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Authors discuss how higher education has lost its way

In their new book, The Real World of College: What Higher Education Is and What It Can Be (MIT Press), Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner, researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, argue that higher education has become a largely “transactional” endeavor, focused entirely too much on jobs and bogged down in well-intentioned institutes, centers and programs that distract from its main purpose: “to get the mind to work better,” as Gardner put it. The authors spent 10 years conducting and analyzing more than 2,000 in-depth interviews with students, parents, faculty, administrators, trustees, alumni and others at 10 disparate liberal arts and science institutions. They spoke with Inside Higher Ed via Zoom. Excerpts of the conversation follow, edited for length and clarity.

Q: What universal themes emerged from your research?

Wendy Fischman: Students across all 10 disparate schools are more similar than they are different. They’re also very focused on themselves; there’s little concern for others and the world around them. And that comes out in the way they use words; “I” is used 11 times more than “we.” They also have very little concern for ethics, including academic dishonesty.

And there’s a lot of what we call “misalignment” between students and faculty and administrators—there’s much more alignment between students and their parents. It’s largely the difference between students being transactional—caring about the job, the résumé, about what they’re going to do next—and faculty and administrators largely being what we call transformational: seeing college as the opportunity to grow, to consider your own beliefs and values and to change as a result.

Howard Gardner: The study was done pre-pandemic. But everything we know about the pressures have just increased since then. We’d have to repeat the study in a post-pandemic era to see which changes are transient and which are permanent. Also, what Wendy describes about students and their parents really reflects the broader society … The neoliberalism which permeates the Anglo-American world is alive and well in the college world. And since there are a lot of things in our study that we found disappointing, we’d like to try to balance the seesaw a bit.

Q: What did you find so disappointing?

Gardner: The obsessions with jobs. If you are a decent student, you will not have to worry about getting a job, no matter what campus you’re at. Yet there’s almost a panic among students and their families that if they don’t go to the right college, get the right grades, have the right major and so on, they’re doomed. At the same time, very few students have relationships with faculty that are more than transactional so that people can support and help them. And as Wendy writes in the book, on campus tours, if the library is mentioned, it’s an accident. And if you talk about anything except the courses in computer science or prelaw, you get kind of nervous reactions.

Fischman: The institution of higher education gives mixed messages or the wrong message about what college is about. And so in an effort to please the customers—the students and the parents—it speaks to what they want, which, again, is jobs, internships, study abroad, all these experiences off campus and in the future, rather than focusing on what is good about college itself.

Q: But given the high cost of college, isn’t it understandable that so many students and their parents view it as transactional?

Fischman: It is understandable. And I have four kids—three are in college, and I hope they get jobs. But it shouldn’t be the primary focus, because they could get jobs without going to college. And the first job isn’t going to be their only job. We need students who are able to adapt and be flexible and to connect learnings across different fields and not just to be focused on getting that first job, because as we asked in our interview questionnaire, what if that first job disappears? This preoccupation with what I’m going to do the day after I graduate is a mistake.

We’re not saying the jobs aren’t important. But students see earning as more important than learning. And that’s concerning, because the reason why you go to college is to expand your mind, not just to get job.

Q: You evaluate students on a measure you call “higher education capital,” defined as the ability “to attend, to analyze, to reflect, to connect, and to communicate on issues of importance.” Why is that so valuable?

Fischman: We hope that students will be able to understand things from different perspectives, to connect the dots, to ask good questions, to look at something from different angles and to summarize, synthesize and explain it, and communicate in writing and in talking … Higher education capital is if you think about sitting on a train or plane and talking with a student for an hour about anything—whether it’s a movie or a book, or a political debate, or the war in Ukraine—you will know after an hour not just what they understand about the topic at hand, but also whether they ask good questions, whether they compare what you’re talking about historically and put it into context, whether they show interest. That’s what we call higher education capital. We hope that as a result of college, students will have a lot of it.

Q: As Howard pointed out earlier, what’s going on in higher ed is really just a reflection of our larger society. And if everyone’s self-centered and transactional in society, it makes sense that college students would also be that way. So are you asking universities and colleges to lead the revolution in changing this way of being?

Gardner: Wendy, your nod isn’t going to make it into the recording. (Laughter.)

Fischman: College is really one of the last formal opportunities that students have to be in a learning environment. It’s an opportunity for students not only to learn, but also to be made aware of why that learning is important. During the COVID pandemic, I think we all understood why it’s important to focus on the sciences and read the newspaper and understand larger world problems that go beyond ourselves.

Gardner: I am unambiguous and unambivalent that the purpose of college is to get the mind to work better. And if you don’t do that, then you may as well close down. And so we’ve created these terms, “onboarding” and “intertwining,” about how you get the message out on day one about what your institution is about. We are aware, and we actually support the idea that a school might have another primary mission: I can make a good case for democracy, for civics, for ethics. I can even make a good case for religion in a mission-driven school. But unless that second mission is intertwined with the academic mission, it’s guaranteed to fail.

Q: It sounds like you’re saying colleges and universities should strip away the bells and whistles, and really get back to the core mission of teaching.

Fischman: It’s nice to have nice residence halls. The study abroad on a private island, the dining halls, the fancy gyms—that stuff may exist, but it doesn’t need to be promoted. But what we’re really talking about is what we call “projectitis,” the condition of having an endless proliferation of centers, initiatives, departments and options for students that ultimately end up confusing them, because they feel like they have to participate in all of them. It really becomes overwhelming. And I think the message that higher education is about building intellectual capital gets lost.

Q: I imagine critics of your book will say it’s elitist in its focus on liberal arts education. There’s a huge swath of the American population that just needs a job, and they need to be educated for that job. How would you answer them?

Fischman: We find that at some of the less selective schools, students are transactional because they want to change the course of their lives—they want to be the first in their families to be educated because they value education. And they want jobs that they might not have gotten if they didn’t go to college. We call this “transactional in order to be transformational.” That’s very different than some of the students at our high-selectivity school, who express a transactionality in order to get a job at Goldman Sachs, the best law firm, to go into finance.

Gardner: The great gift that less selective schools can give less selective students is an aspirational one, which is what college was in the early and middle 20th century, the time of the GI Bill. But we’re not a country anymore, we’re a feuding set of interest groups, and colleges can either pull you into that or they can try to build some bridges.

Q: You write that one of your most surprising findings was the prevalence of mental health issues and alienation among students—and that was before the pandemic, which, as we know, only exacerbated those trends. What did you see?

Fischman: We found that students described mental health problems on campus because of what they see as academic pressure. They’re not necessarily describing loneliness, depression, suicide … While those exist, and we don’t belittle those in any way, what they’re describing is an enormous amount of pressure that students feel to do well and to develop a perfect résumé. And that’s very different from how most people think mental health exists on campus. And the academic pressure, by the way, isn’t about mastering difficult material, or even about balancing a big workload. It’s about getting A’s.

Q: That’s interesting, because as you point out in the book, students are actually working less hard than they used to. So how do you explain that disconnect?

Fischman: Because students are focused on the ultimate end goal of the grade, they’ll do anything to get that. And cheating, we know, and academic dishonesty is at an all-time high. Students show very little remorse. When they cheat, they talk about it openly. They describe ways in which they do it. I think they feel that they’re deserving of high grades because they put in the work to get into college, and now they just want to see the end result.

Gardner: Having read all 2,000 interviews, including 1,000 interviews with students, I was very disheartened by how infrequently learning showed up. It’s almost like, if you went into a military training camp, and you saw people were more focused on Ping-Pong and on weight lifting than on learning how to be a good soldier.

Q: In your best-case scenario, 10 years from now, how has higher education changed?

Fischman: In the best scenario, I think higher education will focus on what it’s meant to focus on, which is intellectual development, growing the mind. And that students will know why they’re going to college and will not go under false pretenses, which they think is about getting the job.

Gardner: In 10 years, we hope that students will have more of an exploratory or transformational approach to college that will be rewarded, that their higher ed capital will go up, that they’ll have more of a sense of belonging and less alienation. And that as a result, mental health issues will be less acute.

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