Want to Succeed in Life? Do well in College While You're There

by Ed Forteau /
Ed Forteau's picture
Jul 09, 2013 / 0 comments

College students are always hearing about how they have it easy because school isn’t the real world, and boy are they going to have a rude wake-up call when they graduate. Turns out there’s some truth to that, but not necessarily in the way you might expect. According to researchers, if you’re a college student, you’ll stand the best chance of succeeding in life if you work hard and do well in the classroom and the least chance if you party your time away or just want to coast until graduation.

Admittedly, this isn’t exactly a shocker, but New York University sociology and education professor Richard Arum and University of Virginia sociology professor Josipa Roksa were surprised at just how convincing the data was. Arum and Roksa, authors of the controversial new book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campus, which questions the value of a college degree and whether college is worth the money, followed up their research for the book (published as an academic study last year) with a new study of the post-college performance of college students compared to how they performed in school.

The years of data that went into Academically Adrift showed that students’ critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and writing skills didn’t improve in college because of a consumer culture in U.S. post-secondary education that doesn’t require students to devote much of their time to their studies to earn a degree. The researchers cited a rubber-stamp mentality among college professors, frightened by poor student evaluations and uncertain job security that might result if they make students work hard, and college administrators, fearful of losing revenue from students who might drop out because they find college actually requires them to make an effort.

When the researchers took another look at the students from Academically Adrift after they graduated, they found that the lowest-performing students were more likely to be unemployed, have large amounts of credit card debt, and financially dependent on their parents.

The graduates took the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which measures skills and competencies that “matter for many important early-adult life-course outcomes” and “successful adult transitions,” Arum said. Arum said he was stunned to discover that 9.6 percent of graduates who scored in the bottom 20 percent on the CLA were unemployed in spring 2011, compared to 3.1 percent of the students who scored in the top 20 percent of the CLA. Furthermore, a staggering 35 percent who scored in the bottom quintile moved back into their parent’s homes after graduation, compared to 18 percent who scored in the top quintile, and more than 51 percent of low-scorers had significant credit card debt, compared to 37 percent of high-scorers.

According to Phil Gardner, director of research for the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University, the results aren’t at all surprising. Today’s college students “don’t have a sense of why they’re there,” and “don’t have to put as much effort into college” because there’s no accountability when it comes to their effort or performance. If colleges really want students to survive after graduation, they “have to put a little more resources up front and get these kids to understand what it means to be a professional and what’s going to be expected of them,” Gardner said.

So there you have it. If you’re a student and want to have the best chance of doing well in the “real world,” do well in the “fake world” of college. And it looks like you’re going to have to push yourself, because college professors and administrators afraid of losing your money aren’t going to.