There was a recent book by two sociologists on academic achievement titled “Academically Adrift.” College freshman took the “performance task” of the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) test (featuring such tasks as advising “an employer about the desirability of purchasing a type of airplane that has recently crashed”), and retake it 3 semester later. The study concludes that 45% of students show no improvement and thus “American higher education is characterized by limited or no learning for a large proportion of students.”
Some contest the data interpretation. I notice that the conversations, which go to “our universities are failing us” and privatization/defunding options immediately, don’t mention that the lack of improvement looks to be very dependent on college major groupings:
Business and education/social work have low scores, while humanities and science/math have high scores. Philip Nel notes that virtually none of the coverage “even mention this important victory for the humanities.”
I bring this up because there’s been a follow-up study finding that CLA scores are correlated with post-college youth unemployment. Kevin Carey writes:
Despite a barren job market, only 3.1 percent of students who scored in the top 20 percent of the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which measures critical-thinking skills, were unemployed….Graduates who scored poorly on the CLA, by contrast, are leading very different lives. It’s true that business majors, who were singled out for low CLA scores in Academically Adrift, did better than most in finding jobs. But over all, students with poor CLA results are more likely to be living at home with their parents, burdened by credit-card debt, unmarried, and unemployed…
Those are inconvenient findings for a higher-education industry that is struggling to make the case for public support in the worst budget environment in memory…Academically Adrift exposed the bankruptcy of those assertions.
I know a few things about youth unemployment. Where’s this study? Here’s Documenting Uncertain Times: Post-graduate Transition of the Academically Adrift Cohort. Their sample has a lower unemployment than the nation as a whole: “unemployment for recent college graduates has climbed and reached, according to some estimates, 9.1 percent in 2010—the highest annual rate on record for young college graduates aged 20 to 24…For our cohort of students, the unemployment rate is lower…6.9 percent were unemployed in the spring of 2011.”
(As we’ll see, those in the bottom quintile of CLA scores have an unemployment of 9.6%, or not much higher than the 9.1% for all college graduates.)
Looking at the summary tables, there are two groups whose unemployment is marked “statistically significant” with an * (*p < 0.05). The first is those with high CLA scores. That seems right – high achievers are more likely to be finding work. But what about those with low CLA scores? Turns out that isn’t significant but a certain major is (Table 2, condensed into this chart):
Education and social work graduates have a huge, statistically significant, 13.5% unemployment rate that jumps out of the chart. That’s much higher than any other group. Remember above, education majors tested low on the CLA test – this must have an impact on how low CLA students have high unemployment. Now what is driving unemployment among education workers? FRED:
This is the collapse of state government employment, a topic Krugman just wrote about in his column. Local government are firing education workers at a rapid clip – a number approaching 300,000 workers since the Great Recession started (and not even including state level education workers). I’ve emailed the authors of the study to see how they deal with reporting the “low CLA” number knowing that it is capturing some (most?) of these education workers, but haven’t heard back.
But notice the cool austerity reinforcing loop. States layoff teachers as a result of the Great Recession. New teachers have high unemployment from these layoffs and from the fact that they are graduating into a market with mass youth unemployment. People then point to a low score on a test this subgroup of students had to justify that college failed them and that we should consider removing public support for universities. Nice.