UVA Sociologist Seeks Reasons Behind Gaps in Higher Ed Outcomes

Josipa Roksa headshot

Growing up on a farm in a socialist country – the former Yugoslavia – has given University of Virginia sociologist Josipa Roksa an unusual perspective on higher education in the U.S. She has dedicated her career to researching and improving college student success in her adopted country, where she was surprised that “the gap between ‘the haves’ and ‘the have-nots’ seemed hidden in plain sight,” she said.

Her 2011 book, “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” co-written with then-New York University professor Richard Arum, fueled the growing public debate about the value of a college degree, finding that students after two years of college showed little advancement in critical reading, complex reasoning and writing skills – broad areas that business leaders and others say they think new grads need for successful adult lives.

Roksa and Arum’s next book, “Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates,” documented the challenges that college graduates face two years after graduating, as well as in changing conceptions of adulthood. 

Now in a new book, Roksa, along with Arum and Amanda Cook, a program manager at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, presents ideas from six faculty panels in biology, business, communication, economics, history and sociology on what “essential concepts and competencies” students should be expected to learn. “Improving Quality in American Higher Education: Learning Outcomes and Assessments for the 21st Century” reports on the long-term project she’s involved in, “Measuring College Learning,” that brings faculty voices into the discussion of higher education.

“If there is one overarching theme, it is student success,” she said of her academic work.

UVA Today asked her about her past and her next steps, as well as about her books.  

Q. How did you become interested in studying education inequality?

A. I grew up in a socialist country where children from different family backgrounds went to the same school and lived across the street from each other. While interacting on a regular basis, we were keenly aware of social class distinctions. Some students’ parents had cars, while other students walked to school; some families had summer homes, while others could barely pay for their apartments.

Only after losing my home in the Croatian-Serbian civil war, becoming a refugee and coming to the U.S. did I realize how relatively flat the social hierarchy was, and how integrated our neighborhoods and schools were by social class.

Q. What did you observe in American education?

A. In America, I noticed that many claimed to be “middle class” and seemed unaware of (or at least not eager to discuss) the vast disparities between social classes. 

I also noticed that education is often seen as the panacea in the U.S., as the foundation of equal opportunity, the bootstraps by which one could pull oneself up, the hope for a great society. Education, however, does not seem to be delivering on the American dream – vast inequalities by social class (as well as race and ethnicity) persist after decades of reforms and a massive expansion of the public system, and the degree of social mobility in the U.S. – contrary to public opinion – is not notably higher than in many European countries.

My interest in inequality only grew as I moved from a rural high school in Alaska, where most of my classmates did not attend college, to matriculate at elite private institutions on the East Coast (Mount Holyoke College for undergraduate and New York University for graduate education).

Q. You and Arum received a lot of attention for your work, “Academically Adrift.” What responses did you get from faculty?

A. When “Academically Adrift” came out, one of the critiques was that we were measuring generic skills – critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing. Faculty think about teaching their subject matter, the knowledge and expertise in their field. In many ways this can translate into thinking about how to analyze, how to ask questions, how to be critical of evidence, things that may fall under the umbrella of critical thinking, but faculty teach critical thinking in their disciplines.

Q. What’s new in the third book?

A. The third book is much more geared toward practitioners. … [It’s] a combination of chapters that the faculty in six fields have worked on over the last two-plus years. We reached out to professional associations and to groups of faculty who were interested in teaching and learning in each of the disciplines.

Our goal for [the third book] was to see if  we could get faculty in the room and have a sustained conversation about learning in the disciplines. This work is driven by an interest to get faculty voices into the public conversation about college.

Governors and legislators often think that short-term labor market outcomes are the primary goal of going to college, and we feel that lots of those conversations are impoverished in part because they lack faculty voices.

There is a strong component in these chapters of really thinking about the value of the degree. The different competencies are representations of these broader generic skills. Each chapter in part in some way asks, “Why do we care about teaching students to know how to analyze, how to evaluate information, how to bring relevant pieces of information into an argument, how to sift through lots of information?” All of those skills that are being taught in a very disciplinary-specific way are actually skills that are helpful later because everyone has to analyze and evaluate and make sense of information.

Higher education has not had that conversation until fairly recently. If you look at the history of higher education … the big issue after World War II and the ’60s and ’70s was access; it was to expand higher ed, facilitate access, and in particular, facilitate access for disadvantaged groups. And then toward the end of the 20th century, we stopped and said, “Huh, we are facilitating access, but most students are not graduating.” And the 21st century brought in the question: “Even if students are graduating, what are they learning?”

Q. How does your second book fit into your research on inequality?

A. Writing “Aspiring Adults Adrift” made me increasingly think about what it takes to succeed in higher education and beyond, and how inequality in family resources – financial, social and cultural “know-how” – shapes students’ experiences. Young adults, or “emerging adults,” depend increasingly on their families for support – financial, emotional and otherwise – and do so for a longer period of time. 

We found in “Aspiring Adults Adrift” that two years after college graduation, one-quarter of college graduates were living at home and almost three-quarters were receiving financial assistance from parents. These types of trends are often mentioned in the discussion of millennials, but we rarely consider the ramifications of these extended transitions to adulthood for social inequality.

Q. What are you working on now? What’s your next step?

A. My current work steps back from some of these broader conversations on learning and focuses on students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, including first-generation and low-income students. The questions of inequality have always been at the forefront of my mind, and I am currently involved in two National Science Foundation-funded projects: one looks at the effects of financial aid on low-income students’ persistence/success in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics], and the other looks at inequality in research skill development in graduate school.

This spring, I carried out a pilot study (at an unnamed institution) of first-generation and low-income students, including surveys and interviews to identify some of the challenges students face and to understand ways in which parents can and cannot be helpful in navigating higher education. We just finished data collection, so it will be a few months before I have a sense of the results. I will use this pilot study to shape my research agenda going forward, to apply for funding and begin new projects this year.

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