Richard Arum


On his (and Josipa Roksa's) book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

Cover Interview of February 23, 2011

The wide angle

Over the last three decades, many social scientists have written books examining learning in elementary and secondary education.  But little has been written exploring similar questions empirically in higher education.

The relative absence of a significant body of research on undergraduate learning has been the result largely of data limitations.  Only recently have objective assessments of students’ broad, general academic skills been developed, and only now are higher education institutions beginning to widely adopt and administer these tests to students.

While the federal government has incorporated longitudinal measures of K-12 student academic performance for decades on national educational surveys, and made this data available to researchers, no comparable data sources have existed for research on higher education.

In relative absence of empirical research on learning in higher education, a large number of books has lamented the state of higher education—based on personal anecdotes, philosophical sentiments, or impressionistic observations.  This scholarship critical of the state of undergraduate education has been receiving increasing attention in academic circles, policy conversations and the broader public.  But were any of these authors’ concerns warranted?  Or, alternatively, were their accounts simply examples of old fogeyism—while in reality students applied themselves and learned at reasonable rates?  Only empirical research based on longitudinal measures of student performance could provide sufficient evidence to address these questions.

With the support of several private foundations, from 2005 onward we began to track a large number of students entering as freshmen at colleges and universities.  We tracked several thousand students over time in college, to see how they fared, and to determine what factors were associated with the variations in performance.

I was drawn to this question given two longstanding professional commitments.

As a social scientist, I have worked to support the increased collection and analysis of student-level data.  For the last several years, in addition to teaching at New York University, I have been working at the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) to promote increased educational research to inform policy and improve practice.  At the SSRC, I successfully led recent efforts to organize educational stakeholders in New York City to create the Research Alliance for New York City Schools (an entity loosely modeled after the Consortium on Chicago School Research), focused on ongoing evaluation and assessment research to support public school improvement efforts.

In addition, as an educator, since teaching in the Oakland Public School system after graduating from college, I have been deeply committed to teaching and improving educational opportunities for students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Work on this project brought together my professional commitments as a social scientist and as an educator interested in promoting expanded opportunities.