American colleges and their students find themselves in the peculiar state of perpetual “crisis.” At least that’s what magazine articles, scholarly books and political speeches from the postwar era to today consistently have us believe.
Calls of crisis in the halls of higher education come at a dime a dozen — but one recent alarm is turning a considerable number of mortar-boarded heads — and for good reason. The book, “Aspiring Adults Adrift,” presents convincing arguments that the quality in college students’ education has diminished across the board and that this decline has led directly to underemployment and financial instability among recent graduates. Administrators and students ought to learn one important message from this report: academic rigor and employment preparation are two sides of the same, incredibly valuable coin.
The book, written by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, has provoked wide-ranging commentary in several prominent newspapers and magazines since its publication two weeks ago. Most of the respondents have underlined poor study habits and a culture of “student consumerism” as culprits for the 23 percent two-year unemployment or underemployment rate for an extensive sample of graduates.
These critiques of college culture are accurate, but they certainly aren’t new. As colleges have competed for applicants and their tuition payments, they have come to treat 18-year-old students as consumers — explicitly enticing them with expensive amenities and implicitly with inflated grades and with challenging coursework conspicuously absent. Given the increasing ease of getting straight As at prestigious private and state universities, it should come as no surprise that Arum and Roksa found the average student spends 7 percent of his week studying and 46 percent socializing.
The student-as-consumer model explains a lot about slashed funding for faculty and instruction, expanding budget for student affairs and amenities and stagnating student learning as measured by the general Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) employed by Arum and Roksa. But it also explains another troubling phenomenon: the growth of “employment preparation” as a distinct service offered in the university.
As universities compete for students while reducing challenging instruction for those students, they have increased spending on a bundle of programs under the banner of career services or career preparation. Universities recognize that students, now more than ever, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, consider high-income careers awaiting them at graduation to be a very important reason to enroll. To assuage their and their parents’ concerns, colleges advertise new career centers and guidance programs. At Pitt, they have pushed the value of the guaranteed internship program and the FutureLinks internship database.
Universities have always attracted students with the promise of better employment prospects at the end, either implicitly or explicitly. Today, universities can make the valid claim that they serve as the most important gateways to stable and lucrative jobs. Jaison R. Abel and Richard Deitz, two economists at the New York Federal Reserve, described this function in appropriately negative terms: “The value of a college degree has remained high over the past decade in large part because of the declining fortunes of those without one.”
Therein lies the apparent paradox of post-college employment prospects. Universities — and, indirectly, state governments — can decrease funding to students’ instruction as a proportion of spending, thereby inflating grades and diminishing academic rigor. Yet they can still claim that their ballooning tuition payments are a lucrative investment compared to not attending. Their students are more likely to get jobs only because employment possibilities for everyone else are so dismal, not because they’re doing a better job preparing their students for the workplace.
How do we know that colleges aren’t doing a better job? In Aspiring Adults Adrift, Arum and Roksa studied students using the CLA test of broad critical thinking and communication skills and found that the average college freshman improved less than one standard deviation from his or her first year to graduation.
Yet Arum and Roksa also found that CLA scores strongly correlated to two other factors: how frequently students studied for rigorous course work and how easily students found and maintained employment. This score, they found, factored more importantly in employment prospects than connections made at college, which helped only 20 percent of students to land a job.
Academic rigor and commitment, according to these results, reliably prepare students for stable jobs and post-college life. Achievement in the classroom and career preparation are not different things and colleges and students should stop advertising and considering them as such. The more universities present their career services as if they are distinct from the diligent study that students should be expected to do in classes, the more students will think their classwork doesn’t bear on their job prospects. And, the more students accept this distinction, the more freely administrators and state governments will justify cutting budgets to instruction.
Ultimately, however, this problem will linger until universities receive the state funding — and muster the willpower — to return to their most important financial and social commitment: challenging students to think critically through robust coursework in the classroom.
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