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by Vault Education Editors | January 19, 2011


Four years of college and not a lick smarter. That's one way to describe the undergraduate experience of many students in America, according to the research of two professors who have published their findings in the book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses and in an accompanying report.

Tracking the performance of 2300 full-time undergraduate students at two dozen schools over four years, the study found that 45 percent of students showed no significant gains in learning during the first two years of college. After four years, 36 percent "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning." And the students who did improve, the margin of gain was so small it shocked the authors, Richard Arum of NYU and Josipa Roksa of UVA, to see just how much "undergraduate learning seems to have been neglected."  (Note:  the researchers used students' results on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), a standardized test, to gauge "improvement in learning." The test measures critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills, rather than subject matter knowledge.)

What conclusions are drawn from this study? College is too easy, the faculty has low expectations—those are two. Just a lack of academic rigor in general, really. The study shows students, on average, studying a paltry 12 to 14 hours per week, a lot of which is done in groups. Now, group studying has its benefits, but it would be wrong to think that a student who only studies 12 to 14 hours a week, a third of that in groups, is getting enough solo study time in. You would think so, at least. The thing is, that student is doing enough, actually: the average GPA of the students turned out to be a 3.2, which led Arum to write that "students are able to navigate through the system quite well with little effort."

In fact, so lazy are they that they only spend 16 percent of their waking hours in class or studying. Best to not let anything get in the way of their socializing and recreating, I suppose.

Also of interest is the unevenness of performance among the different majors. It seems that our future business leaders, educators and social workers improved the least, so to speak. Hard and soft science, math and humanities majors demonstrated the biggest improvements as measured by the CLA.

The system that Arum referred to, as one being navigated by students with minimal effort, is a college landscape where grade inflation is customary, achievement gaps are left to widen, faculty expect little from students, essential skills like reading and writing are never cultivated, and social engagement is, in the authors' view, over-emphasized. It's a culture of academic slackness and it's breeding students who, over the decades, have become, to put it bluntly, dumber and lazier. And that's in addition to more debt and a bad economy. According to the Chronicle, as of late last year, 9 percent of the graduated students (i.e. not even including those that failed to graduate), were unemployed, 35 percent were living with their parents or other family members and only 17 percent were earning more than $40,000 a year.  

While there are many criticisms to level, right and wrong, against the study—the use of the CLA as the measuring stick; the slam on collaborative learning, for instance—it's important to separate the results from the many misleading conclusions that can be drawn. This is not a report on whether American undergraduates learn anything in college—they surely do. Nor is it about throwing blame around—there's plenty. It is, however, very much about a troubled academic culture that too often fails in its responsibility to provide an environment challenging enough for students to graduate in a fundamentally better shape than when they enrolled.


[Inside Higher Ed]

["Improving Undergraduate Learning" (PDF)]

[Chronicle of Higher Education]


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