How did students become ‘academically adrift’?

‘Academically Adrift’, a new book on the failures of higher education, finds that undergraduates don’t study, and professors don’t make them. A recent article by Melinda Burns in Miller-McCune magazine discusses the book by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa.

Given the average cost of an undergraduate college education today — $16,000 per year for tuition, room and board at public schools and $37,000 at private institutions — one could be excused for believing that college students must be learning how to think.

But according to a new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning On College Campuses, they’re frittering away their time at an astonishing rate. And the result, it shows, is that 45 percent of undergraduates in a survey of 29 colleges and universities nationwide showed no improvement in critical-thinking scores at the end of their sophomore year in 2007, compared to their scores as entering freshmen. At the end of their senior year, after four years of college instruction, 36 percent still had made no gains in critical thinking.

“Slacker” students are nothing new. But the picture from Academically Adrift is one of pervasive distraction in the halls of higher learning, of disengaged students and a faculty too busy with research to demand much of them.

“We found a set of conditions suggesting that something indeed is seriously amiss in U.S. higher education,” says Richard Arum, a co-author and a sociologist at New York University. “We found that gains in student performance are disturbingly low. Students and faculty and administrators share equally in the blame.

“It’s a serious social problem that threatens the foundation of our society, our economic competitiveness and our ability to govern ourselves democratically.”

Arum and co-author Josipa Roksa, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, found that undergrads study only 13 hours per week, on average, or less than two hours per day in a typical semester. That’s half as much as their peers studied in the early 1960s. Today’s college students spend more than 80 percent of their time, on average, on work, clubs, fraternities, sororities, sports, volunteering, watching TV, exercising, socializing, playing on their computers and sleeping.

Of more than 3,000 full-time undergraduates in the study, 50 percent took five or fewer classes over their entire four years of college in which they were required to write more than 20 pages per semester. Twenty percent took five or fewer classes requiring more than 40 pages of reading per week. They met with a professor outside of class only once a month, on average.

Of course, not all students or professors are neglecting academics: Arum and Roksa found a wide variation in scores among colleges and even wider variation among students at the same colleges. But in an era when elementary and secondary schools are being held strictly accountable for student learning, Arum says, the absence of accountability at the college level is glaring. It’s not that faculty doesn’t care, he says. It’s that the system rewards research, not teaching. “College presidents have to assume the responsibility to provide leadership for improving instruction and measuring learning,” Arum said. “They have trustees and regents that report to, and they should be held accountable. Let’s start there.”

The full article is available here.

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Alice Mani Jacob

This is true in most cases.I am talking about higher education. Many students are not genuinely interested in studies; they come late to classes, absent themselves from classes, talk ,dream away or indulge in playful activities such as games and sending messages on mobiles.Yet, they expect the tutotrs to do wonders when it comes to appearing for external exams. If they score poorly,it is the fault of the tutor. They have the weapon of ‘faculty evaluation’ with them which they use indiscriminately .They write ill about tutors whose classes they had never been to. The systenm need to change!


This was an interesting article, but the primary question is why are undergraduates ‘academically adrift’? I am from Sri Lanka. I completed my BA over a year ago, and something I was constantly told by my lecturers was how lazy we were – academically, how we don’t seem too interested in reading anymore etc.. It does seem to me that the younger generation in general, seem to be drifting further away from academic discipline..have there been any studies on the possible reasons for this? Youth are very active in social networking cites because knowledge is disseminated in simpler and tech… Read more »


This is a nice piece of information. I am writing from Tanzania and what holds true in the US is almost the same thing happening in Tanzania higher learning institutions. Our kind of youth are interested in leisure more than studies. They drink to their satisfaction at any time of the day and week. They love friendship than studies. They forget studies than how they can do the same for music outings and making friends. They however, dream of having big office with high pays at graduation. How can we link these together/ There is someone who conducted a study… Read more »

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