What College Isn’t For
Students across the U.S. flock to elite institutions, hoping to find better jobs and to make more money—but a new Gallup survey conducted this spring shows that many of these universities don’t produce happier people post-college.
Leaving questions of money aside, the survey “was rooted in 30 years of Gallup research that shows that people who feel happy and engaged in their jobs are the most productive,” according to a Tuesday Wall Street Journal article. The results were both depressing and interesting:
The poll found that just 39% of college graduates feel engaged at work—meaning, for instance, that they enjoyed what they did on a daily basis and are emotionally and intellectually connected to their jobs. And only 11% reported they were “thriving” in five different aspects of their lives, among which are financial stability, a strong social network and a sense of purpose.
That relatively small handful of graduates—who tend to be more productive—went to a variety of colleges, though they were slightly more likely to go to larger schools and less likely to have attended for-profits.
It would appear that one of the primary tests for choosing an academic institution—focused principally on the ability to procure a good job and a good paycheck—isn’t actually helping students who’ve committed themselves to this process.
Yet unfortunately, students do put a large burden on money to fulfill their lives after college: David Brooks captured some of these realities in his Monday New York Times column, “The Streamlined Life“: he writes that in 1976, only 50 percent of freshman said they were going to college to make more money, and in 1966, only 42 percent believed affluence was essential or important in life. But by 2005, 75 percent of students said “being well-off financially was essential or very important.”
“Affluence,” writes Brooks, “Once a middling value, is now tied as students’ top life goal.”
The spring Gallup survey found that students who reported the most “wellbeing” had received strong emotional and relational support while at college—and those who had pursued “experiential and deep learning” were “twice as likely to be engaged at work as those who didn’t.” As Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education, told the Journal: “It matters very little where you go; it’s how you do it.”
Yet Brooks finds that here, as well, values have changed:
In 1966, 86 percent of college freshmen said that developing a meaningful philosophy of life was essential or very important. Today, less than half say a meaningful philosophy of life is that important. University of Michigan studies suggest that today’s students score about 40 percent lower in measures of empathy than students did 30 years ago.
… I’m not sure if students really are less empathetic, or less interested in having meaning in their lives, but it has become more socially acceptable to present yourself that way. In the shadow of this more Darwinian job market, it is more acceptable to present yourself as utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented.
Students who are seeking a career as an end in itself will experience disappointment once they enter the workforce. Some will not receive the position or paycheck they desired. Others will get a great job, but will find that money, unfortunately, can’t cure all ills.
The pursuit of meaning and knowledge—the desire for “experiential and deep learning,” as the Gallup survey put it: these motivations used to be primary passions for college students. Students who pursued college were interested in exploring the world—its history, culture, and people—more fully. It was an adventure, not merely a pathway to prosperity.
As we consider ways to reform higher education in our country, it’s important that we look past job markets and financial gains, and consider the qualitative benefits that higher education can still offer to students. As we’ve seen—via the information provided above, and through other studies—colleges and universities don’t always live up to their promises. But the student who desires to learn, for its own sake, will always receive benefits from college—and, if the Gallup survey is correct, from the working world, as well.