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Aspiring Adults Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa

Higher education is no stranger to criticism. Dissenters have been criticizing higher education since colleges started popping up across the colonies. Recently, however, no book has been more disapproving and controversial than Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. To simply summarize their research: college students are not learning. Using the College Learning Assessment (CLA), Arum and Roksa concluded that students are showing very little growth and that colleges are not the transformational learning environments that faculty and staff preach to the masses. This is a huge indictment for colleges and universities who over the past few decades have seen its tuition increase exponentially while the job market remains dreary and uncertain.

Though the book was a well-researched work, the measure of learning used seemed incomplete.

Is the CLA the best assessment available to measure learning? Can one assessment do that? Are the number of papers written and pages read throughout a semester be an effective indicator of learning? For me, there were a lot more questions than answers after reading Academically Adrift.

Arum and Roska follow up with a new book, Aspiring Adults Adrift, which furthers their research into the years immediately following graduation. Are colleges and universities properly preparing students for the world after graduation? Are they employed, unemployed, or underemployed? Are they ready for the emotional and social challenges of adult life?

As you can probably determine from the title, the authors do not paint a very good portrait. The college graduates followed in this study matriculated in the tumultuous year of 2009, only months removed from the worst economic downturn in American history since the Great Depression. According this work, colleges are not preparing students for adult life which includes fulfilling employment, owning or renting a residence, independence from parents, successful spousal relationships, and optimism towards the future. Their conclusion: “Large numbers of students pass through higher education experiencing few curricular demands, investing little in academic endeavors, and demonstrating only limited learning” (p. 115).

So is college really worth it? Are colleges doing the job they promise society? If not, who is to blame? Arum and Roska confidently assert that “rather than defining undergraduate experiences in a manner conducive to the development of young adults, institutions today have let themselves be defined by the preferences of undergraduates” (p. 119)

To a certain extent, the authors have hit the nail on the head. Colleges and universities have relentlessly studied the needs, desires, and wants of students and have molded their structures and organizations to better serve the students.

But why? Why do colleges do this?

Colleges do this because we live in a society that at least nominally believes in education. We as a society believe in an education system that is available to everyone, so that everyone can have an equal chance to get the education they need and have the happy and successful life they want. Therefore, many colleges have worked tirelessly to make their campuses more accessible. Remedial classes are created to serve the academically unprepared. More financial counselors are hired to help find the finances. Counselors are added to help students handle the stress. Other staff members are employed to ensure the experience such as campus safety officers, housing coordinators, health administrators, technology personnel, etc. Additionally, campuses must add staff members to comply with governmental regulations like Title IX, Clery Act, and athletic associations.

Today, college is more accessible that it has ever been. Gone are the days when you had to be from an elite family or social class. Gone are the days when you had be the top of your high school class. Gone are the days when you were simply too old. Gone are the days when a minor disability held you back forever.

Naturally, these changes have not been cheap. There is no doubt about it, going to college is an expensive investment and students are not exempt from buyer’s remorse. They cannot return their education back like an item at a department store. They cannot sell their education away like a car or house. All they have to show for it is a fancy piece of paper called a diploma and hopefully a transformed, cultivated, educated mind which over a significant period of time (four years for some, six years for most) is sometimes difficult to notice.

Do colleges and universities need to change? Absolutely. Like most industries in the modern world, if colleges to do not adapt to the emerging technologies and changing cultures, it will quickly fade away. Aspiring Adults Adrift does a superb job breaking down the problems in today’s field of higher education. What is fails to do effectively, in my opinion, is find the sources of the problem. They know the symptom, but what is the cause?

We want everyone to have access to college, we want everyone to have the opportunity to succeed and graduate, yet we do not want to lower our academic standards, increase tuition, or cutback important services. That is a very tall order.

Aspiring Adults Adrift, and its predecessor Academically Adrift, bring up the necessary questions and show us our faults. Now let us go and find the solution.