Local: Education

How we perpetuate the 'Academically Adrift' in college

Local,Education,Erica Jacobs
Whether our college students are "Academically Adrift," as sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa claim in their book of the same name, or academically delayed, as I suggested in last week's column, it's clear they are hitting the books with less frequency now than a generation ago.

How did this happen? Arum and Roksa point out that access to higher education has been a focus for decades, and that quality has become secondary. More than 90 percent of high school students expect to be able to go to college, transforming higher education "from a privilege to a presumed right." Over 70 percent of recent high school graduates have enrolled in two- or four-year colleges, which begs the question: Are those students ready for this access to higher learning?

What kids are reading
This weekly column will look at lists of books kids are reading in various categories. Information on the books below came from the Washington Post's March 20 section on children's books. The list is composed by Kristi Jemtegaard, a librarian.
Recommended picture books
1. The Secret River by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Leo and Diane Dillon (ages 4 to 8)
2. Where's Walrus? by Stephen Savage (ages 3 to 5)
3. Red Wagon by Renata Liwska (ages 10 to adult)
4. Lost & Found: Three by Shaun Tan (ages 10 to adult)
5. Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku by Lee Wardlaw and Eugene Yelchin (ages 4 to 8)

The book claims they are frequently not ready, a situation perpetuated by a lack of rigor in many college courses. Part of the problem is that professors are rewarded for research more than teaching ability, and with little reward for assigning projects or papers, professors give students high grades for little work -- keeping student evaluations high and their workload low.

In Arum and Roksa's sample of 2,300 students, 35 percent said they studied five hours or less per week, and 50 percent had not taken a course the previous semester that required 20 pages or more of writing. Despite these grim numbers, there are enormous variations within schools and from school to school in the amount of work assigned, making institutional finger pointing difficult.

Employers, however, are giving their new hires poor marks on communication skills and critical thinking, with only about a quarter of college graduates well prepared in each. What can be done about this "limited learning"?

Yet the book points out that college students are not spending their free time twiddling their thumbs. They are employed more often than in previous generations, and participate in sports and volunteer projects at greater rates than in the past. They count socializing as an important part of the college experience.

My years in college teaching have confirmed these findings; students work only as much as I require them to, and would love my class more if I had lower standards for writing and thinking. I assign five papers that almost always become much better when students realize that I value logic, graceful prose and grammatical conventions. They are like my high school students who used to remark, after the return of the first papers, "Oh -- you mean you want the papers to be GOOD?" Subsequent assignments always improved.

Additionally, the faces of typical college students have changed; they often have families, they almost always work, they are older; they are more ethnically and socioeconomically diverse. Like my high school students, they make careful calculations of what's "required" in each corner of their lives.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I agree with Arum and Roksa that teachers should require good writing and analytical thinking in all assignments. Will that revolutionize the college experience? No. But teachers should remember that in the workplace students don't need to recall information, they need to evaluate it. That ability, along with effective communication skills, would put a halt to "limited learning" on our college campuses.

Erica Jacobs, whose column appears Wednesday, teaches at George Mason University. E-mail her at

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