One of the more distressing reads that we have come across in recent years – at least in the context of academic outcomes – is Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's seminal Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press, 2010). The book's essential message is that despite gargantuan institutional and personal expenditure on higher education in the United States, the levels of attainment being realised by many students are literally beyond substandard: significant percentages of college graduates have virtually no increases in skills to show for their time at university. This includes critical thinking, the most coveted academic attribute of all: 99 percent of college faculty say that developing students' ability to think critically is a 'very important' or 'essential' goal of undergraduate education, and yet employers consistently rate graduates' critical thinking performance as inadequate for professional purposes.
There are a number of potential reasons for this wastage. The low literacy proficiency standards of incoming students – 40% of faculty agree that most of the students they teach lack the basic skills for college level work – must be seriously addressed. The time allocated to studying – which gently declined from the 1960s to the 1980s and which has since fallen more precipitously – is another factor compelling further investigation. Probing deeply questionable lifestyle choices which seem almost calculated to sabotage any possible academic gains is – most mysteriously – an area which few American higher education institutions even consider on anything approaching a profound level.
But regardless of the rationales behind this lack of progress, its ultimate consequences are clear: if higher education institutions continue failing to impart the vital skills that employers and the wider economy require, they are going to lose their functional raison d'être. It makes little sense for graduates to sacrifice four years of their lives and accrue debt to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars unless there is a substantial gain in their ability to perform complex cognitive tasks. For the economy as a whole, the creation of a trillion-dollar student debt bubble with no corresponding gains in productivity is at the very least a double blow: it represents both a significant increase in systemic risk and a huge opportunity cost penalty.
Higher education providers in the United States and many other parts of the world with a comparable academic system need a wake-up call: in an increasingly 'flat' global space, only institutions which can engender clear gains in skills such as critical thinking will be able to deliver on the promise of employability. The rest risk being unmasked as purveyors of little more than expensive and practically redundant certificates.