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Are colleges to blame for slackers?

Many recent college graduates are struggling to become self-supporting adults, and their alma maters deserve some of the blame.

That's the conclusion of a new book, "Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates," written by two sociologists who rocked the higher-education world in 2010 with blockbuster research that concluded that many students were learning next to nothing in college.

Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia became household names in college circles several years ago when their original book, "Academically Adrift," indicted colleges for creating campus environments that coddle and entertain students rather than challenge them. The sociologists concluded that more than one in three college seniors were no better at writing, critical thinking and reasoning than they were as freshmen. In addition, many of the students who did grow intellectually showed only minor progress.

Choosing a college by category

In their latest research, Arum and Roska explored what happened to 1,000 of the 2,300 students they began studying as undergraduates in the mid 2000's. These young Americans graduated from a wide cross-section of four-year schools, including private liberal arts colleges, state universities and historically black universities, making them a representative sample.

The findings are equally depressing, and seem to point to the generally poor educations many young people are getting in college. Among the lowlights:

  • 24 percent of the college graduates in the study sample were living with their parents
  • 74 percent of graduates were getting financial help from their families
  • Only 47 percent of graduates in the labor market had full-time jobs that paid at least $30,000 a year
  • 23 percent of graduates in the labor market were unemployed or underemployed

The researchers defined underemployed as working less than 20 hours per week or having a job where most employees have not completed at least one year of college. They also found that many recent graduates had difficulty developing stable romantic relationships and that they were not civically engaged.

Arum and Roska lay a great deal of the blame for these grim statistics on colleges, arguing that the institutions have focused on offering fun rather than rigorous academics. In other words, schools simply don't require much from their students beyond making sure that somebody is paying their tab.

"Rather than challenge students who come in with limited academic interests and overly narrow ideas about the purpose of college," the authors writte, "we too often ask little in terms of commitment and offer little in terms of direction."

The co-authors suggest that schools can no longer be content with the status quo and instead must "collectively commit ourselves to raise academic standards, design rigorous curriculum program and work to improve instruction, advising and mentoring. This is in the best interest of our students, our institutions and society at large."

Students who thrive

There is some good news in the study.

The students who did work harder in college and managed to improve in their writing and critical thinking skills have fared much better than the slackers. The researchers used a test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment to measure academic growth. Those with higher CLA scores were far less likely to be unemployed, while those with low scores were nearly twice as likely to lose the jobs they did find. Students who bombed on the test were also 50 percent more likely to be stuck in an unskilled job.

Remarkably, these struggling graduates remained upbeat about their future prospects. Ninety-five percent of the graduates said that their lives would be the same or better than their parents.