A dozen years ago, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa published what was–as academic books go–a blockbuster. In it, they argued that students weren’t learning a whole lot during their first two years of college. And, beyond that, they weren’t particularly engaged with their professors. Indeed, they often drifted through campuses, anchored neither by academic knowledge nor by relationships with potential mentors. 

Richard Arum, MEd, PhD
Richard Arum, MEd, PhD

Academically Adrift not only captured the attention of those in higher ed; it also garnered national headlines. The book tracked more than 2,300 students at 24 four-year colleges and universities who took the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) in the fall of 2005 and again in the spring of 2007. Nearly half of them showed no improvement at all on critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills.

It raised deep concerns for lots of folks. If students weren’t learning, and didn’t feel engaged, what was going on? Those concerns have shaped Arum’s thinking, though his quest to understand the undergraduate experience has become more multifaceted in the years since.

Arum is now a professor of sociology and education at the University of California, Irvine, and has devoted a large part of his career to sorting through massive amounts of data, trying to understand what makes college meaningful, useful, and enduring. At UCI, he’s working on an enormous data collection effort, which aims to understand what decisions contribute to undergraduate flourishing. 

And he’s come to the conclusion that colleges have lost a sense of purpose, and their unmooring has, to some degree, also unmoored students. Many colleges, he argues, have become less connected to their communities and to the world around them.

When Academically Adrift came out, one of its striking findings was that student disengagement went far beyond standardized tests. Multiple surveys found that time studying had declined radically between the 1960s and the early 2000s, dropping from roughly 25 hours a week to 12-13 hours a week. 

Arum says that some who heard those numbers wondered whether technology might have changed things (students can look things up more quickly), or whether students in the 1960s tended to inflate the amount of time that they studied. Arum thought neither of those theories were particularly likely. In a follow-up book, Aspiring Adults Adrift (2014), he and Roksa tried to contextualize US college students by examining international data on studying. “And the US was lower than almost every country,” Arum says. “Rock bottom.”

Aspiring Adults Adrift also addressed the question of whether focusing on the first two years of college might be misleading. Perhaps students were skating through freshman and sophomore years, but then buckling down after that? Perhaps junior and senior years were when the real learning and engagement took place? It was a hopeful notion, but wrong, as Arum and Roksa discovered. Indeed, the drift not only continued through junior and senior years, but it kept right on going after graduation.  

And where does that drift come from? The top, Arum argues. “I think there has been institutional drift, in terms of what college means and how students understand and experience it. The institution is focusing a lot more on a lot of other stuff, and a lot less on the traditional academic function. And that’s true if you just look at higher ed budgets.”

Arum says that colleges frequently talk about “career preparation” - and that has always been true, to some degree. But he worries that “credentialism,” as he puts, is not a positive development and tends to exclude higher ideals. “College is about finding meaning and purpose in life and developing orientations around civic engagement and civic responsibility,” Arum notes. “If it’s just about making extra money, it may not be sufficient in terms of meaning and purpose for all students.”

“What we know from research is that when people find meaning and purpose in their work, and in their studies, they persist. They achieve. It’s central to understanding people’s behavior. And the institutions that have dropped that discourse have done a real disservice to students.”

To Arum, this has had a profound spillover effect on civic engagement. His research found that more than a third of college graduates said they read the newspaper either monthly or never. Even more graduates said they discuss public affairs with family or friends either monthly or never. 

“Where does that drift come from? The top, Arum argues. “I think there has been institutional drift, in terms of what college means and how students understand and experience it.’”

And feeling adrift in the world–not anchored to a community or the civic debates within it–can play into deep feelings of loneliness. It’s a phenomenon that the political scientist Robert Putnam famously explored in his 2000 book Bowling Alone, and that has become commonplace in America over the past few decades. 

At colleges, between 2013 and 2021, students reporting anxiety and depression almost doubled. “Campuses have responded by increasing the number of counseling support services on campus,” Arum says. “But guess what? They can’t increase them enough to deal with the increasing problems. So the solution can’t simply be that–it has to also be helping the students find meaning, purpose, community, connections, and attachments that will lead to mental health wellbeing and flourishing.”

So what does Arum believe would work to amp up student engagement? For teachers, he says, it’s essential to explain why a course is relevant. Many students sign up for courses to check a box; they don’t arrive with a sense of the potential impact of various bodies of knowledge. Less lecturing and more active learning are also critical, he believes. 

But he argues that institutions also have to talk about meaning and purpose as a central rationale. They should answer questions like: “What are you doing for the community? What are you doing for the schools that are struggling down the street? What’s your responsibility to them? How are you engaging with local industry? In a society that’s plagued with mass incarceration, what are you doing about getting into the prisons and educating incarcerated individuals there, so that they can lead productive, meaningful lives in the future?”

With his new project at UCI–Measuring Undergraduate Success Trajectories (MUST)–Arum is diving deeper into the question of how you make college work for students. How can it make their lives better? MUST started in 2019, with a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Arum hopes it will prove to be a model for colleges and universities across the US.

The project merges a huge variety of data, including info from a student’s college application, courses that a student takes, who takes those courses alongside them, when they use academic support, who their roommates are, what clubs they’re joining, and who’s in those clubs. Plus, there’s clickstream data from Learning Management Systems like Canvas. 

Then there’s a subset of students who are frequently questioned on topics like friends, mentorship, experiences with discrimination, critical thinking, and problem solving. And a couple of weeks a year, some students will get texted 50 times a week to find out: Right at this moment, what are you doing? Who are you with? Do you feel psychologically engaged or disengaged?

In 2021, Arum noted that President Biden has talked frequently about infrastructure. But, he said, the “infrastructure we need in this country today is... infrastructure about how to deliver, measure, iterate, and improve higher education. I can think of no greater infrastructure need than that. Because individuals alone can’t do this.” He believes that the federal government is missing an enormous opportunity to improve education, and to ensure that it does what every other industry does: “use data to better improve its performance.” 

Trying to understand well-being and progress during college, Arum argues, is essential to both expanding access and ensuring success. He notes that “our country is falling behind in educational completion rates, relative to other advanced economies.” And as more Americans question the value of higher education, it’s imperative to understand what works and what doesn’t. If we don’t use data to improve outcomes, Arum says, “it’s a failure of imagination.”

Kara Miller writes The Big Idea column for The Boston Globe, which examines game-changing ideas in everything from traffic, to education, to housing. Kara has worked across radio, TV, and print for the past 15 years. From 2011-2021, she hosted and served as the Executive Editor of the public radio program Innovation Hub, which she launched. She has taught at Babson College and at the University of Massachusetts.