March 29, 2023


Through Education Matters

Surprising new college research from creator of multiple intelligences theory

In their new book, “The Real World of College: What Higher Education Is And What It Can Be,” Harvard University researchers Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner analyzed more than 2,000 interviews they conducted over five years with students, parents, faculty, administrators, alumni and others on 10 campuses. They found that college students generally:

  • Are more similar than different in terms of goals and concerns.
  • Are more aligned with their parents’ views than the faculty’s.
  • Are focused on grades and getting jobs and have given little thought to the real purpose of college.
  • Are strongly focused on self.

The authors said in interviews that the mission of higher education has become muddy, and they call for a reframing of higher education for the 21st century: to place academic values as well as mental health and students’ sense of belonging at the center of the college experience.

“Any goal that is not strictly tied to learning needs either to be excised or to be clearly intertwined with the academic agenda,” the book says.

The research comes at a time when higher education in the United States, long the envy of the world, has come under increasing attack, usually from Republicans, who say that schools indoctrinate the students with liberal views.

The authors said in an interview that high schools and parents should change the way they discuss college with young people. “We think the mission of higher education should be to expand your mind and learn new things to prepare you for the world and not because you belong to a certain demography,” Gardner said. “We think schools that are not vocational should ideally have one central mission.”

The book says: “Speaking of missions, it’s lamentable, but worth noting, that some of the major study centers and flagship programs on campuses rarely come up [in interviews.] One can speak to dozens of students on a variety of campuses without hearing a single reference to academic subjects and concepts, scientific laboratories, libraries, museums, the arts and ethics (let alone the ‘ethics center’). We hear a lot more about sports and clubs, and indeed, more about the off-campus resources — internships and study abroad — than about some of the most precious resources in direct sight each and every day.”

“The Real World of College” is based on interviews conducted over five years, starting in 2012, at 10 educational institutions ranging from highly selective four-year institutions to less selective two- and four-year schools (see list below). The authors interviewed 1,000 students — 100 on each, half of them first-year students and the other half graduating students from various academic programs and activities.

The authors said that 44 percent of respondents ranked mental health as the most important problem on campus, the largest percentage for a single concern — and that the concern grew from freshman to senior year. What surprised them, they said, was that students across the different campuses cited academic pressures and concerns about getting a job as the cause of their mental health issues. And it was true at all of the 10 schools.

“We are not clinicians and not belittling the issues people described as depression and bipolar disorder,” Fischman said. “What we heard over and over again from students is the concern, the anxiety about being perfect. We heard that developing a perfect résumé and a perfect GPA so they can get good jobs is what is causing most of the mental health issues.”

There was, though, a disconnect between how faculty and administrators discussed mental health issues versus students’ own perceptions. “Faculty and administrators said balancing workload is a big issue, and finances are a big issue, and being away from home is causing stress and anxiety,” Fischman said. “That’s not students’ explanations. This overwhelming pressure to do well, to get 4.0′s, to be successful is what is driving anxiety. That’s what they told us.”

The schools — selected to represent the varying experiences of college students — are Borough of Manhattan Community College, California State University at Northridge, DePaul University in Chicago, Duke University, Kenyon College, Ohio State University, Olin College of Engineering (comparison school), Queens College, Tufts University and the University of New Hampshire. The schools are evenly divided between public and private. On the admissions selectivity scale, three are low, three are medium and four are high. All but Olin offer liberal arts programs; the engineering college was included to compare results.

The authors did not systematic
ally collect demographic data, which they said has raised concerns among some readers. They said this was deliberate, with their goal being to select and invite for participation students who represented different facets of each campus and to broadly focus on higher education rather than on any specific group. Participants were given leeway to discuss what was important to them, and if the study sought to make findings about demography, the approach would have been different and taken decades, Gardner said.

Fischman and Gardner spent time on the 10 campuses — in cafeterias, gyms, libraries and on tours — to better understand students’ environments. About half of the interviews — based on an extensive survey of questions about students’ backgrounds, goals, perspectives on school, issues on campus, etc. — were conducted in person, the rest online. The researchers then spent more than two years analyzing the data.

Across campuses, they said, they found students using a lot of the same language to discuss their concerns and beliefs. What also surprised them, Fischman and Gardner said, was how much students talked about themselves as compared with the broader community in which they live.

“In addition to comparing goals and perspective, we also looked for common words,” Fischman said. “… On campus, the most common words cross students were ‘mom’ and ‘help.’ That was surprising to us. When students used the word ‘help,’ we thought they would talk about the help they provided others but they were talking about the help they needed. At the same time, we also find an incredible focus on self. Students don’t think or articulate beyond the self. Students use the word ‘I’ 11 times to the word ‘we.’”

The researchers proposed four mental models through which students view college: 1. inertial, which is, essentially, “I don’t know what college is about and I am here because it’s the next step after high school”; 2. transactional, the purpose of college being to get a degree and then get a job; 3. exploratory, in which students are interested in exploring new fields and experimenting with different courses and extracurricular activities; 4. transformational, in which students examine their beliefs and values and the kind of person they want to become.

Most students, the researchers said, expressed a transactional point of view, which has been reinforced by adults in their lives well before they get to college campuses.

The study furthers earlier work the authors have conducted for about 25 years on the nature of good work through the Good Project, a research initiative housed at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero, an educational research group composed of multiple, independently sponsored research projects.