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The Real World of College: What Higher Education Is and What It Can Be

Reviewed by Stephen J. Handel, PhD

November 16, 2023

The Real World of College: What Higher Education Is and What It Can Be book cover

This review by ECMC Foundation's Stephen Handel, PhD, was originally published in College & University Journal.

Despite its similarity with earlier books critical of higher education, The Real World of College: What Higher Education Is and What It Can Be by Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner, is better, if only for a single, very troubling finding. The authors name, almost accidentally, a key culprit for higher education’s current predicament that is simply—yet appallingly—nothing more than a collective misunderstanding about the purpose of college among students, faculty, trustees, and alumni. Although their book includes a bevy of other conclusions—some surprisingly positive, others piercingly insightful—it is this outsized finding that sticks with me like a bad Barry Manilow song from high school.

Fischman and Gardner’s aim for this book was to understand more clearly what was on the minds of undergraduate students attending liberal arts four-year colleges and universities. Over the course of five years, they interviewed about 1,000 students at ten U.S. colleges and universities. The authors also interviewed a sizeable number of faculty, administrators, and others to determine whether their goals for college were aligned with those of the students:

In this study, we sought to understand perspectives of the key stakeholders on and off campus. Roughly speaking, on each campus, we interviewed two hundred participants, including fifty first-year students, fifty graduating students, and approximately twenty-five faculty, twenty-five senior administrators, and a small number of trustees, parents of current students, and alums who had graduated five to ten years before (48–49).

Many books have been published over the years about the mood of undergraduates. Richard Light’s, Making the Most of College (2001), is one of my favorites (and that writer served as an informal advisor to Fischman and Gardner). Unlike that previous book, whose title alone presumes the benefits of a college education, the authors of The Real World of College contend that the purpose of higher education is undergoing a radical reevaluation in the United States. Students (and their parents) are questioning the value of a college degree and are uncertain that it is worth either the cost or the time. (Although all of the interviews were conducted before the pandemic, the authors insist that their findings are still relevant. They argue that the pandemic, while profoundly disruptive, merely accelerated what was already occurring on college campuses.)

The authors’ findings both confirm and rebut several common concerns about higher education. For example, students are less concerned about college costs than commonly understood. Certainly, the cost of college is on their minds, but it is not their main worry. What is more top-of-mind for them is life after college—their job prospects mainly. And while most students are interested in the money that they can earn from a college degree, it will come as no surprise that they are also more interested in the extracurricular aspects of college life rather than the life of the classroom. (That students are more committed to being the life of the party than engaging in a life of the mind is hardly news. I’ve always suspected that 1978’s Animal House was more cinéma verité than frat-boy comedy.)

For those of you who think a college education should be a more elevated endeavor than simply a training ground for commerce and consumerism, however, you will find kindred souls in The Real World of College. The authors believe that the purpose of college should be to “create or amplify intellectual capital that ideally should last and be drawn upon a lifetime” (76), something they call “higher education capital (HED).” They summarize HED as the students’ ability to “attend, analyze, reflect, connect, and communicate” (83). During their interviews, Fischman and Gardner ranked students in one of three categories: Category ”1” for little or no capital, “2” for some capital, and “3” for a high amount of capital. Among all the students they interviewed for this project, most received a HED score of 2 (55 percent). The proportion of students ranked 1 or 3 was nearly the same (21 percent vs. 24 percent, respectively).

The authors then correlated these scores with other aspects of the college-going experience. For example, graduating students manifested higher levels of HED than first-year students, suggesting that students gained HED as a result of their college education. The authors also analyzed HED levels depending on the admissions selectivity of the colleges that students attended. Institutions that were not difficult to get into (low selectivity) had the highest proportion of students with little or no HED (36 percent). Institutions that were more competitive (high selectivity) enrolled about half as many students with low HED (15 percent). (The reverse was also true: the proportion of students enrolled at low selectivity schools with elevated levels of HED was only 7 percent. For students in high selectivity schools, the proportion was 36 percent.) When authors then tabulated the proportion of HED scores among graduating students, they found that there was growth in HED across all levels of institutional selectivity. They concluded that “college [at least] is doing no harm; and in all probability, the college experience—along with the process of maturation—boosts the amount of [HED] across the board” (103).

Beyond higher education capital, the authors also assessed students’ goals for college. Do students enter college with a mental model that is focused principally on positioning themselves for a good job, graduate school, or other career-related ambitions (a “transactional” mental model)? Or do students enter college to “reflect about and question one’s own values and beliefs…” (122), what the authors call a “transformational” mental model? To round out this analysis, the authors defined two additional mental models: “Inertial,” defined by students who have almost no firm grasp of why they are in college and “exploratory,” situated between transactional and transformational, defined by students who go to college primarily to learn about diverse fields of study and to try out new activities.

The results show that most students enter college with a transactional mindset (45 percent), followed by exploratory (36 percent), transformational (16 percent), and inertial (3 percent). But across the undergraduate years, these proportions shift. The number of students who exhibit either the transactional or transformational mental models increases, and the number of students who show the inertial and exploratory models decrease. In short, graduating students view college as either a transaction or a transformation, although there is greater growth among students with a transactional mental model.

The Real World of College is filled with intriguing insights like these describing what is on the minds of U.S. undergraduates. The book adds nuance to a public discussion about the value of college that currently produces more rancor than reason. The book, however, rises above other publications of this ilk for the presence of a single left-field result—a jaw-dropper—that appeared as a near-afterthought among the authors’ discussion of other results:

Disappointingly few of our participants at institutions that describe themselves as foregrounding the liberal arts seem to understand the term in any depth. This finding may not be unexpected for students entering college. But we are surprised and, frankly, disheartened to learn that even faculty and administrators, in addition to graduating students, young alums, parents of college students, and trustees, also have trouble defining the term (63).

My first reaction was that the authors’ definition was too obscure. Here are the seven tenants of their definition of a liberal arts education (63–64):

  • Working within and across scholarly disciplines.
  • Spanning the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural/physical sciences.
  • Engendering communication skills in various media.
  • Inculcating critical, discriminatory, and analytical abilities.
  • Acknowledging the importance of different perspectives.
  • Tackling big questions, with an eye toward continuing to pursue them.
  • Nurturing ways to contribute to society as an active, knowledgeable, and reflective citizen.

Interviewees had to mention only one of these elements to get a passing grade from the authors. What did most say instead?

Here are a few examples:

  •  “I think liberal arts is also a nice way to say that we’re very, very liberal. Like politically” (student).
  •  “The liberal arts are the default position for a student who doesn’t know what to major in” (faculty).
  • "A small college focus on like the literature, art and science” (faculty)."

(I did not cherry-pick the most embarrassing definitions. These are the first three offered by the authors.)

That most people interviewed for this project cannot accurately define the aims of a liberal arts education is headline news—if newspapers still existed. Being aimless and diffuse is a passable game plan for, say, your average American teenager. But for an organization that wishes to prosper—a college, a government, or your local In-N-Out Burger—misunderstanding your fundamental purpose is not just unsettling, it is akin to professional negligence. Critics may well ask—are asking—exactly what is going on in our colleges and universities?

Of course, people with bachelor’s degrees possess all kinds of advantages after college—the empirical evidence is incontrovertible. So, what’s the problem if we cannot precisely define what a traditional college degree means? It all sounds like a too-precious academic enterprise, a distinction without a difference. What we know with greater certainty, of course, is that the nation needs a workforce that is trained beyond high school. But an earlier generation’s success in college is unlikely to be persuasive to current high school students. The writing is already on the wall. Recent surveys indicate that less than half of those high school students sampled plan to complete a four year degree.1 One reason is greater skepticism about the value of a traditional higher education degree (Golston 2022). What rationale will compel students to go to college if we have no special certainty on what that education offers them? More broadly, how will we engage a skeptical public to invest in higher education if we do not have an agreed-upon definition of what happens during those four years of college?

Fischman and Gardner are less concerned than I am by the lack of a collegiate owner’s manual, but believe strongly that traditional liberal arts education be transformative experience for students. Their explicit advice to prospective students is unambiguous: “You have lived a while on this planet. Certain traits and aspirations will not change; and perhaps they should not change. But if you want simply to remain the same, there is little point in going to college” (293).

Fair enough. It is the content of that change we apparently lack. All of us who were fortunate enough to receive a transformative college education have a stake in this debate. We would do well to nail down the qualities of mind that were shaped and sharpened during our undergraduate years and how that immersive time changed the trajectory of our lives. Not to persuade ourselves, of course, but to preserve the “higher” in higher education.

This review was originally published in College & University Journal.

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