Book by: Richard Arum & Josipa Roksa
Review by: Alison Sommers
Psychological and Brain Sciences
University of Louisville

Arum and Roksa rocked the world of higher education with the 2011 publication of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, which measured the learning, socialization, and study habits of a cohort of 1600+ undergraduates throughout college. Their finding of limited challenge in undergraduate curricula and very little documented learning occurring after two years in college created a media storm and forced administrators to question their institutions’ goals and outcomes. Unfortunately, concern with student learning has more recently been sidelined in favor of emphasizing improvement in graduation rates largely because these are easier to measure, align with governmental accountability mandates, and have more impact on comparative public rankings.

Adults Adrift follows 1000 of these same students for two years after their 2009 graduation, assessing their transition to meaningful jobs, stable romantic relationships, and financial responsibility, the traditional hallmarks of adulthood. Two years post-degree, only 26% of graduates held full-time jobs earning more than $40K annually. Twenty-three percent were unemployed or had found only part-time work.  Three-quarters reported that they were receiving or had received significant financial assistance from their parents and 24% were actually living at home. They were relatively unengaged in the civic world, reporting rarely reading newspapers or discussing politics and public affairs with family or friends. Fifty-one percent were not in a serious romantic relationship.

To Arum and Roksa, these outcomes were dismaying and reflect only a tentative and marginal transition to adulthood for many graduates. Most striking for them was the unwavering optimism of the graduates regarding their expected life outcomes, in spite of their current situations. A remarkable 95% reported that they anticipated their standard of living would be the same as or better than their parents. Assuming this is not a social desirability response bias, this happy outlook appears out of touch with actual circumstances.

Clearly, the current emphases on retention through social engagement, student satisfaction as an outcome measure, and degree production itself as the primary indicators of institutional quality are targets for their criticism. While some have suggested that improved career outcomes should follow from encouraging students to major in more lucrative fields (as though English majors and engineers are interchangeable), increasing career services or assisting students in finding internships, Arum and Roksa instead say that enhancing rigor and academic engagement for all students will foster the development of the habits, attitudes and dispositions needed for adulthood. “Graduating large numbers of students who have attained high grades with little effort and achieved limited improvement in competencies such as critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing is a disservice to the students who enroll in these schools, the families who put trust in these institutions, and the larger society that will be dependent on the productivity and citizenship of these graduates in the future,” they state (p. 135.) 

What can advisors do about this? First, read and discuss the scholarly critiques of higher education. Raise these issues publicly. Second, talk to students about learning as a desirable outcome in itself. Assist their developing a coherent curriculum plan that emphasizes learning, skills, and challenge rather than requirements and prerequisites. Third, foster autonomy and problem-solving by not doing for students what they can and should be doing for themselves. Support them in becoming responsible for their own education and futures, knowing that this will be as vital for their emerging adulthood as the degree.

Aspiring Adults Adrift. (2014). Book by Richard Arum & Josipa Roksa. Review by Alison Sommers, The University of Chicago Press. 264 pp., $18.00, (Paperback), ISBN #9780226197289

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