College Hack #8: You didn’t learn anything so you can’t get a job


A few years ago Richard Arum and Jospia Roksa wrote a book arguing that college students don’t learn much in college. Based on assessments (aka testing), in Academically Adrift (2011) they concluded that most undergraduates at the Universities and Colleges of this nation aren’t learning much in the classroom, but are really good at hanging out. After that big splash, they’re back with a new book, Aspiring Adults Adrift (2015). In this book they argue (from data collected by following up the students they had tested), that it’s hard to get a job in the post-2009 recession era. Paradoxically, young adults are incredibly optimistic about their futures. So you’re doing worse, but you feel really good about it.

To be fair, I’m glossing over every nuance to get to the point, and most of their arguments have been challenged by deeper thinkers than I. Much of their sequel in the Adrift series is theoretical and philosophical, droning on about problems in higher education and their solutions. My goal is to show people how to hack the system, so I would like to point out that Higher Education is undergoing an identity crisis. Rising tuition, escalating costs, crushing student debt, rapid technological changes, and increasing scrutiny are exerting enormous pressure on Higher Education to show some value. This makes attacks like the Adrift franchise easy. In the case of Aspiring Adults Adrift, the take-home message for me was that students who simply go with the flow in college may end up unemployed or underemployed. Students who are “drifting through college without a clear sense of purpose,” (Arum & Roksa, 2011) don’t do well after college. On the other hand, students who are entrepreneurial, rule the school, and pack their resume with valuable skills and experience do much better. Apparently it is important to apply yourself, seek worthwhile experiences, and learn useful skills.

One approach to solving these problems is to reform colleges and universities so that they perform better. I don’t think that will work, and certainly not in time for anyone in school right now. There are too many countervailing forces in society to enact sweeping solutions that somehow result in everyone winning. An alternative approach is to teach people how the system works so that they can win. From Adrift 1 and the sequel, we learn the unsurprising truth that you will only get out of education what you put into it. The opportunity is there, but you must seize it. So ultimately “victori spolia” (To the victor go the spoils). Learn how to win.


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