Review Of Important Book-Academically Adrift

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

reviewed by David Bills — August 01, 2011

coverTitle: Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses
Author(s): Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 0226028569, Pages: 272, Year: 2011
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It has now been several months since Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (2011) made its Category 5 presence felt on the higher education community. Both provocatively titled and methodically constructed, Adrift elicited a response that often said as much about the reader as it did about the actual argument and evidence being advanced.  

In its barest bones, Arum and Roksa’s empirical message is a simple one. Many young people do not learn as much in the first two years of college as we would hope and expect that they would. They learn relatively little because many don’t work very hard at their studies and are more focused on social experiences than they are on academic achievement. The unwillingness of young people to work hard is largely because no one, their professors most of all, expect them to work hard. Moreover, too many of the institutions in which they are enrolled seem to focus more on social life than on academic life. Next, and this aspect of Adrift has received less attention than the findings about learning and expectations, this dynamic helps no one, but it harms students of color and students with lesser financial resources more than it harms majority and more relatively affluent students. Finally, there are many, many instances of professors and their institutions bucking these trends and finding ways to promote the learning of the young people who have been put in their care.

Despite what many legislators, foundation officers, and business representatives often say to the contrary, measuring learning in higher education is hard and problematic. This difficulty, though, is not a warrant for educators to ignore the measurement of learning. How much students learn in college matters, and the value of Arum and Roksa’s efforts ultimately rises or falls on how well they resolve this difficulty. Reasoning that students in any institution and in any sort of academic program should be expected to gain critical thinking skills over the first two years of college, the authors build their evidentiary case on an analysis of the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), in particular its measures of critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and writing. They supplement this information with survey and transcript data. Their longitudinal data on over 2,000 traditional-age students enrolled across some two dozen diverse campuses is easily up to the tasks they set for themselves.  

The Collegiate Learning Assessment has come in for its share of criticism, and Arum and Roksa spend a good deal of time acknowledging the shortcomings of the CLA while insisting on its suitability to the task at hand. Occasionally they have to strain a bit to make this case. Certainly no one, least of all two such skilled and respected researchers as Arum and Roksa, would claim that the CLA captures everything we might want to know about academic growth over the first two years of college. Both hostile and sympathetic readers of Adrift have directed attention to everything from the wholesale rejection of the very idea of standardized testing to the psychometric minutia of the CLA. To their credit, Arum and Roksa confront the criticisms directly. Their “Methodological Appendix” runs nearly half the length of the main text of the book, and is a model of scholarly transparency.

To be fair, Arum and Roksa could have told us more about the distribution of CLA scores at both points in time. It is likely that a lot of young people come out of American high schools as already fairly accomplished critical thinkers, near the top of the CLA scale, and that two years of even rigorous and demanding college courses aren’t going to move them appreciably (read “statistically significantly”) higher up the CLA scale. Moreover, content knowledge is not assessed on the CLA. It may be that students are learning quite a bit about World War I or cellular mitosis in these two years without necessarily enhancing their ability to think critically about these things. If so, this hardly makes the first two years of college the waste of time that many of Adrift’s more motivated readers (though not the authors) want to portray them as being.

But if the critics of Arum and Roksa’s data have some compelling points, it seems almost certain that more nuanced data – indeed, any reasonable data – would have led to much the same conclusions as those reported with such care by Arum and Roksa. In fact, a replication of Adrift by Ernest Pascarella and his colleagues (2011), using the powerful Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education, reports results that are consistent with those of Arum and Roksa in every major respect.

Much of the popular attention given to Adrift has settled on the talking point about the 45 percent of students who failed to show significant gains in reasoning and writing skills during their freshman and sophomore years. While an eye-catching number, the focus on it as the centerpiece of the analysis has unhelpfully narrowed the debate. First, as both Alexander Astin (2011) and the Pascarella team have argued, the 45 percent figure is a bit iffy, given that gain scores at the individual level can be highly unreliable. Second, and perhaps more importantly, preoccupation with the 45 percent figure detracts attention from the more important conditional effects detected by Arum and Roksa. The real problem, according to the authors, is not so much that too few students are learning enough critical thinking, but that traditionally advantaged students have a better chance of learning in college than do those who enter college with a history of disadvantage. The college experience too often serves to widen the learning gap between the haves and have-nots, thus reproducing inequality rather than alleviating it.  

It may not be a surprise that colleges do little to reduce inequality, but Arum and Roksa’s story does not end there. They report that offering the right high school and college resources to the less advantaged can overcome inequalities in what students learn. Contact with faculty, academic support, and high expectations, among other factors, can enhance the learning of students from all backgrounds. Importantly, buried somewhat deep in the gloom of the authors’ tables and charts is a message that is ultimately a hopeful one. This has been too often overlooked in the debate surrounding Adrift.

I began this review by observing that many readers of Adrift have been eager to appropriate its findings for their own preferred policy positions. That is to be expected, of course, but there are very simply wrong ways to read Adrift. Arum and Roksa’s book is not part of the current cottage industry of diatribes driven by anecdote, opinion, and resentment against the higher learning in America. More than sophisticated statistical analysis separates Academically Adrift from Crisis on Campus and The Five Year Party. Arum and Roksa are distressed – even outraged – by what they see on college campuses, and are not reluctant to call for broad and deep change. Academically Adrift is not, however, a book about lazy professors, shiftless students, and spineless administrators. Rather, it is a book about how an institution that has been admittedly compromised by vocationalization, credentialism, and careerism can redefine and reclaim a set of goals focused on student learning.


Astin, A.W. (2011, February 14). In “Academically Adrift,” data don’t back up sweeping claim. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Pascarella, E.T., Blaich, C., Martin, G.L., & Hanson, J.M. (2011). How robust are the findings of Academically Adrift? Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 43(3), 20-24.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 01, 2011 ID Number: 16500, Date Accessed: 8/28/2011 2:59:30 PM

3 comments on “Review Of Important Book-Academically Adrift”

  1. Thanks for sharing this insightful analysis of a very compelling higher education read. Have you read “Higher Education?” by Claudia Dreifus and Andrew Hacker? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this as well…

  2. I have read it and find it more of a polemic than Adrift. It does make some good points though. I had it in my blog.

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