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With Many College Grads Adrift, Experts Urge New Focus on Academics

Richard Arum does not want to dissuade high school students from going to college—but he does want them to choose more carefully.

The fact that students are studying less and socializing more in college, then having difficulty finding jobs and living independently shouldn't be construed as a message that college isn't worth it, said Arum in a phone interview about his new book, Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transition of College Graduates, released Sept. 1.

"The question 'Does it pay to go to college?' is the wrong question," said Arum, a professor of sociology and education at New York University. "The right question is 'Are students getting value for money and time invested?' "

The answer varies widely, which is why Arum urges prospective students to look beyond the glossy brochures and fancy dorms and focus on what really matters: the quality of the education.

For this new book, Arum, along with co-author Josipa Roska, an associate professor of sociology and education at the University of Virginia, tracked the outcomes of 1,000 recent graduates with four-year college degrees and found many were optimistic about their future, yet struggling to find meaningful employment and be financially independent. Surveys of same students as undergraduates in the researchers'  2011 book, Academically Adrift, revealed a serious lack of rigor and learning taking place on the country's college campuses.

"We think it's impossible to follow students and talk to them and not see how many are being poorly served by their institutions," said Arum. 

And it's not just that college is failing to prepare them for the labor market, Arum said. The priorities on campus have gotten so out of balance that graduates are not ready ready to assume adult responsibilities more broadly, he asserts. His research finds that two years after on-time graduation, 25 percent of young adults live with their parents and 70 percent receive financial support from their parents.

"Colleges are increasingly chasing students as consumers and attending to students' social well-being and psychological adjustment," said Arum. "That is an expensive pursuit, and it is coming at the cost of dis-investing in academic programs."

While the average college student studied about 25 hours a week outside of class in the 1960s, today students spend between 11 and 13 hours. Yet, the amount of time high school students spend studying has actually increased, Arum notes in his book.

Arum suggests K-12 has been ramping up standards and accountability, but higher education has not—but should, if students are graduate with meaningful degrees.

College students are passing courses and even earning high grades without putting in much effort, which does them a disservice as they enter the workforce without a sense of what hard work means, said Arum.

Since graduates' earnings often don't track the types of institutions they attend, Arum encourages students to put more effort into learning and work experiences on campus if they want to be prepared for a career.

"It's more important what you do in college once you get there, than the college you attend," said Arum.

Moving forward, colleges need to recommit to rigor and quality—something that can be encouraged if consumers demand it, he said. Arum is hopeful that change will occur, as the rising cost of college prompts a public debate around college value.

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