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Graduates in a rainstorm in Boston in 2007.
Graduates in a rainstorm in Boston in 2007.
Boston Globe via Getty Images

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Why hasn’t the class of 2009 grown up?

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Are colleges to blame for what happened to the class of 2009?

A study of more than 1,000 members of that graduating class from 25 selective colleges found that two years after graduation, one-quarter of them were still living at home. Thirteen percent had jobs that didn't require any college education. Most were still getting some kind of financial help from their parents.

Those sobering findings are from two sociologists, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, who began studying the students not long after they entered college. In 2010, they published a book called Academically Adrift, arguing that colleges were paying too much attention to keeping students happy and too little attention to developing their critical thinking, reasoning, and writing skills.

Arum and Roksa later surveyed the same students about their lives in 2011, two years after they graduated. Their latest book, Aspiring Adults Adrift, draws from those interviews. They argue that students' failure to learn led to a failure to launch. Kids these days are underemployed, stuck in their parents' basements, and overly optimistic about what their futures will hold. And colleges are largely to blame.


For Arum and Roksa, the poster child for successful adulthood is Beth — and colleges should be trying to reproduce her success.

Beth went to a mid-tier public university and studied more than 20 hours per week, significantly boosting her critical thinking abilities. She majored in a health-related field and earned a graduate degree. After a few months living at home and more than 50 job applications, Beth found work in her field. She got married two years after graduation, and she and her husband are financially independent.

But Beth is rare. Almost three-quarters of the students the authors surveyed got some kind of financial support from their parents, in most cases less than $5,000 per year. Just over half of the graduates they studied were unemployed, employed part-time, or making less than $30,000 per year.

These are depressing statistics, if unsurprising ones; I graduated college in 2009, and they ring true to what my Facebook news feed showed a few years ago. But they don't prove that colleges failed us. We graduated into the worst part of a deep recession. At the same time, the definition of adulthood was changing to depend less on acquiring a spouse, house, career, and kids. Many members of the class of 2009 didn't follow Beth's path right away — but that might not be a bad thing in the long run.

The people Arum and Roksa interviewed sounded like my high school and college classmates. A business major who partied his way to a 3.9 GPA, then ended up working a delivery job he found on Craigslist, sounded familiar; so did a public health major who was living at home two years after graduation, planning to go to nursing school. Everyone in the class of 2009 knows someone with a story like that.

These graduates flailed after college because they didn't learn much while they were in it, the authors argue. About a third of students in their study made virtually no improvement on a test of critical thinking and reasoning over four years of college. Aspiring Adults Adrift argues that this hurt them in the job market. Students with higher critical thinking scores were less likely to be unemployed, less likely to end up in unskilled jobs, and less likely to lose their jobs once they had them.

That could indicate that there's a relationship between critical thinking ability and career success, and that colleges are failing students by not developing those abilities.

"Students that advance in college in terms of their general skills, critical thinking and complex reasoning do better in their labor market outcomes," Arum said in a recent interview.

But there's also a simpler explanation: the same qualities that help students acquire critical thinking abilities also make them good employees. A student who skips the Thursday night party scene for an early Friday class probably won't give up after more than 50 rejections for jobs in her field. A student who takes hard classes, even when her major doesn't require them, is also likely to work hard on the job.

For the class of 2009, the explanation for our struggles seems simpler than whether or not we wrote enough 20-page research papers. We graduated into historically terrible economic times. The class of 2008, which had a few months after graduation before the worst of the recession hit, is still suffering the effects five years later.

Roksa argues that the recession doesn't explain recent graduates' woes. "Unemployment, arguably, yes, there's probably an increase in unemployment relative to other time periods," she said. "But if you look at almost all of the other trends" — such as young adults who are living with their parents or dependent on them for financial assistance — "they've been changing for a very long time."

But the recession dramatically accelerated those trends. The percentage of young adults living with their parents grew just 1 percent between 1981 and 2007. Many housing analysts expect young adults will move out as the economy improves, suggesting their motivation was primarily economic.

Blaming colleges for what happened to recession-era graduates is like blaming umbrella manufacturers when you get wet in a hurricane. Colleges share some blame; my "adrift" classmates needed better counseling on majors and more help as they searched for jobs in an economy with few to offer. And the argument that colleges focus too much on the experiences they provide and too little on the education students receive is persuasive, and worrisome.

But in the end, in 2009, we were all drowning in a storm that was beyond colleges' ability to control.

Roksa and Arum aren't really arguing for a more academically rigorous college education. They did that in their last book. They're fighting the broader idea of emerging adulthood — that the first half of your 20s is a time to prolong adolescence and delay adult responsibilities.

They find a few recent graduates worthy of their approval. Besides Beth, there is Julie, who graduated from a highly selective college, shares a house with her boyfriend, gets her news from the New York Times and National Public Radio, and votes in local elections; she also rents out an extra bedroom, which the authors describe not as a juvenile decision to live with roommates but as a prudent financial move. And they praise Michael, who within two years of graduation had earned a master's degree in engineering, married the girlfriend he met the first semester of freshman year, and started thinking about buying a house.

These are some impressive 24-year-olds. But reading about Julie, Beth, and Michael feels like being hectored by a well-meaning relative who wants to know why you can't be like your more responsible cousins. Arum and Roksa set parameters for a successful life that feel awfully narrow.

The class of 2009 might be optimistic, against all odds, because we imagine adulthood differently. The researchers are diving into a deep generation gap: "Emerging adults are trying to think about success in a slightly different way," Roksa said. "There's much more of an idea that being an adult has to do with how you feel, with taking responsibility, finding fulfillment, enjoying the journey, not just focusing on the destination."

Is a more flexible definition of adulthood such a bad thing? The authors say that it is. They're alarmed that 32 percent of the college graduates they surveyed don't read newspapers online more than once a month, and that 40 percent rarely talk about current events. They worry that the graduates lack a sense of purpose. And they argue that first jobs really do matter: a stint in menial work could hold you back in the long run.

"Those early-career, first jobs out of school actually have lifelong consequences," Arum said, citing research from the 1960s. While the labor market has changed significantly since then, he said, he hasn't seen convincing evidence that the results will be different for this generation.

The struggles are widespread, but that doesn't mean they aren't serious. "They look around, most of their peers aren't doing particularly well, so you figure that you're going to be OK," Roksa said. "Because all of you are struggling, and you have a college degree, so good things will happen to everybody."

But the class of 2009 has had no other choice than to redefine success. We headed to college in an economic boom, confident that we were special and we would succeed. Four years later, we graduated into the worst recession since the Great Depression. No wonder that two years after graduation we were reconsidering our sense of purpose: Our expectations had been wrong. Our hopes were dashed. We had played by the rules, and it hadn't worked.

We could have accepted that, by traditional standards, we were failing utterly to grow up. We could have let go of hope that things would ever get better.

Or we could ask why the old definition of adulthood was so great anyway, and continue to have faith that our lives would be better than our parents' — even if we follow a different path to end up there.

Libby Nelson: Give me a quick summary of the arguments you make in Aspiring Adults Adrift.

Richard Arum: We look at college graduates two years out, and document their difficult transitions they're facing today — in part because the economy is difficult, but also because the broader social and cultural and economic trends are creating these periods of prolonged emerging adulthood where even college graduates are not transitioning effectively. We talk about the large numbers of them that are unemployed or underemployed, the significant numbers back living at home with their parents, that 75 percent of them are getting financial assistance from their parents two years out. And not just the financial stuff, but in terms of civic engagement: 32 percent say they read the paper monthly or never, online or in print; 40 percent say they talk about politics or public affairs monthly or never. Broadly, they're not making transitions to responsible adulthood in ways that one would hope to see coming out of college.

At the same time, they're very optimistic about their futures. 95 percent say their lives are going to be the same or better than their parents', even though a quarter of them are living at home with their parents. It doesn't matter if they're unemployed or not unemployed, everyone's wildly optimistic about their future.

We argue in the book that, in spite of [students'] optimism, colleges could do a better job of grounding them in skills, attitudes, and dispositions necessary to make successful transitions to adulthood. We show that students that advance in college in terms of their general skills, critical thinking and complex reasoning do better in their labor market outcomes. There are a range of things that colleges and universities really could do to assist these college graduates.

And we show how colleges are implicated in these difficulties that college graduates are facing. They are implicated in multiple ways, and in fact we argue that they legitimated emerging adulthood by what they've done in college. It's made it socially acceptable and normatively acceptable to spend longer and longer amounts of time drifting, meandering, without purpose and direction in one's life.

Libby Nelson: A lot of people would say: It's a recession; of course people are having trouble. What's different this time?

Josipa Roksa: If you look at the trends over time, it's not that there's a recession. Unemployment, arguably, yes, there's probably an increase in unemployment relative to other time periods. But if you look at almost all of the other trends, they've been changing for a very long time. The percentage of students living with parents. The percentage of parents who are dependent on them for financial assistance. And those trends have been on the rise for decades. The conception of what adulthood is has changed. Emerging adulthood is a time of exploration, of learning about yourself, about learning about others, but it's not time for having to make decisions. It's not like the recession will end and these patterns will end. It's a different cultural context in terms of what it means to be an adult.

Richard Arum: Students are not just going to college, but they go away to college for longer and longer periods of time. Unlike the European system, which costs half of what it does in the US, people go away and leave home and live in dorms or around college campuses to get their education for longer and longer periods. It takes longer to finish college. The number going back to get their masters' is dramatically increased. And so there's this prolonged period when it's socially acceptable to live in what we call "emerging adult subcultures," where it's OK not to assume adult responsibilities. The normative orientations in those communities are not aligned with the traditional notions of academic achievement or even the assumption of adult responsibility.

Josipa Roksa: Which is another reason things won't change. The college experience, which is very focused on the social experience... The students are all about personal development, learning about themselves, learning about others, exploring. That ingrained notion of what college is and what students do, focusing on the social as opposed to academic, that's with us and that's not going to change. That means students will continue to not develop skills such as critical thinking or writing to transition to the labor market, or develop expectations that they need to transition, without changing what college does, what college is and what college emphasizes.

Richard Arum: What your general readership doesn't understand is the extent to which colleges and universities have systematically disinvested in academic programs and faculty. So you have a dramatic decline in full-time faculty. At the same time, they systematically have invested in social amenities and student support services, which are the fastest-growing parts of the university today and a good part of the reason why colleges and universities are so expensive in the US. The students are embedded in these institutions which are all about keeping them entertained and satisfied as students and clients and attending to their well-being socially and psychologically, but not focused on the other part of college, which is academic growth and also providing students with more guidance and direction about purposeful paths in life.

Josipa Roksa: Fifty percent of them, two years out, say they lack a clear direction. That's the question: what exactly are we accomplishing? They're not developing critical thinking skills, but in all this exploration, they're not developing a

path forward. Which is a product of the colleges just hoping things will happen — we develop activities and we put students together, and somehow they will just explore and learn and good things will come of that. But there's very little purposeful, thoughtful guidance and structure. We talk about meandering versus purposeful exploration. With all that meandering, there's nothing to show for it. With exploration, there's a path forward, there are ideas about where to look and where to go next.

Libby Nelson: So I'm in this generation. My really big question is: Why is it a problem that it's taking people longer to do things? Was it great that everyone in the ‘50s got married when they were 22? Why should people worry about this?

Richard Arum: In the first chapter, we say students are having difficult transitions but they're very optimistic about their futures. When we ask about their college, they're very romantic and sentimental about the colleges they attended. They feel very loyal. The further they get from college, the more they say they learned in college. So what's the problem? What's wrong here? Is there anything wrong?

And we come back in the conclusion to say, yes, we think there is something wrong. Colleges and universities have a responsibility to provide better support and guidance to make these transitions smoother. As educators we have that responsibility. If you think about the consequences of prolonged periods of emerging adulthood, for students from privileged middle-class backgrounds, they have the ability to spend five, 10 years in their 20s figuring all this stuff out. They have a safety net and a support system in place where the consequences are not, perhaps it's not the most efficient system, but not particularly worrisome.

But also there's large numbers of working-class students that don't have that luxury. We have a responsibility to provide, not a narrowing of choices and opportunities, but a much more intentional design of how do we structure the program to better support their academic development and their transition to adulthood, broadly defined.

Libby Nelson: Beyond the academic part, what else should colleges be doing?

Josipa Roksa: I think there's two things. One is really defining what college is about. If you think about what college is about today, it's about satisfying consumer preferences. And what we argue is that's not the goal of college. That shouldn't be what we are about. There's a big part of it that has to do with redefining what college is about, what's our purpose, and what are we aiming to accomplish as an institution. It's broader than just requiring reading and writing, it's actually fundamentally changing what we do and why we do it and articulating that as a counter-narrative to the consumer narrative that's there now. And providing guidance — how are students exposed to thinking about careers? Do they get internships? In what ways do they facilitate that?

There are lots of activities, and students are very active, but there's no intentionality. How do we structure our classrooms? How do we structure our extracurricular activities? How do we structure what happens at the university such that the outcomes that students experience are things that we value?

Richard Arum: It's not keeping students happy as consumers and clients — not only is it not a worthy goal, but the time we're in the challenges to our country and our world is so great that we need so much more from our graduates and our institutions. 32 percent of graduates don't read the newspaper more than monthly? 40 percent don't talk about politics and public affairs? We've got some serious problems. We don't have the luxury of our institutions not paying attention to these problems. It's not about the labor market outcomes; it's the bigger purpose and function of higher ed.

During the Cold War, people understood that higher ed had this bigger purpose and function of providing a vision about democratic citizenship and responsible contributions to society. Since the Cold War, institutions have lost their focus and purpose as being anything other than satisfying students and clients. The problems we face as a society, your generation, they're real. We owe it to them to do a better job.

The differences between college graduates and the rest on reading the newspaper are hardly different. The optimism is really different.

Libby Nelson: Maybe colleges are doing this completely wrong, but they do try to put more emphasis on volunteering, on being involved in the community. Does it not produce any kind of lasting effect? Or is that approach not as typical as it seems to me?

Richard Arum: It is typical. Colleges and universities are pushing social engagement broadly and that includes volunteering. But again, it's absent the larger framework about the importance of developing democratic citizens, the importance of civic engagement. They've fulfilled these obligations for volunteering, but there's a disconnect between that and what you'd expect to see from graduates.

Libby Nelson: Who's in your sample? Tell me more about who these graduates are.

Richard Arum: We follow 1,000 college graduates, who completed college roughly in time — within four years. They're from 24 diverse colleges and universities, some at the top, we have one college from the top 10 colleges in the US News rankings, but we also have a number of historically black colleges and universities, broad access institutions — it's very, very diverse. We do in-depth interviews with 80, so we have their own voices and accounts and in-depth understanding of their situation.

Libby Nelson: Do you see differences from the types of institutions they attended? Is there a difference in outcomes?

Josipa Roksa: Selectivity matters, not for income... It matters for unemployment or unskilled employment. People who attend more selective institutions are less likely to be unemployed, less likely to have unskilled jobs. It matters for civic engagement, because students who go to more selective institutions are more likely to read newspapers or more likely to be engaged in politics and public affairs. There's also a relationship between selectivity and romantic outcomes. Educational homogeneity has been very strong, and increasingly college graduates tend to marry college graduates.

Since we have only 24 schools, we can't slice it many different ways.

Libby Nelson: This might only apply to the more selective schools. But for my class, and for my sister's class — my sister is the class of 2012 — it does seem the two years after college are now seen as a sort of gap year. Whether it's teaching abroad or Teach for America or Americorps, there's this idea that what you do for the next two years doesn't affect what you're going to be doing five or 10 years down the road.

Richard Arum: First of all, there's a long tradition of social science research that shows that's not true. Those early career, first jobs out of school actually have lifelong consequences. It's not true, even if people believe it. I do think it's why some measures, like income, are really lousy at getting at different pathways. Income fluctuates wildly, and people are making choices that are not about incomes, often, but are still reasonable choices about career pathways or life pathways.

That's why we moved, as sociologists, to the characteristics of the occupation: are they in skilled employments or not? Then it doesn't matter whether or not you're in an internship or apprenticeship or low-paying job or Teach for America. The framework we apply doesn't hold that against you. Our measure of skilled occupation is, have the majority of the people in the occupation attended one year of college?

Libby Nelson: I'm not familiar with the social science research of those really early post-college years. Can you tell me more about it?

Richard Arum: There's a longstanding tradition in sociology of particular — we've been very skeptical as income as a measure of labor-market outcomes, going all the way back to the 1960s. Sociologists generally have not used income, but have used occupational characteristics - status, prestige. In that work, their key model was what's your first job after school versus what's your job when you're surveyed, when you're in your 40s and 50s? There's a clear association between the job you get right out of school and the job you end up with. That's net of how far you got in school and net of your social background. It's a longstanding finding, and it's true that labor market outcomes have become noisier since the ‘60s. People jump around. But I haven't seen any social science and research that suggests that the first job out of school has no effect on subsequent outcomes. Even in these complex models, it's still a strong predictor of lifelong occupational success.

Libby Nelson: So why are young people so optimistic?

Josipa Roksa: There is a belief that college is a ticket to a better life. College fosters and helps develop that idea — once you're a college graduate, great things will happen. Students will respond to that. They still believe that a college degree will pay off. It might not pay off right now, but it will eventually lead to good outcomes, because that is what college is supposed to do. They believe that's what it will do.

The other one is that emerging adults are also trying to think about success in a slightly different way. There's much more of an idea that being an adult has to do with how you feel, with taking responsibility, finding fulfillment, enjoying the journey, not just focusing on the destination. Emerging adults have a certain set of attitudes they bring in to project toward the future: I might not be doing particularly well right now, but I am in search of really meaningful work and I'm exploring and enjoying the journey along the way.

They look around, most of their peers aren't doing particularly well, so you figure that you're going to be OK. Because all of you are struggling, and you have a college degree, so good things will happen to everybody.

Richard Arum: College does pay off. I don't know whether all their lives will be the same or better than their parents, like they hope, but they will be better than if they didn't go to college. They're not altogether wrong in their optimism. But they're not altogether right either.


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