‘Academically Adrift’

It is probably no surprise to a lot of us in higher education that “45 percent of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years.

(Lest I be accused of America-bashing, in talking with international students, I got an even worse impression of universities in some other countries, e.g. Italy and France.)

Not much is asked of students, either. Half did not take a single course requiring 20 pages of writing during their prior semester, and one-third did not take a single course requiring even 40 pages of reading per week.

An awful lot of students in university classrooms simply should not be there. They are not prepared—academically, psychologically, or both.

(“Psychologically unprepared” would have applied to me as a freshman too. I struggled along and “woke up” midway through my second year.)

These students are there because they are told to “get a college degree,” whereupon they will be magic somehow.

Now we hear more and more about a higher education bubble on the point of bursting, just like the real estate market.

Get a degree, have thousands of dollars in student-loan debt, and work at Starbucks. It’s not a viable model of higher education if the cost keeps rising but the benefits of paying them do not seem to be there.

If this realization reaches a tipping point, it won’t be good for academic employment for us professors.

The fiscal conservative in me says, “Go ahead, shut down a few state schools. All but about three states are running budget deficits and need to save money.”

And then I wonder if any of my academic friends would lose jobs or be unable to find jobs if that happened. But it might happen anyway.

Erin O’Connor comments too and has a more clever headline.

And Vanity Fair delivers the snark.

10 thoughts on “‘Academically Adrift’

  1. Kate

    The system as it is doesn’t make much sense. Lots of kids going to college not because they have a specific career to study for, or a love of learning, but just because it’s “what you do” and you can’t even get a basic job these days without a degree. But, then the degree becomes worthless – maybe *because* it’s given to everyone, even without much work put in – and you end up at a crap job anyway. Meanwhile, those who really want to go to college for the intellectual aspect encounter dumbed-down classes and bored classmates (as was my experience, and that even applied to my prep school as well).

  2. I agree. There are so many large, structural factors affecting my students long before they ever set foot in my classroom. There’s no way that I, as a poorly paid adjunct, am going to undo years of ineffective schooling, a larger culture that disparages learning and intelligence, and a job market that is a race to the bottom, not to mention the financial and social insecurity of many of my students. The most I usually can hope for is that they can write somewhat more clearly, and know a little bit more of history than they did when they walked in the door.

    (And I have the reputation of being a “hard” teacher on our campus.)

  3. Rombald

    Bear in mind that I have no experience of US academia. My PhD was from a UK university, and my brief experience in academia was in Japan.

    90% of humanities courses and more than 50% of pure science courses are pointless. People should only do those courses if they are both seriously academically gifted, and personally driven. A lot of academic research and employment is basically welfare for posh people.

    The UK is crying out for skilled blue-collar workers. The weak pound should be a boon for manufacturing, but its recovery is being held by the sheer lack of trainable workers.

    Schools’ approaches to blue-collar skills are atrocious. The teachers all have crappy English lit. degrees (years ago I had a girlfriend who was an English teacher – she had taken classics modules at college, yet didn’t know that Homer lived before Jesus!), and their assumptions are that for their pupils to go and get crappy English lit. degrees is great, whereas learning to fix car engines or lay bricks is to be a failure. This has meant that artisans regard the education system as their enemy, yet nowadays to be a good plumber you need to be able to use a computer, prepare documents, do your accounts, write business letters, etc. The money put into teaching media studies would be better spent on ensuring universal high-school-level literacy, numeracy, and professionality.

    Myself, I have a PhD in biochemistry from one of the UK’s best universities, yet I shouldn’t have done it. It was a waste of 4 years, and I would be unemployed were it not for niche skills that I picked up elsewhere.

  4. also, when so many people are heading towards colleges, or in NZ universityes it leaves very little behind for the trades, such as building, plumming, eletrician, which has meant that the ‘trades’ become a depository for those considered by ‘society’ to be less suitable for higher education.. or to put it bluntly the stupid. now i was talking with a ‘trade’ person the other week and he had some interesting things to so about that. namely he said that while there is such a push for everyone to go to university or college, it has meant that there has been a lessening in innovation with in the ‘trades’ such as plumbing and building, which has lead to, within the building section, crappy built houses. in NZ this is called leaky building, which was caused by not having a big enough overhand in the eves of the roof thus with the type of driving wind and rain we get the buildings eventually leaked and then rotted. this he says is because many of the builders today do not have the capacity to critically think about the architect plans that they are building from. same thing happens with in the plumbing industry and electrical industry..

    so to me this means that this push for higher education is misleading, it is leaving trade industry’ s high and dry in many ways. and perhaps we should be open to the idea that both the ‘trades’ and college/university are valid choices in a persons life.

    *ponders this*

  5. All very true about the skilled trades. And maybe post-secondary training in those areas will start looking better.

    After I completed a BA in English from a good liberal arts college, I took vocational classes in graphic arts–enough to learn basic press operations, lithographic camera work, and 1970s-era layout techniques.

    Some of those skills are now technologically obsolete, and I worked in the printing trade for only six months before becoming a newspaper reporter, but insofar as much of my life has revolved around journalism and publishing, the ability to think like a printer has always been helpful.

  6. Rombald

    A few years ago, in the pub, I got talking to someone I’d known at school. He’d not been “bright” (ie. not bound for a media studies course), and had left school at 16. However, he’d been good with his hands, and after false starts had got an apprenticeship, and trained to be some sort of mechanic/engineer, working on industrial machinery. He’d recently got a job with the UK subsidiary of a German company, but said that he’d gone up about as far as he could, due to not being able to speak German. I asked him why he didn’t just learn German, and he looked at me as though I were mad – I’d forgotten – learning German is one of those things only “bright” people can do. The curses education lays upon us!

  7. Pitch313

    I’d say, in general, that educating folks begins when they are fairly young and continues until they are fairly old. I think that providing an education is not what the educational system, overall, actually sets out to accomplish. It’s more like dysfunctional social control.

  8. Chas and others, I think you are overlooking the liberal arts mission of higher education, to create intelligent, informed, aware students, not just wage-earners and servants of corporations. I come from a family of construction workers and was first in my family to go to college, let alone obtain a PhD. Having come from blue collar roots, I see the value of gaining a larger view of the world. There is more to education than job-training, please! For an alternative argument, see:

  9. Michael, do you think that someone who got a BA in English and then went back for religious studies doesn’t “get” the liberal arts mission??

    But all the high-school counselors out there keep hammering on the money: “Get a college degree and you will earn more.” I’ve seen the posters in the hallways of high schools.

    The point is that that is not always happening. It’s like saying, “Buy a house. Home values always go up.”

    No, they don’t. Hence the discussion of the “higher education bubble.”

  10. Jennifer Jordan

    One point of this article that I find glaringly alarming is that the very first link you provided never cited or quoted on reference.

    Academic writing must go beyond personal preference and opinion by backing one’s ideas, assumptions, and talking-points with research, whereby scholarly research should be peer-reviewed.

    I agree with the idea that students are not benefiting from their classes to an extent. One point I would like to comment on is that students who study alone, read and write more, fair better in college. I am tiered of “peer-learning” or collaborative work. The K-12 platform continues to push their group thinking agenda and finally there are colleges suggesting students work better alone and when they are engaged in the act of reading and writing rather than group work.

    Thank you,

    Jennifer Jordan

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