the gap between students, professors, and policy wonks

This was going to be a post about How College Works, a recent book by Dan Chambliss and Chris Takacs. Every couple of years I teach a senior seminar on higher education, and this time around we started with Chambliss & Takacs.

I’d still like to write that post. I liked the book quite a lot, and it was a big hit with the students. But right now I want to emphasize something teaching this class often reminds me of, and which was even more apparent as we made our way through How College Works. The gap between why students attend college and what they think they get out of it, and how academics and policy wonks think about the purpose of college and how to improve the institution, is huge.

The higher ed policy world has been buzzing lately. First there was a big new paper that used tax data to provide some of the best evidence to date on who is defaulting on student loans. (Short answer: students who attend for-profits, and, secondarily, community college students, who traditionally did not borrow but have started to in the last decade.)

Right after that came the new federal College Scorecard, which similarly uses tax data to provide, for the first time, some information about student incomes after college relative to net price and money borrowed at specific schools.

All this generated lots of chatter among the media, policy types, and academics obsessed with such things. I would have contributed myself, had the start of the semester not whacked me upside the head (and, briefly, off the internet).

But as all this was coming out, I was just coming off an intense conversation with my class of seniors about what they had gotten out of their four years of college. For context, these are sociology majors, almost all from NY state, a large majority residential and of traditional college age, about 40% first generation, half Black and Latino, at a school of middling selectivity. So perhaps not the most career-obsessed (they *are* sociology majors), but also not collectively so privileged as to be able to ignore the financial realities of life after graduation.

What they talked about was personal development. They learned who they are. To manage themselves. To prioritize and juggle competing obligations. To evaluate the character of others. To be confident in themselves and their ability to handle new situations. To get along with others who are different from them. They made what they expect to be lifelong friends. Academics barely came up. Neither did future income. They are very aware that “life out there” is drawing near as they head toward graduation, and they do wish college had done a better job of helping them think about how to transition to the world of work. But the reason they go to college, and what they think they got out of it, is primarily personal and social.

This conversation, which took place before we read How College Works, anticipated many of the themes in the book. Chambliss and Takacs’s book is, first and foremost, student-centered, and it emphasizes how college works for students. That means that even though academics are a significant piece of the puzzle, much of the benefit as students see it comes elsewhere—in their typology, not just in skills they gain, but in confidence developed and in relationships made. I think this is part of why the book resonated so much with students, who wished they had read it in high school, or at least as freshmen.

How distant this seems from the policy conversation about higher ed, which is increasingly focused on post-college income—the thing that can be measured, and thus the only thing that matters. Surely no one wants to argue that it is fine for students to graduate with a mound of debt and a job that pays less than a living wage. And the “college experience” that most of my students have had to some degree—at least partly residential, surrounded by others of one’s age cohort—and which is central to what they feel they’ve gained, is not in fact the typical college experience. And, of course, they’re young. They’ll probably pay more attention to the economic value of their degree as they finish school and start looking for full-time jobs, and maybe they’ll think differently about the cost of college when they’re paying more taxes.

But I can’t help but think that a national conversation that focuses so heavily on college as a gateway to a high-paying job, and ignores what traditional college students think they get out of college, is really wrong-headed. Maybe it’s ridiculously expensive to give everyone a four-year residential college experience. Maybe it’s dumb that students are willing to go into debt so they can have that experience. Perhaps it’s a consumption good that they should be paying for themselves, and we shouldn’t be collectively subsidizing it. But for my students, and the Hamilton College students of How College Works—different in so many ways from my own—none of this matters. They are getting something valuable out of college. It’s just not what policy makers think.

Written by epopp

September 25, 2015 at 3:06 pm

8 Responses

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  1. Nice post. As I’m teaching a similar class now, I’d appreciate it if you could post a link to your syllabus.



    September 25, 2015 at 3:35 pm

  2. epopp

    September 25, 2015 at 3:57 pm

  3. I am teaching my first college course, to mostly juniors and seniors, and would like to have this conversation with them about what they are getting out of college.

    I would really appreciate suggestions for how you lead the discussion, question prompts, etc.

    Thanks for a great post!


    Nicholas Poggioli

    September 25, 2015 at 6:01 pm

  4. Thanks for the interesting post. I’ve got How college works sitting on my desk and hope to read it sooner rather than later. I’m glad your students found this to be their gain, as there are lots of things they could have experienced that would be much worse.

    That said, I am skeptical about whether the students actually know what they’ve gotten out of college, and what they’ve left on the table. That’s partly because of the selection into college, but also because I suspect some of the second-order skills and styles aren’t actually developed until they leave college and use those skills and styles to handle situations in their post-college lives. So I don’t want to claim that your students haven’t gained this sense of self, but rather that that’s not all they’ve gained, or even necessarily the most important things.



    September 25, 2015 at 8:06 pm

  5. @Nick: Well, I started by asking them to tell me something that had happened to them in college that they thought they’d remember in five or ten years. That prompted a lot of mentions of friendships, and sort of evolved into a conversation about how *they’d* changed as a result of college in ways they thought would last. Since their answers were so personal, I steered them toward a conversation about what they’d gotten out of it academically. They weren’t dismissive of classes but mostly saw them as a path to a credential. Then in a subsequent reading prompt, since they were so focused on social development, I asked them to consider how they’d make the case to Governor Cuomo that support for SUNY shouldn’t be targeted solely at giving students academic skills. Although I can’t say they had great answers to that. While they’re very aware of tuition costs and student loans, the whole human capital model of college is sort of foreign to them.

    @Andy — I suspect you are right that their insights into what they’ve gained are limited. But Chambliss & Takacs do follow students five years post-college, and their graduates’ answers are similar. We also read the learning chapter back-to-back with some Arum & Roksa (2014), which emphasizes that students’ assessments of what they learned in college become unjustifiably rosier post-college.

    Even if they are gaining second-order skills and styles, though, that they don’t recognize yet, I bet a lot of those are acquired outside the classroom (though hopefully not all). Which would again raise the question of what it is that “college” (barely a coherent category) actually does to/for students.



    September 25, 2015 at 8:46 pm

  6. Beth, I share your expectation as to where those skills come from, but also suspect partitioning those skills is going to miss some of the best effects of college. And I fully agree with the “barely a coherent category” point; I think the “conversation” about college (such as it is) is impoverished by conflating so many different experiences into that category.

    Liked by 1 person


    September 25, 2015 at 8:56 pm

  7. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person


    September 27, 2015 at 11:18 pm

  8. This reminds me of Harvard faculty-then-dean Harry Lewis’ Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future? and if you want to get tendentious, James Davison Hunter’s The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. (I hear Hunter got… dishonorably discharged from sociology. Whether it was outright or Brendan Eich-style, I don’t know.)

    The drive toward monetization of everything is rampant in Silicon Valley entrepreneurship, by the way. All the investors care about is money, money, money. There’s the occasional person like Peter Thiel, but for the most part, nobody with money-to-invest cares about culture, society, science, or technology. Thiel has an interesting diagnosis: we are in a phase of “indeterministic optimism”. Indeterministic because we no longer have solid ideas of where we’ll be in 40 years (contrast to the well-developed concepts of underwater cities of 40 years ago), optimistic because we still strongly believe things will get better, somehow. In this mode, the thing to do is save up money so that when the proverbial concrete, promising venture comes along, one can invest in it. But it seems that nobody is actually looking for such a venture (that is, a venture not primarily evaluated by its predicted monetary success), which means the system is wonderfully self-reinforcing.



    October 5, 2015 at 11:29 pm

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