Higher education in the United States has been on a rather bumpy ride in recent years. The pandemic—as all of us can attest to in one way or another—delivered a staggering blow to our way of life and how we’ve fulfilled our various roles and demands. College campuses weren’t spared these hardships. But it’s also true that the ship of higher education was traveling in turbulent waters long before this once-in-a-century event reared its ugly head.
Consider just three major criticisms regularly leveled at higher education. The institution has become too politicized and ideologically driven; it doesn’t do justice to minority demographics and marginalized groups; it comes at a price that exceedingly few can pay without falling into crippling debt. Pertinent to these critical matters are a group of equally pressing questions: Is college necessary to live a good life? Are there more practical alternatives to getting one’s desired job? What, ultimately, is the purpose of higher education?
As one might expect, a litany of diverse and passionate voices ring out in response to these vital issues. This is as it should be, given that a strict monolithic higher education system would be something born of a nightmare. But the need for diverse perspectives and attitudes can lead to confusion unless situated within a coherent framework.
In The Real World of College: What Higher Education Is and What it Can Be, scholars Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner lift the hood of higher education and take a good look at its current state and how to fix it. Rest assured, these academics didn’t take this task lightly. Far from a cursory checkup, they performed an extensive dive into the many constituencies that make up higher education.
Fischman and Gardner, both long-time denizens of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, spent roughly a decade of their lives on The Real World of College. A brief overview of how they performed their research and analysis shows why.
They interviewed over 2,000 people, including students, recent alumni, professors, administrators, trustees, and college presidents. These roughly hour-long, “semi-structured” interviews took place across ten disparate college campuses: large and small, rural and urban, high-, medium-, and low-selectivity. Per the authors’ specific interests in non-vocational colleges, only one of the ten schools was vocational, which was used as a comparison case.
Through a rigorous system of coding, Fischman and Gardner (plus their dedicated assistants) analyzed this enormous body of qualitative and quantitative data. Their findings, along with their astute analysis and sensible prescriptions, are contained within the pages of this important work. Readers of the Real World of College will frequently come across two important concepts: “Higher Education Capital” (or “HEDCAP”), and “mental models”.
The first of these is designed to reflect how well students are able “to attend, analyze, reflect, connect, and communicate on issues of importance and interest.” Scores range from 1-3, with 3 being the highest. The second concept refers to how students and other college constituents view the purpose of higher education. Fischman and Gardner offer four mental models: interial, transactional, exploratory, and transformational.
If you’re like most people, you probably believe that there are many valid reasons for going to college. Those reasons could range from not knowing what to do after high school to wanting to excel in finance classes to become a C-suite executive at a top firm.
Fischman and Gardner don’t see it that way. They are unabashedly candid in their belief that higher education should have a very specific aim: to provide students with a strong liberal arts education so that they can insightfully analyze their “values and beliefs”, as well as be open to the idea of “chang[ing] in fundamental ways.” Many people—perhaps a majority—would not agree with such a bold and unyielding perspective on the college experience. However, further articulated throughout the book, the authors’ views on this matter need not prevent readers from absorbing the many valuable insights they gained from their extensive research.
In addition to their research and analysis on HEDCAP (Higher Education Capital) and mental models, Fischman and Gardner also present important findings on student mental health (though they hadn’t originally planned to make this a major focus of their book). In a rather startling admission, the authors write, “From the very start of our field work, we were stunned by the centrality of mental health issues across campuses and constituencies.” They continue, saying, “[W]e were equally surprised to encounter the growing importance of issues of belonging.” Such revelations are somewhat surprising to hear from two individuals who have spent decades on college campuses; then again, some students may also be unattuned to certain struggles that affect their peers.
Indeed, central to Fischman and Gardner’s discussion on mental health are “belonging” and “alienation” issues. These sections should be read by anyone working in higher education whose role directly involves the mental well-being of students.
In the closing parts of The Real World of College, Fischman and Gardner step out of the role of “anthropologist” and into the role of “clinician” (their words), to offer practical but deeply insightful advice. They warn all constituencies, especially presidents and trustees, to avoid “projectitis”—a term they use to describe “the rapid increase of centers, staff, and initiatives that are created in efforts to help achieve the raft of missions, but which all too often overwhelm and confuse students.”
Fischman and Gardner have much more to say about improving higher education. All of it should be taken seriously. Though some readers surely won’t see eye to eye with the authors on all issues, The Real World of College offers a research-backed, level-headed, and non-political assessment of higher education. That in itself is a breath of fresh air.