College fees have seen enormous fee inflation the past decades and many have started wondering whether college is actually worth that much investment.Academically Adrift evaluates how much learning is actually happening at US colleges; the verdict? Not much.
The book reads like a journal article more than a book. The authors use a measure of learning, the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), which was designed to assess "core outcomes espoused by all higher education, critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem solving and writing" to perform their evaluation.
The book is full of data and statistics on how various factors affect academic learning: race, parental education and occupation, family status, hours spent studying, mother tongue, whether the students lives on campus or not, the impact of working part-time while studying, instruction methods, faculty expectations, faculty interactions, courses taken and other. They compare differences across institutions as well as within institutions.
The authors compare the CLA performance of students on their third year to their performance in the same test in their first year of college. The result is that the improvement in the skills measured by the CLA is not significant. The CLA does not measure any learning towards the student's field of study. So if the student had gained significant knowledge in Computer Science, while her "critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem solving and writing" skills did not improve, the CLA will not capture anything.
In other words, nobody has the inventive to change the current system. Then could it probably be the case that the current system works fine? Or could it be the case that one actor is missing from the system? Where are employers for example? Maybe employers should have some stake in undergraduate education so that incentives are better aligned and no money is wasted on "useless" courses.
Employers do say that CLA skills are important, however do the put their money where their mouth is? Why don't employers invest on writing and critical judgement skills for their employees?
There are some ideas at the end of the book on how to reform college education; there are not radical at all though. The authors suggest a method to improve college accountability and transparency on how much learning is actually happening. For me it is a bit like putting the cart before the horse. How can you have have a discussion on how to improve the current system's accountability when you have not talked about why should we keep having the current system at all.