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Sinking, swimming, treading water

Academically Adrift book cover

One of the more controversial books on higher ed released in the 21st century was Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift. The researchers studied a cohort of students at 24 different schools in the US in a variety of ways: through questionnaires, standardized testing, and transcripts. The results were, to put it bluntly, depressing: as far as the test is concerned, few students improved, and many students saw their scores actually decline. While the use of standardized tests to measure nebulous skills like “critical thinking”, “writing”, or even “learning” is questionable, Arum and Roksa’s claim that the general undergraduate body was more concerned with socializing than with school has resonated with many faculty.

This month, the duo returned to their subjects in Aspiring Adults Adrift, which followed the same cohort two years past graduation. Many new graduates are struggling to find jobs and make ends meet, a state of affairs that the researchers attribute more to their lack of drive and poor choices as students than to the ailing economy. This new claim has been met with much more skepticism, as economists point out that stagnant hiring and unclear labor needs are far greater contributors to new-grad employment than coursework.

But in this, as in many things, there is a Tale of Two Countries hovering around the border. US news outlets are focusing on poor job outcomes for graduates and the general uselessness of job retraining programs. Nonetheless, labor market outcomes remain considerably better for bachelor’s degree recipients than for high school graduates. This is true even accounting for falling wages and rising tuition fees.

In Canada, in contrast, the government is actively investing in retraining. Also, a new report highlights high levels of employment among recent graduates. Looking at the class of 2011 two years after graduation, a similar sample as Arum and Roksa had at their disposal, the Ontario government (MTCU/Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities) and CCI Research found that almost 90% of graduates had jobs related to their field of study, while over 90% were employed in “good, well-paying jobs” of roughly $50,000 a year.

But that’s not quite the full story, and the methodologies used here may help explain the difference in outcome between the US and Canada. The US researchers followed a subsample of their original survey group, and while participation was voluntary, earlier experience with the researchers may have helped balance the response rate between positive and negative experiences. In the Canadian survey, in contrast, only a third responded to the survey. There is no evidence that this is a representative sample of outcomes: graduates who were unable to find work in their fields (or at all) may not have had the time or desire to advertise the fact.

A different take on the report, published today in the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, suggests that survey bias may indeed explain the MTCU’s results, at least to a certain degree. The newspaper notes that nearly 20% of graduates in certain disciplines may struggle to find work — much less work in their field — for months after graduation. And this is not limited to perennial scapegoats English and history, but includes life sciences and healthcare fields as well. One recent graduate pointed to “entry-level” positions requiring 3-5 years of work experience. His personal experience matches well with what labor market observers have seen in the US. And both come up with the same solution: unpaid work, via internship, ‘practicum’, ‘placement’, or ‘co-op’. (In some institutions, these are synonyms; in others, there are differences in terms of degree requirements and credit loads.)

But this is an unreasonable solution. Many, if not most, internships are unpaid. Students sacrifice their opportunity to make money in order to ‘gain experience’ that employers no longer wish to offer themselves (and apparently don’t believe higher education can offer). It’s not that students don’t have these skills, at least in all cases (one example of a skill students lack was ‘teamwork’); it’s that in an employer’s market, there’s no urgency to hire someone who isn’t perfect. This also explains the drop of real (inflation-adjusted) wages in ‘popular’ fields like business and engineering, and is similar to Wharton professor Peter Cappelli’s argument against the “skills mismatch.”

Is it truly the responsibility of post-secondary institutions to adjust their curricular goals to meet business needs? I suspect that many would say that the answer is no. In Canada, universities have already picked up the R&D slack from industry; now they are expected to provide full workforce training, too. This disinvestment from business does little good for anyone involved. And while older readers may be tempted to blame youth’s short attention spans, limited impulse control, and grade inflation for their troubles, we should all remember: they are the future.

About the Author: Jaclyn Neel is a visiting Assistant Professor in Ancient History at York University in Toronto, Ontario.

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