The Prevailing Mindset for College Students Today

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Monday, June 13, 2022
By Sharon Shinn
Photo by iStock/FatCamera
Many college students have a transactional attitude about college, says Howard Gardner. They should see it as a transformational experience instead.
  • If students are in college simply to improve their job prospects, they will miss a great opportunity to explore new ways of thinking and being.
  • Colleges can improve the student experience by tightly aligning their activities with their primary missions and doing a better job of messaging.
  • Mental health is the most serious issue on campuses today.

Too many of today’s college students are only interested in earning their degrees so they can gain the skills and contacts they need to pursue successful careers. That transactional mindset leads to a huge waste of an incredible opportunity, as outlined in the new book The Real World of College. It was written by Wendy Fischman, Project Manager at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Howard Gardner, the Hobbs Research Professor of Cognition and Education at the school.

After Fischman and Gardner spent five years interviewing students, faculty, and other stakeholders to explore the state of U.S. campuses, they determined that 45 percent of students have a transactional attitude about college. Thirty-six percent have an exploratory attitude—that is, they intentionally take time to learn about new fields and new activities. But only 16 percent have a mental model that’s transformational, in a way that leads them to reflect on and question their own beliefs and values.

“Colleges provide wonderful opportunities to explore—new courses, new ways of thinking, museums, and laboratories,” says Gardner. “Colleges also offer students chances to meet new kinds of people, including scholars, alums, and dedicated teachers. If students close their eyes to that possibility, it is tragic—and both they and others in their lives subsequently may regret that they ‘blew off’ that precious opportunity.”

But individuals aren’t the only ones who lose out if colleges don’t provide transformational experiences, Gardner says. Colleges might disappear altogether if students are only interested in attending universities so they can get good jobs. “Goldman Sachs and Google could recruit promising students right out of high school and train them,” he warns. “And that may happen someday—to the loss of broader society and, indeed, the world.” Here, he shares some of his additional conclusions with AACSB Insights.

Howard Gardner and Wendy FIschman

Howard Gardner and Wendy Fischman.

You are concerned that nearly half of the American students attending college today have a transactional approach to higher education. Can you explain why you find this worrisome?

When you are engaged in a transaction, you are involved in something chiefly because of its anticipated rewards, not for its intrinsic value. In the case of college, almost half the students believe they are there to get the best job, period. For a vocational school offering engineering, journalism, or nursing programs, that’s fine.

But if a school claims to be a liberal arts college—and all of the schools that we studied so described themselves—then it has a broader responsibility. It should help students develop “higher educational capital,” which we define as the ability to attend, analyze, reflect, connect, and communicate.

Our study shows that students with a transactional approach are less likely to develop higher educational capital than those who have an exploratory or transformative approach. Anyone in the latter group is excited to learn about new things, wants to think in new ways, and is open to becoming a different kind of person. While a college shouldn’t mandate that a student must become someone who thinks differently and has fresh ambitions, a college education opens up those possibilities for millions of students. Most feel better for it, as Richard Detweiler chronicles in his new book, The Evidence Liberal Arts Needs.

Do you think a transactional mindset is particularly prevalent among business students, who often choose their majors specifically to improve their job prospects?

I am walking directly into the storm by saying that, in the U.S., the transactional approach is regnant in students, parents, colleges, and business schools—just as it is throughout much of American society. We then have to ask the question, “Is this the kind of society that we want to have, is this the kind of society that we have to have?” And as we look at other models around the world—from Singapore to Finland—we realize the answer is, “No, it’s not.”

I’d like to think that throughout its history, the United States has been much more exploratory, much more open to transformation. Let’s have our colleges embrace the strength of those traditions while learning from other models as well.

You believe that, if universities are to become the optimal places for student learning, they need to follow three imperatives. Let’s take them one by one. First, you state that universities need more limited and sharply defined missions. How has “mission creep” impacted universities in recent years—and why is it problematic?

Our study shows that most colleges nowadays suffer from mission sprawl and “terminal projectitis”—our term for when an organization promises everything to everyone. In the scramble for students and tuition, colleges promise all things to all people.

If colleges committed to enhancing the scope of learning, curiosity, and understanding, they would serve themselves and the broader society.

If, instead, colleges committed to enhancing the scope of learning, curiosity, and understanding, and if they could demonstrate their effectiveness, they would serve themselves and the broader society.

Second, you say universities need better onboarding of students. Why is this important and how can they do it?

In any serious institution, ranging from the military to the medical, the first messages sent and received are crucial. Neither a list of all the clubs on campus nor a compilation of the salaries of graduates sends the right message to prospective college students.

Schools need to embrace thoughtful onboarding—on the website, on tours, on letters of admission, on the first days of matriculation. For instance, when colleges take students on campus tours, they should give students the chance to visit laboratories and sit in on courses, and not just ogle dorms and dining halls! In this way, they will make it clear that college is not simply the obligatory step to a job. Rather, it’s a unique opportunity for students to encounter new persons and new ideas. It’s an opportunity for them to think through the kind of lives they want to lead and the kind of world they want to live in.

Third, you believe that universities should make sure their activities and aspirations align with their stated missions. Can you give some examples?

Sure. Who gets the awards? Who speaks at commencement? Who gets their pictures on the alumni bulletin or on the website? Who gets appointed to the board of trustees? Who chairs the board? The spotlight should not just highlight diversity per se. It should recognize distinctive and significant achievements.

Like universities, some business schools have stated missions, such as being leaders in global finance or educating students about sustainability. How should these schools align their missions with their aspirations?

They should clearly communicate who they are, what they admire, and why. They should be open about the mistakes they have made and what they have learned from these mistakes. They also should be attentive to students who feel they have been misled about the missions of their schools and, as appropriate, make adjustments in their messaging and onboarding strategies.

For instance, students whose ultimate goal is to make a lot of money might be disappointed if they enroll in a program where the emphasis is on developing social enterprises. After all, no one who applies to law school says their only goal is to make two million dollars within a decade—most will claim they’re interested in public interest law—but the statistics are starkly contradictory. All colleges need to be clear about what experience students can expect in their programs.

In your book, you also address challenges faced by universities today. Forty-two percent of students and 66 percent of the adults on campus rank mental health as the most important issue at their schools. Did the pandemic worsen the problem or simply expose it?

We can’t know for sure, but every serious student of this issue says that the mental health challenges were great before COVID-19 and that they have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Studies abroad will confirm this.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter whether the problem is probably worse—it’s very serious and needs to be ameliorated. In our book, we mention a few promising tacks for addressing it.

Mental health challenges were great before COVID-19 and they have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. The problem is very serious and needs to be ameliorated.

You noted that the top three causes of mental health issues are academic pressure, social relationships, and school culture. Again, let’s take these one by one. It seems that academic pressure is almost inevitable at institutions where people are expected to have transformational experiences. What can schools do to ease these pressures?

Have a first year without high-stake grading. Avoid weed-out courses. Provide qualitative feedback and mentoring, not just a letter grade class rank. Have a strong center on campus that promotes studying skills. Celebrate students and graduates who have made significant positive differences in the world, even if they weren’t in Phi Beta Kappa.

Also, in line with an earlier answer, reward students who are willing to be adventurous in what they study and how they study it, and not just the “grade grubbers.”

What can schools do to make sure students have healthy social relationships—or someplace to turn if these relationships turn toxic?

It’s fine for students to befriend whomever they want and even to set up affinity groups. But colleges themselves should not promote entities like fraternities that blackball some who would like to join.

Instead, colleges should promote activities and courses that involve everyone on campus, not just students and faculty, and that encourage members of the community to cooperate on projects. For example, activities might be designed to improve the surrounding neighborhood or help those who are less fortunate, be they in the town next door or in Ukraine.

Are there some cultural initiatives that might work better at the school, department, or even individual class level?

Some foci don’t need justification. An education department will necessarily highlight teaching and learning. A class on debate or rhetoric will necessarily have different exercises and tests than a class in calculus or statistics.

But I’d suggest schools be very careful here. Students are keen lightning rods; they instantly pick up signals from the institution. So, I would keep these differences low-key. I believe colleges work best when there are powerful general messages for all students—indeed, all constituencies.

If you were sitting down with business school deans, how would you advise them to make their campus environments the best possible places for today’s students to learn?

Decide on the one or two missions and messages that are the most important for your school at this time. Those messages can be distinctive, or they can be generic. Work with your faculty and staff to make sure they are generally aligned with these messages. Students are masters at picking up on misalignments and exploiting them, to everyone’s detriment.

In addition, reflect frequently on how you are doing. Exemplify, don’t just exhort. Admit mistakes and allow changes, of course. And establish a culture that will endure even if you drop dead tomorrow or become Secretary of Commerce.

Make sure everyone is generally aligned with the institution’s messages. Students are masters at picking up on misalignments and exploiting them, to everyone’s detriment.

If you were speaking directly with business students, what advice would you give them about how to get the most out of their college careers?

The world is changing quickly—nothing more so than the world of work. Assume that the job landscape will not be the same 10 years or even five years from now.

Try to explore as many topics and ways of thinking as possible. Be open to changes in how you reflect and decide, even to changes in your values.

Think of the kind of world you would like for yourself and for your children—and for others as well!—and work toward that vision.

Whenever you can, think of “we” and “us,” rather than “I” or “me.” That will help you grow as a human being, and then you will be in a better position to make the world better for those who come after you.

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Sharon Shinn
Editor, AACSB Insights
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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