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March 1, 2016
Vol. 73
No. 6

Navigating College

Research shows that many students don't get the most out of their college years. What can we do to send them to college better-prepared?

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A recent college graduate is not just "a college grad," but a young adult whose life trajectory has been shaped by educational experiences and circumstances. He or she experienced college as a costly undertaking—one that more often than not was financed with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. How does the investment in higher education pay off for the typical graduate?
Working with University of Virginia sociologist Josipa Roksa and colleagues at the Social Science Research Council, I followed 1,666 students at two dozen diverse colleges and universities through four years of college and beyond (Arum & Roksa, 2011; 2014). Our study not only documented students' academic and social experiences in college, but also tracked students' growth on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), which measures critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing. These skills are now widely assumed to be essential for labor market success and the effective exercise of democratic citizenship.
Our study cohort graduated from college in 2009, and two years after graduation we were able to track down almost 1,000 of the students. These graduates were attempting postcollege transitions during the depth of the recent economic recession, so it was not surprising to find that many were struggling. We were interested, however, not only in how well these graduates were doing overall, but also in whether better performance on the Collegiate Learning Assessment and other college factors were associated with postcollege success and failure. Our findings have implications for high school educators seeking to better support their students' pursuit of improved outcomes in college and beyond.

Adrift in College

Students moving from high school to college in the United States typically confront a bewildering set of largely unstructured options. They often lack a clear sense of what general course of study to pursue, let alone which specific classes they should take as freshmen to develop the knowledge and competencies necessary for adult success. They also face a significant set of social challenges, often living away from home for the first time and struggling to establish new identities in social environments that can marginalize and discount the importance of academic engagement.
In the absence of clear signals about what is required academically (other than the accumulation of credit hours, distributed across a broad set of categories), many students choose pathways through college that involve limited academic rigor and engagement. For example, we found that in a typical semester (the fall of their sophomore year), 45 percent of full-time four-year college students did not have a single class that required them to write 20 pages per semester, and 32 percent did not have a single course that required them to read on average more than 40 pages a week.
In terms of hours spent studying, 36 percent of the students reported that they studied alone for five or fewer hours a week—less than an hour a day. When we examined transcripts of students who reported studying this minimal amount, we found that on average they still received a 3.22 grade point average. They were able to earn good grades because they had picked courses and programs where little was asked of them. It's not hard to find such courses on every college campus; students have access to social media and informal networks that readily disseminate this information.
We found that large numbers of students defined their collegiate identities as being largely social rather than academic in character. Other researchers have found that in a large public university system, students spend three times more hours a week socializing than studying (Brint & Cantwell, 2010).
In the award-winning book Paying for the Party, sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton (2013) lived with and followed a dormitory floor of female students through four years of college at a large, public, midwestern university. They found the majority of students focused on socializing and partying. The researchers noted,
In the context of most big state universities—particularly outside of the most elite—the party pathway is a main artery through the university, much like a well-paved, eight-lane highway directing traffic into a major city. On ramps are numerous and well marked, and avoiding it completely requires intent, effort, and intricate knowledge of alternative routes. (p. 21)
College administrators supported and were complicit with these institutional arrangements because that was what students, as consumers, wanted.

Disappointing Results

Given that many students do not experience a set of structured and academically rigorous pathways in college, it's not surprising that we found only modest gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment. Over four years of college, students moved up only about one-half of a standard deviation on the CLA on average; this was equivalent to only about half of the growth observed by researchers using comparable instruments in earlier decades (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Other researchers who have used different instruments to assess competencies of this character have demonstrated similar subpar learning outcomes for recent U.S. college students (OECD, 2013; Pascarella, Blaich, Martin, & Hanson 2011).
It's important to emphasize, however, that students varied in their academic engagement and performance. We found considerably more variation within colleges than across colleges—that is, what you did in college mattered more than which college you attended. In every college we examined, some students were applying themselves, taking rigorous courses, and demonstrating impressive gains on the CLA. Of particular relevance to high school educators, students who came into college with stronger high school academic preparation had considerably greater gains on the CLA than students who came in with weaker academic preparation.
Not surprisingly, we found that in the context of the recent U.S. economic recession, college graduates—particularly those with lower CLA scores—were struggling in their transitions to adulthood. Fewer than half of those in the labor market two years after graduation had found full-time employment making more than $30,000 a year. Indeed, about a fifth of them were either unemployed or in unskilled employment (jobs in which the majority of workers had only high school diplomas or less). One quarter were living at home with their parents, and three quarters reported receiving financial assistance from their families.
Students who scored higher on the CLA at graduation were more likely to perform well in the labor market. We also found that other college experiences tracked with early labor market success. For example, students who graduated in business and STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), as well as students who had taken advantage of internships, apprenticeships, or formal school-job placement services, had better early labor market outcomes.
Although higher education can and should do better for students, our research should not be misinterpreted to mean that aspiring adults should not attend college. In the long run, attending college will yield benefits—particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Rather than asking whether it pays for students to go to college, we need to shift public discourse to focus on a more sensible and important question: How can we ensure that students get the most out of their college years?
Our work clearly demonstrates that the open-ended system we have now is both inefficient and inequitable. This system may work well for students who have the ability to navigate and negotiate its ill-defined curricular contours, but for others, this journey is unnecessarily perilous and costly.

How High Schools Can Set the Course

This research on student pathways through college and into adulthood illustrates the importance of thinking about student outcomes through a life-course perspective. Life-course trajectories begin to be formed well before college. Students who enter college better prepared in high school—for example, with more advanced placement coursework and higher SAT/ACT scores and grade point averages—learn more in college. Social scientists refer to this phenomenon by the shorthand, "skills beget skills" (Raudenbush & Eschmann, 2015). High school preparation matters, not just to enable students to get into college, but also to position them to take advantage of the learning opportunities that occur on campus and throughout their lives.
To better prepare high school students for college, careers, and pathways to adulthood, high schools should move away from a narrow focus on developing student proficiency in superficial content knowledge to focus more broadly on the development of conceptual understandings and higher-order competencies, such as critical thinking and complex reasoning. Subject-matter knowledge is often quickly forgotten, whereas development of cognitive capacities for higher-order thinking can be both enduring and far-reaching.
Increasingly, high schools have been asked to focus on these broader cognitive skills. The Common Core State Standards, for example, can be understood as a national effort to encourage the promotion of higher-order skills for all students. Given the pace of economic change and the complexity of our society's political challenges, increasing students' capacity to think critically and deeply about problems is imperative.
Second, academic preparation of today's high school students requires training in attitudes and dispositions aligned with academic engagement and adult success. Given the lack of structure in contemporary colleges and the myriad of social and digital distractions young people face today, high schools need to train students to focus on complex tasks that require persistence and grit.
Third, high school counselors should provide more guidance on how school is related to entry into the labor market and adult success. Many high school students have no idea how to identify or embrace opportunities and productive pathways in college. Students in our study often defined academic engagement as simply satisfying the bare minimum of course requirements. They failed to understand that academic success required them to go beyond minimum requirements—taking honors and capstone classes, looking for research apprenticeships, and developing mentoring relationships—and to seek out components of the college experience that facilitate transitions to adulthood, such as internships and job placement services.
High schools should also help students understand the value of college general education courses. Students who enter college defining these courses as simply prerequisites, which—unlike their majors—do not require serious academic engagement, may fail to take advantage of opportunities explicitly designed to develop higher-order skills and generic competencies.
Finally, it's important to lay the groundwork for adult success by building students' sense of purpose and meaning. Educators often wonder how to have these conversations with adolescents. The humanities can be helpful here because discussion of themes in literature and history inevitably touch on how to live life with integrity and a commitment to others. Developmental psychologists and social scientists (Damon, 2008; Ito et al., 2013) also have identified several strategies to employ with young adults to achieve these ends: For example, teachers should help students identify individual interests that are aligned with adult societal roles, support these individual interests by connecting students with adult mentors who can provide support, and share with students how they strive to find meaning and purpose in their own lives as educators.

Beyond College Admission

High school educators and advisors should keep in mind that getting students into college is just the first step. We need to prepare students to enter college with a greater sense of purpose and direction. We need to help them understand that applying themselves academically can not only prepare them for a career, but also help them develop higher-order competencies, positive attitudes and dispositions, and a sense of meaning. Such holistic preparation will make students more resilient and adaptable to changing environments as well as more effective in school, in their careers, and as democratic citizens in years to come.

Armstrong, E. A., & Hamilton, L. T. (2013). Paying for the party: How college maintains inequality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Arum, R., & Roksa, J. (2011). Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Arum, R., & Roksa, J. (2014). Aspiring adults adrift: Tentative transitions of college graduates. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brint, S., & Cantwell, A. M. (2010). Undergraduate time use and academic outcomes: Results from the University of California Undergraduate Experience Survey 2006. Teachers College Record, 112(9), 2441–2470.

Damon, W. (2009). The path to purpose: How young people find their calling in life. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Ito, M., Gutiérrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., Schor, J., et al. (2013). Connected learning: An agenda for research and design. Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.

OECD. (2013). Time for the U.S. to reskill? What the survey of adult skills says. Paris: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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.

Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (2005). How college affects students (Vol. 2). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Raudenbush, S. W., & Eschmann, R. D. (2015). Does schooling increase or reduce social inequality? Annual Review of Sociology, 41(1).

Richard Arum has contributed to educational leadership.

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