Beyond “Pure” Mental Models of College: Parallel Versus Intertwined

by Jeffrey Robinson

How do students view the purpose of college? What do they value—the piece of paper they receive at the end, the courses that they take, the social and extracurricular opportunities, or the overall experience? In our large national study of higher education, we have interviewed more than 1,000 students who come from 10 disparate schools across the United States. Through careful examination of these in-depth interviews, we have identified four distinct mindsets that can succinctly characterize the college experience of a student. As part of our detailed analyses of each transcript, we identify the predominant “mental model” of higher education for each student (for more information, please click here).

For the most part, students approach college with one of the four mental models that we have identified: inertial (after high school, one goes to college); transactional (one goes to college and does only what is required to get a degree and then secure a job); exploratory (one goes to college to learn about unfamiliar fields of study and try out new activities, academic and/or social), and transformational (one goes to college to think about and question one’s own values and beliefs, with the expectation, and presumably the hope, that one may change in fundamental ways). To be sure, these descriptions are what sociologists term “ideal types”: students don’t necessarily use these exact words or phrases, nor does every student fit neatly into one of these categories. However, the identification of the prevalent (or primary) mental model is usually quite clear. 

As researchers, we have become intrigued by “exceptions” and the possible reasons for these cases. And so, when we come across a student (or a group of students) who seem to possess or embody more than one primary mental model, we take special note. An example: a student may indicate the precise goal of pursuing a particular career, but at the same time, may also see college as a unique opportunity to develop independence and reflect on his/her own ingrained values. One can characterize such a student as having both a transactional and a transformational mental model of college.

In our review of individual student mental models, we have identified two mixed types—parallel and intertwined. In the case of parallel, the mental models exist simultaneously but rather independently, leading these students to compartmentalize their goals, courses, and activities throughout the college experience. For others that we term intertwined, the mental models interact; this combination can either enrich the student experience or cause conflicts—for example about priorities or the structuring of time.

Consider the cases of Mary and Jack, students at different schools. Both exhibit indications of transactional and transformational mental models. Mary’s mental models (parallel) are carried out on quite separate tracks, while Jack’s mental models (intertwined) seem to merge. In Jack’s case, transformation only becomes possible because of his transactional mindset securing of a higher education degree. 

Mary: Parallel Mental Models

Mary is a first year student at a small, selective school, located in a suburban area. Like the majority of her peers, she lives on campus and participates in extracurricular activities with a close-knit group of friends. Mary claims to have chosen her school because it will enable her to “get some mastery in some particular field so [she] can have an employable plan”—she refers repeatedly to her search for a major that will “work out in the long term.” She explains the importance of how her school “is really good with helping you build connections with alumni who are involved in the same things that you want to find a job in… [the school] really helps in terms of job placement, just getting a job in general.” She is also quite clear that her choice to come to this particular school was made with her resume in mind; as she says, “In terms of career decisions, it’d be nice to have [name of college] on the resume.” Throughout the interview, Mary responds to many of our open-ended questions, such as “What are your goals for college?” with a “transactional” view—perceiving the college experience as a means of achieving particular academic and professional goals.

However, when answering questions about campus life and extracurricular opportunities, Mary seems to veer in a different direction. She acknowledges that, “in terms of growth as a person… it’s very, very difficult to replicate the experience of college in any other medium.” Even in her first year, she talks about how college has “definitely challenged the way I think,” citing conversations with friends that occur outside the classroom—“They’re great for just helping us really identify what our beliefs are.” In general, Mary describes college as an opportunity that “gives me a different lens on a lot of issues that I previously thought I had a concrete understanding of.” This mindset leads Mary to approach social experiences with an openness to introspection and transformation, a stark contrast to her narrow view of academic goals. With these parallel mental models, Mary approaches the academic and social realms with two different mindsets.

Mary represents those “parallel students” who demonstrate more than one approach to the overall college experience—those who want to begin to specialize and prepare for a career, while at the same time taking advantage of the transformational opportunities college has to offer. Mary describes college as “the atmosphere that you won’t find anywhere else… an incubator for ideas and transformations.” She manages to maintain both mental models for college by keeping her idealistic and practical views separate. While she romanticizes the idea that college opens her up to new people and ideas, forcing her to reflect on her own values, she also approaches the experience with a practical mindset—it must “prepare [her] for a good career.”

Jack: Intertwined Mental Models 

Much less common among our sample are students like Jack, who have models that begin to merge and intertwine—each seemingly unable to exist without the other.

Jack is about to graduate from a medium-sized, less selective, public institution. While some campus housing exists, the vast majority of students, like Jack, commute. Jack readily discusses the challenges he faces coming from a “low income neighborhood” and describes his goals for college as “getting out of poverty… [and] being an example to [the] younger ones in my family.” When not in class, Jack spends most of his time carrying out multiple part-time jobs and taking care of his family. Despite these demanding responsibilities, he seems driven and self-motivated to complete his degree because he knows it will change his life.  As he puts it, “to be educated… it’s not just schooling, it’s… gaining knowledge.” Later in the interview he articulates the value of the college experience: “Education will be the only thing that will help me, you know, enrich my life and get out of the socioeconomic class that I’m in.”

Like Mary, Jack values the social interactions that take place at college, even on a campus where the overwhelming majority of students commute. Whereas Jack describes himself as coming to college shy and introverted, with the transactional aim of completing his credits as quickly as possible, he now makes efforts to establish relationships with his peers as well as faculty members. Through these relationships, he signals that college can and should be transformative: “I’m forming myself as a person…I think I finally get where my ideas are and who I want to be, and what I want to be.” To be sure, Jack has limited time for extracurricular involvement and social activities (even for casual hallway conversations) on campus, but he still discusses how his eyes have been opened. He explains, “That’s what was [ingrained] in me since elementary [school], it was to go to college, to get a career, to get an education, and I honestly have enjoyed my time at [college], my mind has expanded more than anything I could have dreamed of … I think the goal is to prepare you [for a career], to give you a well-rounded education, and to make you a progressive member of society. But, it will transform you, you will learn things that, like I said, didn’t even think were possible.”

Clearly, in some cases, it is hard to tease out the “transactional” stance from the “transformational” mental model for college. In Jack’s case, the transformational mindset he exhibits may not have manifested itself without his initial transactional approach to college. His perseverance and dedication towards obtaining a degree allow him to view higher education as a way to change his life for himself and perhaps others. Furthermore, his transformational views now impact his transactional mindset of college. He still sees college as essential for job preparation, but also appreciates how his college experience gives him a well-rounded background—something that prepares him for a variety of jobs (both now and later in life).

What lessons might we draw from these two students, and their different ways of conceptualizing the college experience? One lesson is methodological: while it is useful to identify “ideal types,” in reality students can also model a blend of categories. The second lesson is substantive: we all harbor different, contrasting sentiments, but it is up to us whether we let them exist in splendid isolation or make efforts to integrate them productively with one another.

Jeffrey Robinson, a graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, has worked as a researcher on the study of higher education for four years.

© 2018 Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

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