College Isn’t Helping Ill-Prepared Students Catch Up

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Everyone over age 40 knows that education is wasted on the young. So why are people getting so worked up about a book that attempts to prove it?

The book, Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, has been widely described as the most important book on higher education in many years. Huffington Post said the authors’ assertion that 45 percent of students learn nothing of significance in college has “inflamed” the debate about the value of a diploma.

Educators see the book as the beginning of a movement to develop more empirical data about the successes and failures of higher education. Arum and Roksa urge colleges and universities to compile more “longitudinal measurement of test score performance, coursework, institutional characteristics, social background and college experience” for higher education, much as social scientists have been doing for many years in elementary and secondary schools.

Some college administrators and faculty are outraged that these experts are questioning their ability to deliver on the promises they make to parents and students when they enroll in post-secondary education. They argue that the intrinsic benefits of a college education are not always measurable. But a quest for measurements was inevitable once the top schools in the country started charging more than $50,000 a year. Someone was bound to ask, “What are we getting for all that money?”

The most sobering fact in the book, as far as I am concerned, is that students who arrive at college well-prepared will graduate with good grades and students who are unprepared for college when they enroll will never catch up. Thus college does not provide the opportunity we thought it did for truly disadvantaged students to transform themselves into high wage earners. And top universities will continue to produce well-educated kids primarily because they attract kids who are already better-educated than those who apply to lesser schools.

As the authors note, “growing numbers of students are sent to college at increasingly higher costs, but for a large portion of them the gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication are either exceedingly small or empirically non-existent.”

The authors’ response to this problem is to urge academia to collect more data. But do we really need more longitudinal studies to prove that college students would rather party more than study? Perhaps those of us who already understand their preference for partying should feel a bit ashamed that we needed this book to force us to recognize an obvious truth. But then again, what can you really expect from college-educated people?

I am not convinced that the push for empirical data will be any more helpful in higher education than it has been in elementary and secondary education. In fact, if it encourages college professors to “teach to the test,” as it has done to teachers in the lower grades, it will have made a bad situation worse. Colleges and universities are sure to resist new learning standards that might undermine their student retention rate. Although most colleges brag about their intellectual environment, allowing students to have fun is what keeps them dorms filled with paying customers.

Perhaps we should simply accept the fact that a traditional college education may not be the tool for social transformation that we wanted it to be. Perhaps we should recognize that many middle- and upper-middle class parents are just indulging their children by sending them away to an ivy-covered enclave for four years of fun. Disadvantaged children seeking social mobility might benefit by rubbing elbows with these well-off, academically adrift adolescents, if they could pay for it. Fraternities and sororities will certainly teach you the ways of the leisure class. But there is probably a better way to educate low-income youth who are seeking a genuinely transformative education.

Since 1954, American educators have been trying without success to use social and racial integration as the primary method for improving the lives of disadvantaged children. If it hasn’t worked very well for elementary and secondary students, why do we think it will work in higher education?

It seems to me that educators who emphasize the value of non-traditional higher education options – community colleges, online course work and career-oriented programs – are far ahead of the authors of Academically Adrift. Disadvantaged students often need extra help with fundamental skills that traditional four-year colleges do not provide. They ought to be able to gain access to those basic skills without also having to pay for the frills of traditional college life.

The availability of financial aid sometimes leads disadvantaged youth to make bad choices. If they spend their aid money to matriculate alongside the academically adrift sons and daughters of the middle class, this book suggests that they probably will earn themselves nothing more than a firmer hold on the lower rungs of the social and economic ladder.

But non-traditional colleges and universities have their problems too. Remedial courses offered by community colleges, career schools and on-line universities are usually inadequate, and many students drop out before they master the remedial curriculum. And of course, many for-profit schools seem far more interested in collecting the tuition money than they are in educating the students.

Over the next year, Youth Today and Youthtoday.org will provide readers as much information as possible to help disadvantaged youth and their mentors make informed choices about higher education. We start with a ground-breaking special edition on March 15 outlining the strengths and weaknesses of all the major for-profit colleges and universities that appeal to disadvantaged youth.

At this moment, non-traditional schools are being given a great opportunity to demonstrate whether they can do a better job educating needy students than the traditional, four-year institutions.

Sara Fritz is the publisher of Youth Today. She can be reached at sara@youthtoday.org.