Some months ago, the University of Chicago Press published Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia. The authors give a research-based and extremely devastating indictment of current American higher education. Essentially they conclude that students do not study very much and, consequently, do not learn much during their college years.


They note, for example, that “gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills (i.e., general collegiate skills) are either exceedingly small or empirically non-existent for a large proportion of students.”  These student skills were evaluated by the College Learning Assessment or CLA, a test developed by the Council for Aid to Education to assess the outcomes of a college education.


The results demonstrate that not all students, even at the same college, are the same. According to Arum and Roksa, students “majoring in traditional liberal-arts fields . . . demonstrated significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study. Students majoring in business, education, social work, and communications had the lowest measurable gains.”


A report following up on Academically Adrift by the same authors with Jeannie Kim from New York University was released in late January, 2012. You can read the full report, titled “Documenting Uncertain Times: Postgraduate Transitions of the Academically Adrift Cohort,” online by clicking here.


The new report seeks to show what happens to the students who were most adrift when they get into the job market. This report shows a correlation between students’ success in acquiring the college skills that we might call “liberal arts skills” and their success in transitioning to adulthood.


Students who scored in the bottom 20% of students taking the CLA were three times as likely as those in the top 20% to be unemployed, twice as likely to be living at home with parents, and much more likely to have credit card debt.


In many ways, “Documenting Uncertain Times” gives research evidence to support the James S. Kemper Foundation’s underlying assertion that “a college-level education in the liberal arts complemented by workplace experiential education represents the ideal preparation for life and work.”