It’s High Time for High Schools: Preparing Students for College and Beyond

by Wendy Fischman

My Current Soapbox

Nearly all American students go to high school, and about two thirds of them eventually go to college. Optimally, the transition to college should be smooth—students should be equipped with appropriate cognitive skills and content knowledge for higher education. Students also need a certain degree of maturity in order to navigate choices in college—about their studies, social lives, and relationships to the broader campus community. And they should be able to proceed without undue reliance on the adults who have presumably guided students to this point.

But today, it’s a bit different—we live in an increasingly “winners take all” society, in which college admissions has become a high-stake competition. One of the consequences of such an environment is that the focus of high school has become more about getting into college, rather than preparing students for college. For many students (and their parents), the goal of high school is simple: build the best possible resume.

To illustrate, consider a few typical dilemmas high school students confront: Is it more advantageous to take challenging courses, or to take classes that will be a “safe” “A?” Is it more worthwhile to participate in several extra-curricular activities and surround oneself with a range of peers, or to dedicate oneself to a prestigious leadership position in school? Is it better to work at an ice cream stand over the summer for pay, or to take a non-paying internship at a nonprofit agency in the community?

Or, consider dilemmas that high school administrators and faculty confront: Is it more important to require, or even encourage, “STEM” classes, or courses in history? Is it more important to give students class time to prepare for advanced placement exams, or to take time to facilitate “town meetings” about community-wide problems? Is it more important to hire an additional mental health counselor, or an additional college counselor? And, what about the decision of requiring summer reading of consequential books, as opposed to allowing more time for SAT or ACT preparation?

These dilemmas force us to confront fundamental issues about the purpose or purposes of high school in our time. With respect to each question, we need to weigh which is more important: the learning experience itself or the “edge” a student might gain from the experience. Students, faculty administrators, and parents might think that the resolutions of these dilemmas are vital because they affect how the student and/or the school are viewed by colleges. But I contend that there is a more important reason to consider these dilemmas. Namely: the messages students receive will impact how they think about college and beyond.

Alas, despite good intentions, much of high school today sends students signals that complexify their experiences in college in ways that are not helpful. Indeed, these signals may well undermine the dividends that a good college education can and should provide.

An Invitation

At the beginning of January 2020, I presented a keynote address to the faculty and administrators of an independent “college preparatory” boarding and day school in New England. The talk was part of the school’s annual teaching symposium focused on preparing students for life after high school.

The invitation to present to this audience was intriguing. For the first time, I had the opportunity to share emerging findings from our national study of higher education with a high school audience. Though the higher education study was designed to make recommendations for the sector of higher education, it turns out that our findings also speak to how high school could be reframed.

Indeed, the talk provided a test of whether our emerging findings could serve as a “call to action” for secondary school educators and administrators. More concretely, if high schools—such as the one at which I was speaking—are focused on preparing students for college and beyond, what have we learned about college and its students that can inform the high school experience?

A second reason why this invitation was intriguing: I had the opportunity to air my own beliefs and values about education—what I think students should be learning in secondary school and in higher education.

To be upfront: school is a place to learn things—to be exposed to and try out new ways of thinking, encounter unfamiliar topics, and broaden one’s perspective not only about one’s own community, but also about other parts of the world, different populations, and different ways of living. It should not be viewed or treated as a “means to an end,” whether that “end” be entry to the most prestigious college or the most lucrative job. Individual goals are important and should be taken seriously; but at the same time, schools should help students learn and practice how to be citizens of a larger community—carrying out work in an ethical manner. Indeed, these statements become more important, and more complicated, as soon as students encounter the contemporary college admissions process, which favors personal achievement—high grades, scores, and rankings—over many other facets of a high school experience.

Some background on our research: Beginning in 2012, colleagues and I launched a large, national study of higher education. We investigated how the different stakeholders across ten disparate campuses think about the purpose of college—what should be learned, experienced, and valued, with particular respect to “non-vocational” education (traditionally called “liberal arts and sciences”). Nine of the schools were focused on non-vocational education; one of the campuses was a “comparison school,” focused on undergraduate engineering.

Over several years, we carried out over 2000 interviews—incoming students, graduating students, faculty, administrators, parents, young alums, trustees, and job recruiters—across ten disparate campuses, ranging in size, geographical location, selectivity, and type (public, private, religious, etc.). Now, after nearly two years of in-depth analyses (which has included qualitative coding, quantitative counts, and big data searches on words and phrases), we are beginning to share our findings—specifically, about how these informants conceptualize undergraduate education that is not strictly vocational. (For further details, see a few blog posts on our study.)

Takeaways for High Schools

In my talk to the independent school, I detailed some findings from our study. And because I wanted to leave the school community with some messages that they could take home, I suggested seven “takeaways.” These messages were modeled after the takeaways we gave during a keynote to 300 college presidents last year at the annual meeting of the Council of Independent Colleges.

Here are the seven takeaways I shared with my audience:

 

  1. Across disparate schools, students talk alike and share similar perspectives about college.

We find that even though the schools in our study represent a wide range of schools in the United States, students not only use similar words and phrases; they also have similar views about the purpose of college, and the problems they confront on campus.

Specifically, across more than 125,000 blocks of text from all students, we find surprising consistency in the most “common words” across campuses, with only minimal differences. One hundred of the most common words include obvious ones, like “class,” “friend,” and “time,” but three particular words surprised us: “helps,” “helpful,” and “helped.” While we initially thought these words would be used to describe how students offer help to others, we found that on the contrary, students used “help” to describe the help they needed or wanted. These words signal one of the biggest findings across all schools in our study: the prevalence of mental health issues across campuses.

While students acknowledge the importance of their peers, it is clear that students also rely on adults when they need help—both faculty, staff, and also parents. The word “mom” is one of the 100 most common student words among all students!

At the same time, we infer that most students do not view separation from these adults as a primary purpose of college. We asked students to rank order four different purposes of college, including: “to get a job,” “to gain different perspectives on people, knowledge, and the world,” “to learn to live independently,” and “to study a particular content area in-depth.” In our study, most students rank “to learn to live independently” as the least important purpose of college. Put bluntly, “to get a job” is more important than “independence.” Though this rank order is just one of many questions we asked, the results foreshadow some of our other findings.

Why is this finding important for high school educators? Whether students go to independent high schools or public high schools; whether they decide to major in biology or philosophy; whether they attend a more selective or less selective college, students talk more alike about their college experience. Though high school students have a wide range of interests, skills, and even upbringing, they are most likely to be thinking in quite similar ways about their college experiences.

Another way to express this point: the messages that high schools—and possibly parents—send to students (and sometimes, don’t send) about goals and priorities for college are loud and clear. Indeed, these messages are so strong that they overpower most differences among students.

 

  1. Across disparate schools, most students don’t talk about certain “hot button” topics—the very ones that dominate newspaper headlines as main concerns on the college campus.

While informed citizens rely on print, broadcast, or digital media to understand what is happening on the college campus, across the whole study, we hear little discussion of topics that are most frequently covered in the press: the high cost of college, challenges to free speech, pervasiveness or perniciousness of social media, and ethical violations.

It should be noted: Because our interviews featured more than 40 open-ended questions (save two rank order questions), we intentionally gave participants ample opportunities to talk about topics that were most salient to them. For example, we did not ask specifically about finances (we never mentioned the topic or the word), instead, we asked general questions, such as: “What do you see as the biggest problem on our campus?,” What is your own biggest struggle as a college student?,” and “What advice would you give to an incoming college student?” Perhaps if we had asked specifically about the cost of college, we would have heard a lot about it, but it was not on the minds of the students when we asked them about problems. In sharp contrast, even before we mentioned issues of social tensions or diversity, they came up frequently and spontaneously.

For educators (and family members, and trustees) who are thinking about preparing students for “college and beyond,” it is advisable not only to read and rely on major news medias for information. Rather, it’s time well spent to talk to and listen to the students. If you wait until you are in a comfortable setting—a café or a car ride—ask good questions and communicate genuine interest in their responses; they will happily share their perspectives.

Indeed, often, we had a hard time wrapping up the interview at the end of the hour—and sometimes, the most telling responses came when we asked the last question: “Is there anything else that you would like to add that we have not yet talked about?”

 

  1. Not all stakeholders have the same “mental models” for education.

In our data, we have developed four mental models for the college 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 resume”); exploratory (“I go to college to learn about new disciplines and meet new people”); and transformational (“I go to college to think about the kind of person I want to be and how I can better understand what’s happening in the world”).

As explained earlier, students often resemble one another—therefore, it should not be surprising that across most, if not all, schools, student mental models for college are similar. In fact, across most schools, approximately half of the students are “transactional;” they see the purpose of college as a place to do what they need to do to get the degree, and then to move on to the next step in life.

Alas, this result may not be surprising when we note the more transactional nature of the high school experience. Consider the implications when students infer, or even hear, that it might actually be better to make course selections based on the grades they think they might get (and want to get) rather than on their curiosity; or how it might be better to attain a leadership role in an organization in which they have little interest, rather than to explore a variety of interests and encounter a broad swathe of people.

But because we interviewed all of the major stakeholders on the college campus, we have been able to compare responses and themes across these groups. Here we find some differences in terms of the mental models.

Across the board we found students and their parents are more alike in their mental models for college than are students and their own professors. That is, most faculty view college as a “transformational” experience—one in which a student can learn to think differently, interact with a new range of persons, and possibly become a different kind of person. In contrast, students and their parents (as well as young alums and trustees) are not as convinced.

This is an important and troubling finding. Faculty and administrators are presumably the adults that spend the most time with students. In theory, they should know students more than the off-campus adults. Are these groups inhabiting their own sealed world or, even worse, working at cross-purposes?

High school educators can (and should) begin to address this “misalignment.” They can do so by facilitating discussions about “mental models” for education and how college fits in to these models—for example, reasons for going to college and goals for learning (and not just earning!). For students, reflecting about these topics before they go to college— and learning about the views of their high school teachers—may be influential in shaping their own views.

Of course, it’s possible for higher education to adjust to the notion that college should be a “transactional” experience. Certainly, this scenario will please the students and parents—the main consumers of higher education. But, as stated earlier, this result not only goes against my own value system; I also believe that if students are just looking to build their resumes and get internships and jobs, rather than actually learning unfamiliar content and new disciplinary ways of understanding the world, then they don’t need to go to college! Any industry or company could start its own “training school”—whether it be Apple, Amazon, or Accenture.

 

  1. Students (and many others) have little to no knowledge about the concept of “liberal arts and sciences.”

In our interviews with students and adults, we did not introduce the term “liberal arts and sciences” until the end of the interview. We wanted to see if and how participants would talk about this form of education on their own, without any probing.

Across schools, most students —and even adults—are unable to talk about the phrase or the concept of liberal arts—even though 9 out of 10 of the participating schools in our study claim to focus on “arts and sciences.” In fact, at our first few schools, we had asked participants to define the concept. But because participants clearly felt put on the spot by this question, we tweaked the wording to a less direct question: “What does the phrase ‘liberal arts and sciences’ mean to you?”

Though we had begun our research study by calling it in-house “Liberal Arts and Sciences for the 21st Century,” we changed our name to “Higher Education for the 21st Century.” Not only do students not know the term itself, but they also have difficulty discussing the concept of non-vocational education—what it is and isn’t. Sometimes, students will even go as far as demean its value by saying things like “Liberal arts is what you choose when you don’t know what else to do,” or “Liberal Arts is what you choose when you can’t get into the business school.”

To our surprise, we found that students who were not enrolled in liberal arts programs were more likely to have a better understanding of the concept—perhaps because they noted the different course of study pursued by their peers in the liberal arts schools and/or because they had explicitly decided not to pursue a liberal arts education.

Assuming that they do not simply want to close the possibility of a broad education in the liberal arts, how can high schools counter this line of thinking? Two thoughts:

First, in discussing possible schools and academic programs with students, college counselors need to give vivid demonstrations of what “liberal arts” means. We can’t assume that people will know without explicit explanation. Only then can students (and their families) make informed decisions about it. Relatedly, college counselors also need to avoid messaging that business programs are more prestigious! In fact, most of the job recruiters we interviewed were not looking for students with a background in business—they preferred students with strong reading, writing, and analytic skills, regardless of their chosen major or discipline.

Second, secondary school faculty need to engage students in discussion about college—it is perfectly proper, and even desirable, to discuss goals and mental models for college. And even if a student decides not to pursue it, faculty need to teach students about the time-honored concept of “liberal arts”—its history may actually be helpful for students to realize the diverse purposes of higher education. Indeed, until the 19th century, colleges and universities were expected to cover all knowledge (thus the term “universities” for universal knowledge). Moreover, education was not meant to solely benefit the individual student, but rather to better society as a whole.

In 2020, we might say, “we all win” when we all understand more things and seek to relate them to one another in informative and productive ways.

 

  1. Students prioritize individual needs (including markers of success) over community concerns.

In our big data searches, we find that students use “I” associated words (e.g. “me”, “my,” and “self”) with nearly three times the frequency that students use “we” associated words (e.g. “they,” “others,” “community”). Colleagues from other societies have been struck by this egocentrism and wonder whether it is a peculiarly American phenomenon. (Answer: We don’t know!)

In general, students across schools mainly focus on their own concerns and problems, showing minimal concern about community problems. Students are often consumed by their own mental health, issues of belonging (“fitting in), and achieving personal ambitions—grades, grade point averages, and building resumes. In contrast, they exhibit little concern for the health of the overall campus community. In fact, many students talk about the “pressure to achieve” as a main source of mental health challenges (which I believe, often comes from the high school experience).

From our previous research (see goodproject.org), we know that young people face ethical dilemmas in their work as students and as young workers, even if they don’t talk about them—for example, whether to publish a story in the school newspaper that could damage the institution’s reputation, or whether to shade or even falsify data for an article about to be submitted to a scholarly journal. As we learned, when confronting these dilemmas, young people often choose their own ambition over doing the “right thing,” rationalizing that “ethics—that’s for later.”

Accordingly, high school educators should: 1) help students recognize dilemmas; 2) encourage reflection; and 3) facilitate discussions—ideally as a group—about possible actions and decisions so that students can be prepared to handle them in the future. These dilemmas don’t miraculously disappear when students enter college or the workplace.

Importantly, we also need to help more high school students develop a sense of agency to tackle and, if possible, solve problems. Most college students impute responsibility to faculty and administrators—looking for adults to solve the problems they as students confront on campus.

What if we asked high school students to work together to understand ethical dilemmas, such as the issue of academic dishonesty (pervasive across colleges and high schools), and to help co-construct dialogues across the community in effort to solve the problem?

There may not be an immediate solution to such a situation—indeed that’s what makes it a dilemma—but the school community would be making two important statements: First, ethical issues are important; second, students have a voice and can (and should) play an important role in helping their community address such dilemmas.

 

  1. Students acknowledge the importance of “diversity;” but at the same time, many students struggle with social tensions on campus.

In many places throughout their interviews, students mention the value of “diversity” and “diverse perspectives.” We note that the word has different connotations across students. For example, some students describe diversity in terms of varied interests (sometimes labeled as “quirky”), while others note demographic differences (e.g. religion, race and ethnicity).

However, while signaling the praises of diversity in the abstract, nearly all students also raise the salience of social issues on campus—in both positive and negative ways. As we make sense of this finding, we infer that interpersonal relationships across race and ethnicity, gender, religion, or socio-economic status, constitute a vexed domain. Our often deliberately diverse campuses can help to expose students to different people and new learnings; but at the same time, such settings may engender a lack of tolerance, empathy, and/or a sense of belonging. Though students name resources on campus that can be helpful (e.g. the Women’s Center, religious centers, and university-based funding programs), they also crave more discussions—perhaps candid, perhaps structured, perhaps curated—on campus about these issues.

Interestingly, though the word “diverse” appears in many educational mission statements, only a small percentage of students actually talk about courses or other academic programs as being helpful in navigating these issues. Low hanging fruit for both secondary and college instructors!

High schools can help students find ways to relate to and communicate with students whose appearance, background, and assets are different from theirs. To be sure, clubs, centers, and initiatives that may already exist in high school settings; but if they are not “intertwined” into the academic mission of the school, students may think that these opportunities are optional, or only appropriate for certain students.

One such example of “intertwining:” A school might not only require service work for students; it could integrate this work into academic courses. Accordingly, those interning at a community organization, could also be learning and applying relevant aspects of economics, psychology, or history to address social issues in constructive ways. Learning in and out of the classroom becomes more fluid—emphasizing interpersonal and working relationships beyond the school “bubble.”

And finally, because I myself am a parent of four children (two of whom are currently in college), I can’t help but offer a suggestion to fellow parents:

 

  1. Parents (and other adults in students’ lives) need to recognize (and rethink) the implicit and explicit messages that they give to adolescent students.

In our interviews, we asked participants to predict how other constituencies might think about the questions we asked. Most participants “blamed” parents, as a stakeholder group, for a focus on jobs and “return on investment.” Interestingly, the parents in our sample did not always share these views (that are typically ascribed to them). But when asked, most students assume that their parents do care chiefly about jobs, internships, and salaries. Indeed, some students remarked that their parents would not favor a major in history—because they inevitably would have to answer the taunting question: “And, what are you going to do with that?”

Regardless of our intention, we adults may be sending our students unhelpful—or even, damaging—messages; and these inadvertent communications may directly affect the way students understand their views and their own college experience.

As a society in the United States, we—whether high school students, parents, teachers, college counselors, or school administrators—have become so focused on getting students into college that we have forgotten to prepare them for the important topics, questions, decisions, and challenges they will face once they have arrived. It’s high time for us to step up and refocus the purpose of high school and to reframe our understanding of the college experience before students show up on orientation week.

© 2020 Wendy Fischman

I thank Howard Gardner and Sophie Blumert for comments on earlier drafts of this essay.

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