New View EDU Episode 22: The Purpose and Nature of Higher Education

Available September 20

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Since the beginning of the New View EDU podcast, we’ve been asking guests to help us answer the question: “What is the purpose of education?” Now we’re expanding our search for answers into the realm of higher education. What’s the purpose of college? Is it just to get a foot in the door of a competitive job market, or is there something greater to be gained from higher ed? 

Wendy FischmanFor more than 25 years, Wendy Fischman has directed research at Project Zero, a research center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. With Howard Gardner, she has just completed a national study of higher education and written a book about their findings, The Real World of College: What Higher Education Is and What It Can Be. In this episode, Wendy digs into the research and the surprising conclusions that might be drawn from her work conducting over 2,000 in-depth interviews on college campuses.

Wendy asserts that the value of a college education can be measured in ways other than pure economic return. She discusses a new metric, “higher education capital,” which her team created to help measure the intrinsic value of college. This measurement goes beyond ROI to dig deeper into intangibles, like the critical thinking skills and collaborative mindsets that can help propel students into successful and satisfying adulthoods. 

But Wendy cautions that the value of higher education is also somewhat dependent on the student’s own mindset and expectations going into the experience. She identifies four different approaches to college that, according to her research, affect student outcomes in different ways. First is inertial, an approach to college that stems from the basic belief that college is just the “next step” after high school. Second is transactional, the belief that college is a means to an end—a stepping stone to a good job, connections, or industry experience. Third is exploratory, or the belief that college is about trying out different fields and ideas. And the fourth approach is transformational, a mental model that hinges on the belief that college is an opportunity to reflect on who you are and who you want to be, examine your beliefs and ideas, and grow as a person in multiple ways.

A transformational approach to college, Wendy shares, is the most rare mindset for students—but the one most likely to result in a rich experience of “higher education capital.” It’s also the approach most expressed by faculty and administrators, creating a disconnect between the people who shape the college experience for students and the students themselves. 

This disconnect is mirrored in some of the struggles students shared with the research team. What do students want out of their college experiences? Many of them want help—help with mental health, help with planning for the long term, and help connecting with and sharing their views with people on campus who are different from themselves. Even in the years before COVID, 80% of college students shared concerns about mental health and belonging on campuses. They talked about feelings of isolation from peers, concerns about encountering diverse viewpoints, and feeling a sense of overwhelming pressure to hold onto high GPAs.

What does this all mean for K-12 schools? Wendy cautions that the “transactional” model of approaching college is common, and often takes root by the high school years. Rather than thinking about college admissions as a process where students should focus primarily on getting into the “most selective” or “best” schools possible, she advises educators and parents to help students think about what they want out of their educational environments, and to seek schools where they can grow and develop as human beings. Talking to young people at earlier ages about the college experience and about our own learnings, failings, and growth during college can help change the mindset from a competitive, jobs-focused view to a collaborative, growth-mindset view of higher education.

Key Questions

Some of the key questions Tim and Wendy explore in this episode include:

  • How did the research team approach this ambitious study of higher education? How did they construct the interviews, and how did they interpret the findings?
  • Does selectivity matter as much as people think? What did the research show about selective schools vs. less selective schools, and their potential to offer good higher education capital to their students?
  • Mental health, belonging, and well-being are themes that come up frequently when we talk to K-12 educators. What did the researchers find when discussing these topics with college students, faculty, and administrators?
  • What can K-12 schools do to prepare students not just to get into college, but to take full advantage of all that a college experience has to offer them?

Episode Highlights

  • “We devised a concept, a new concept, called higher education capital. And as you said, this is what we believe should be the goal of college for students, is to build and amplify higher education capital. Briefly, higher education capital is the ability to attend, analyze, reflect, connect, and communicate on important issues. So it's what you used in planning for and facilitating this podcast. It's what I used in preparing for the questions that I thought you were going to ask me…that’s what we call higher education capital.” (6:47)
  • “We hope and expect that students who go to college will have the opportunity to develop and increase their own HED cap. And actually, students and parents should demand it. That's what they should be choosing colleges on. That's what they should be asking about. Rather than tout dining halls and schools' private islands, we wish that schools would promote their ability to increase HED cap. This is what should be the bottom line. And in fact, we think that school ranking should be based on what we call HED cap, and not simply the superficial measures that the rankings rely on.” (10:17)
  • “Just a word about mental health on the college campus. While some students did talk about severe issues, including bipolar disorder or suicide or major depression, the majority of students talked about mental health issues as they relate to performing well, doing well, getting A's, and the anxiety about not performing and compiling the best possible profile when they graduate in order to get the job.” (24:26)
  • “Today high school has become more of an exercise about preparing students to get into college, rather than preparing them for the college experience. And I do think there's a lot that we need to do to help students and also to help their parents. So, first, for example, in high school, or even earlier. This is when students are beginning to develop what I term the transactional mental model. We need to find ways in the high school experience and even maybe earlier, to incorporate these kinds of essential questions in our conversations with students, and also in our college counseling, so that they don't just form this very transactional view about college.” (31:13)
  • “I think at early stages, we should be helping students to understand that their goal is not about getting into the most selective college, because sometimes it may not make a difference. It's about finding the college that speaks to the student's goals, what they want to get out of it.” (34:26)

Resource List

Full Transcript

  • Read the full transcript here.

About Our Guest

Wendy Fischman is a project director at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the co-author of The Real World of College: What Higher Education Is and What It Can Be (MIT Press). She joined Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1995 as a researcher with Project Co-Arts, a study of educationally effective community art centers. Since 1996, she has managed various aspects of the GoodWork® Project, specifically focused on the meaning of work in the lives of young children, adolescents, and novice professionals. Wendy has written about education and human development in several scholarly and popular articles, addressing topics such as lifelong commitment to service work, inspirational mentoring, and teaching in pre-collegiate education. She is lead author of Making Good: How Young People Cope with Moral Dilemmas at Work, published by Harvard University Press in 2004. Wendy has co-developed a curriculum for students and teachers to introduce the concept of “good work” in classrooms and schools. Wendy has taught humanities to middle school students and has evaluated school reform programs facilitated by a government-sponsored Regional Laboratory. She received a BA from Northwestern University.