Academically Adrift toward Learning?

On the one hand, a forceful budget of bad news at a time rife with negatives about higher education. On the other, the stubborn hope that we will do better. Those who believe higher education can do a better job—and I am one—will acknowledge the force of Academically Adrift as wake-up call. Although that call is not new, the rhetorical effects of this book are powerful.

Those who think we should seek high-quality learning for everyone, including and especially students historically underrepresented, will give thought to the value of this particular wake up call. As a faculty member once told me, “If we were a hospital, we’d be shut down.” Passion like that flows from a profound desire to do better. Argue with the book’s methodology as we may, critics inside academe know the stressed conditions in institutions that educate most students in this country. How can the messages of this book motivate people to do a better job of achieving equitable learning outcomes at this moment of disinvestment?

The pertinent question: Do we know how to strengthen learning? The answer is yes. We can set high expectations for all students and achieve documented learning. AAC&U is finding, in partnership with member institutions, that high-impact and highly effective learning experiences can and do make a difference. Multiple high-impact practices such as service learning and undergraduate research scaffolded intentionally and unavoidably throughout the curriculum—so that no underrepresented or underserved student can miss them—does make a difference.

Arum and Roksa highlight problems and point toward solutions. Will the field pay attention for the sake of students who are our future—and choose rigorous, engaging, high-impact, highly effective pedagogies for students least likely to have access to the strongest opportunities for learning?

Susan Albertine is the Vice President for Engagement, Inclusion and Success at the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U)