How Poor Performance in College Sets Students Up for a Lifetime of Difficulty

College students not used to being asked to study are struggling in the real world.

Last year, a controversial academic report-turned book touched off a debate over whether college is worth the money. The book presented years of data showing that students' critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and writing skills don't improve in college because many of them aren’t required to devote much time to their studies.

Now, the book's authors, NYU sociology and education professor Richard Arum and University of Virginia sociology professor Josipa Roksa, are back with a follow-up study showing that the lowest-performing students from Academically Adrift are more likely to be unemployed, have large amounts of credit-card debt, and be financially reliant on their parents after graduating from college.

Students surveyed in Academically Adrift took the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which measures skills and competencies that "matter for many important early-adult life-course outcomes" and "successful adult transitions," Arum told Inside Higher Ed. He said he was stunned to discover that 9.6 percent of graduates who scored in the bottom 20 percent on the CLA were unemployed in spring 2011, compared to the 3.1 percent of grads who scored in the top quintile. A whopping 35 percent of poor CLA performers moved back to their parents' homes after graduation, compared to 18 percent of top scorers. And more than 51 percent of low scorers had significant credit card debt, compared to 37 percent of high performers.

Phil Gardner, director of research for the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University, told Inside Higher Ed he wasn't surprised by the findings. Today's college students "don't have a sense of why they're there," and "don’t have to put as much effort into college" because they aren't held accountable for their performance. Gardner says if they want young people to survive in this economy, "universities have to put a little more resources up front and get these kids to understand what it means to be a professional and what’s going to be expected of them."

It makes sense that students used to receiving a rubber stamp on assignments without much effort will have a tough time succeeding later in life. But when students complain about professors who require them to participate in class and complete real assignments, faculty members hoping to receive tenure are put in a tough spot. It's time for colleges to move away from an education model that treats students as consumers and start ensuring graduates walk away with more than just a piece of paper.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user velkr0

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