum was fashioned after British models. It was, and still is, a good education. I fear that younger people today, including your daughters, will not have that opportunity. We will all lose as a result.

  4. Great post, Bill, and so true. This comes from an English major who hopes to find work when I complete my degree! I think our current economy and unemployment rates comes into play, too. People seem more concerned about marketable skills and job placement assistance than about a solid, well-rounded, liberal arts education. I look forward to your next post.

  5. Hello! I write for nontraditional students, going back to school after a break. I also taught briefly in a high school setting. Some of the high school students I had (in regular classes) were woefully unprepared for college. Many (I thought) would have real problems with critical thinking, writing, and more. They were years behind where they should have been. This problem may have some repercussions in college too. Thanks for this excellent article. I have signed up for your mailing list.

    • Thanks for your comment! I’ll try to keep things interesting for you, although some blogs will pertain to marketing issues rather than higher education. You might be interested in some of the older posts that deal with other matters such as marketing the humanities. By the way, I’ve subscribed to your blog as well; I’m always looking for insights from those who actually attend college. These days, non-traditional students comprise the majority of college students in the US.

  6. Hi Bill, I’ve been nominated for a Stylish Blogger Award and now I’m nominating you! I had fun with it and I hope you will, too. You can check out my blog for more information.

  7. Pingback: A Blogging Hiatus | Getting the Words Right

  8. Pingback: More on Pursuing an English Degree | Going the Distance…Three Credits at a Time

  9. Pingback: Reforming Higher Ed #2: Demand Rigor | Getting the Words Right

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