Changing the Narrative About the Purpose of Higher Education

Fall 2023

By Wendy Fischman

This article appeared as "Higher Learning" in the Fall 2023 issue of Independent Magazine.

What is the most important reason to go to college? 

Is it to: Develop independence? Become familiar with academic content? Learn about different perspectives about people, knowledge, and the world? Get a job? 

From 2012–2022 Howard Gardner and I carried out an in-depth study to explore the overarching question about the purpose of higher education. Specifically, we interviewed more than 2,000 participants across eight stakeholder groups at 10 disparate college and universities, in which all but one focused on nonvocational education. We were surprised by the answers and our three major findings related to this main question:
  • Students respond that “job” and “different perspectives” are equally the most important—they carry the same weight as what have long been believed to be the primary reasons to go to a four-year nonvocational college. 
  • These reasons are cited as significantly more important than gaining content knowledge and learning to live independently. 
  • When we compare findings across stakeholder groups, there’s a surprising (and disturbing) split—parents of current college students agree with students. On the other hand, faculty and administrators on college campuses do not agree with students or their parents—only a handful assert that the purpose of college is to get a job.
If you agree with today’s students and parents that preparation for work is a main purpose of college, then you might not think there’s a problem. But if you believe that higher education can and should do more than help people get jobs, you’ll recognize the problem space: nonvocational education—what we call liberal arts and sciences—has long made distinctly different claims. The college experience, including all faculty and facilities, are designed to broaden the mind and prepare students for a life of citizenship—to develop individuals who are concerned with flourishing for the self and for society. 

As school leaders, teachers, and administrators, would you feel satisfied if your students thought the main purpose—or the only purpose—of high school is to get into college? If they bypassed the love of learning, development of interests, awareness of strengths and weaknesses, and capacity for leadership, all of which you have worked hard to instill? 

Probably not. And you shouldn’t be. 

As a researcher focused on higher education for more than a decade, I didn’t think I’d find myself writing for an independent school audience. But now, well over a year after the findings of our comprehensive study were published in The Real World of College: What Higher Education Is and What It Can Be, I find that it is nearly impossible to discuss college—its promises and problems—without addressing what comes before it.  

What’s the Problem

The 10-year study reveals that one of the major problems college students face is not college itself, but the lack of preparation to make the most of the higher education experience. Simply put, the focus of high school has become getting students into college, rather than preparing them for college. It seems that high school (and in some cases middle school) are now the time and place where students are focusing on earning rather than learning. This state of affairs not only has serious costs to students, but also for broader society.

Consider Sarah, a student we interviewed for our study a week after her college graduation. In reflecting on her high school experience, Sarah explained that she had attended a medium-selective high school with 300 students in her graduating class. In the running for class valedictorian, she had applied to several highly selective schools across the country. Her application seemed ideal—a near-perfect grade point average for a challenging course load (11 advanced placement courses) and a robust list of extracurricular activities, including the National Honor Society, German club, and the marching band. Indeed, when the college decisions rolled in, Sarah was presented with many choices, but for financial reasons, she chose the honors college at her state university. Though she had a passion for German language and culture, as a first year-student she declared science as her major because it was the more obvious path to a job—in her words “the reason why you go to college.” 

You might think Sarah was ready for college.

Over the course of an hour, Sarah described her college experience as a series of “highs and lows.” She explains, “I’ve learned how to fail better. ... [College is] not how I thought it would be. I’ve learned to sink and swim.” Specifically, she discussed several challenges: being dropped from the honors program because she could not maintain the required grade point average; getting rejected from medical school; resentment for the general education classes she had to take to graduate; and remorse that she only took initiative to meet with an advisor twice. Though she made good friends and enjoyed her social life on campus, she also described mental health issues among students at her school and an abundance of binge drinking. Living at home now, she is taking some time to figure out her future.

What went wrong? As researchers investigating the “real world” of higher education, we were left with puzzling questions about what went awry and what could have made it better. While it is easy to jump to conclusions about her higher education institution—the advising, the required courses, the campus culture—we have to step back and consider the whole picture. 

Indeed, for students who plan to go to college, they must position themselves to “look good” to college admission officers—for example, even paying for services that will help them get published in peer review scientific journals. High school students have become programmed to make calculated decisions on a range of matters that may influence their college acceptances—including course load, extracurricular activities and leadership positions, and summer experiences. Sometimes these are no-brainer decisions (to take AP economics versus an elective anthropology class); other times, the decisions may be difficult (accepting a nonpaid internship in a research lab versus a paid position at a bookstore register, which allows for flexibility to study for standardized tests). 

But while college counselors, teachers, and parents are understandably focused on helping students build the best possible résumé, they may well be missing an opportunity to nurture an interest and desire for intellectual growth. And therein lies the problem.

Mental Models and Why They Matter

In our study, we discern four “mental models” for the college experience—ways in which students think about college and how they approach the experience: inertial (“I go to college because I don’t know what else to do”); transactional (“I go to college to get the degree and build my résumé”); exploratory (“I go to college to marinate in new ideas, learn about new disciplines, and meet new people”); and transformational (“I go to college to think about the person I am and want to be, with the recognition—and, possibly, the aspiration—that college might change my ways of thinking”).

We find that students like Sarah tend to bring this learned “transactional” approach to college. Specifically, nearly half of all first-year college students view it simply as a means to an end—a way to collect credentials necessary for graduate school or a job—rather than a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to develop the mind. Disappointingly, nearly half of all graduating college students also express a transactional approach, suggesting that a mental model for learning cannot be easily recalibrated once instilled. Fewer first-year students express an “exploratory” mental model for college, and even fewer first-year students—only 10%—come to college with a “transformational” mental model. This should not be surprising given what they have learned to focus on in high school, and possibly even earlier.

You might be thinking that perhaps in independent schools, where the overall class sizes are smaller, students have the opportunity to develop meaningful relationships with teachers, academic advisors, and college advisors who help them develop broader views about education—that the exploratory and transformational mental models would have been nurtured and remained intact. But in fact, we find few, if any, differences among students at different schools or across varied backgrounds. In other words, there’s no difference in the mental models of students who had attended a public or an independent high school—how they describe the purpose of college, how they hope and plan to structure their time in college, and their lived experiences in college. 

Importantly, we also find that mental models can actually determine what students get out of college. Indeed, a transactional mental model can negatively impact one’s potential for intellectual development in college—the ability to attend, analyze, reflect, connect, and communicate on important issues (we call this measurable concept “higher education capital”). Put another way: Students with a transactional mental model demonstrate significantly less intellectual capital than students with a transformational mental model. 

Even if you’re not concerned with students’ intellectual development as an outcome for college, our study reveals other ways that the transactional mental model may negatively impact the college experience. Half of all students assert that the pressure to achieve external measures of success (grades, credentials, graduate school, employment) is the leading cause of the mental health issues among students on college campuses today—more stressful than understanding difficult content material, balancing paid work with coursework, and even managing the finances of college. Students from public schools and independent schools, students at big universities and small colleges, and students at the least selective to the most selective schools in our study equally and consistently discussed this pressure to “do well.” It is not the case that these problems were only expressed by students who attended the most selective high schools or the most selective colleges.

We also wonder whether the transactional model contributes to the overwhelming preoccupation with self among students in college (or vice versa). Big data searches find students using the words “I” and “me” 11 times more frequently than “we” or “us” during interviews. (In fact, this proportion increases to 14:1 among parents, and 22:1 among young alums.) As an interesting comparison, faculty and administrators use “I” four times as frequently as “we.” This finding is indicative of the lack of awareness or interest in taking responsibility for a larger community—recognizing and helping with problems that affect others and go beyond the self (and beyond the selfish). To be sure, to get into college, in college essays and supplements, students describe how they would take agency in helping to solve these problems, undoubtedly drawing on examples and experiences from high school. But this generosity often seems to disappear once the letter of acceptance has been received.

What We Can Do 

Clearly, high school administrators, educators, and college counselors need to consciously help shift the narrative. Those who work with high school students need to refocus attention on preparing students for the “higher” learning for intellectual growth that can and should occur in college. Accordingly, consider these recommendations:

Structure, facilitate, and actively engage students in direct conversations about the purpose of higher education (and education in general)—what it is and isn’t—as well as the reasons they should pursue it. Students will benefit from hearing stories and reflections about college: courses that helped inform or possibly change one’s thinking; important learning experiences, including books and research positions; and even the process of selecting a major—what led to this choice and how it may have helped prepare the person for both work and citizenship. While passion can be useful when writing essays for college applications, students should be encouraged to keep an open mind about interests and career goals. These conversations could be ongoing and continue into college; students report that it is helpful to talk with other adults who aren’t parents or current faculty or administrators. 

Give students the opportunity to reflect on open-ended questions about their education. Encourage them to share their thoughts about their most transformative educational experiences to date, goals and expectations, fears, what they consider to be “time well spent,” and “wastes of time,” types of pedagogy or instruction that works for them and those that don’t, and why. These are the kinds of questions we asked all of our stakeholders in our interviews, and for many students who participated in our study, the interview seemed to serve as an intervention. They enjoyed and appreciated being asked such questions, and said they had never thought about some of them before. Some students (and adults) even referred to our interviews as “therapy.” We offered no answers or judgment, only good questions.

Introduce students to a variety of academic departments in what we call “liberal arts and sciences.” This can help them begin to understand how academics can be interconnected and reflect the human experience, potentially keeping them from discounting some of these courses as “wastes of time” or not relevant to the “real world”—even though many of the problems we confront today are described in Shakespearean plays and many of the great books. 

Help students understand the various roles of “adults” on the college campus—a professor, an academic advisor, a residential advisor (as well as the distinct role of a therapist). And equally important, point out the similarities to and differences from the role of a high school teacher. Interestingly, students in our study often complain about poor advising and limited access to professors, yet faculty tell us that no one comes to office hours. This misalignment might signal a misunderstanding among students about the responsibilities of these individuals who are on campus to help, teach, and support students.  

Push them to think beyond what they know about today’s jobs. When students talk about the importance of jobs as a primary purpose of college, ask them “and what happens if that job disappears in the future?” Most students didn’t have an answer to this follow-up question when we asked it. But certainly, with artificial intelligence and ChatGPT disrupting the way in which we all do our work, students should be thinking about these topics. Moreover, the very question may help them think about the lifelong goals of higher education that go well beyond securing a first job.

High school educators and leaders can’t solve all the problems we find in students when they get to college, but they can begin to address them before time is up.  

Howard Gardner, Hobbs Research Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, contributed to this article.
How can we shift the focus from getting students into college to preparing them for college?

Read More

In The Real World of College: What Higher Education Is and What It Can Be, Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner offer an in-depth look at the qualitative and quantitative research they gathered during their 10-year study of higher ed in the U.S. The book includes anecdotes and quotes from the participants, recommendations, and detailed examples of what works and what doesn't, as well as the interview questionnaire they used with more than 2,000 participants. Learn more.

Go Deeper

In Season 3 of NAIS’s New View EDU podcast, Wendy Fischman talked with host Tim Fish about her research and the purpose of education. Listen to episode 22, read highlights and key takeaways from the interview, and access discussion questions and related resources.
Wendy Fischman

Wendy Fischman is a research project director of Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts.