How “Adrift” Are We? Less Than We Thought, New Studies Say

How "Adrift" Are We? Less Than We Thought, New Studies Say

In 2011, the book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses gripped the higher-ed world with an alarming argument: many college students, the authors asserted, aren’t really learning at all. Now two new studies are rebutting those findings.

In Academically Adrift, sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa analyzed years of data and found that 45 percent of U.S. undergraduates showed no significant improvement in the basic skills college is supposed to teach, like critical reasoning, thinking, and writing. The book’s indictment of academia was damning—and compelling. Academically Adrift has been called “the most important book on higher education in a decade.” It became a hotly debated topic among administrators and teachers across the country.

Higher-ed reformers have also used Adrift as ammunition in the debate over whether colleges should focus more on measuring productivity, slashing tuition, and favoring vocational preparation over the liberal arts. Activist Richard Vedder, who has argued that UT’s professors are unproductive, called Academically Adrift “a must-read.” And former UT lecturer Jeff Sandefer, whose “seven breakthrough solutions” fueled a continuing debate over whether colleges should be more like businesses, is also a fan.

Two new reports by Roger Benjamin, president of the Council for Aid to Education, present a different picture. Inside Higher Ed has a thorough explanation of how the studies’ methodologies differ. Overall, the new findings are much more optimistic than those from Adrift. Where Adrift found a 0.47 “effect size,” or a measure of how much students’ test scores improved from freshman to senior year, Benjamin found an effect size of 0.78—considered to be a significant difference. According to Benjamin, students do in fact significantly improve their critical thinking skills throughout college. “The notion that college doesn’t matter is inaccurate,” he told Inside Higher Ed.

It’s also worth noting that the Council for Aid to Education produces the Collegiate Learning Assessment, the standardized test upon which Academically Adrift relied heavily for measuring student learning.

Such big questions as how beneficial attending college is and how to measure its impact are unlikely to ever be resolved with a single set of studies. Benjamin has made clear that he didn’t intend his work as a takedown of Adrift, calling the new studies “a more nuanced story.” In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, he also made clear his belief that students are in fact learning: “College does have significant effects from freshman to graduating-senior levels,” Benjamin said.

Photo courtesy of “” via Flickr.


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