The COVID Pivot: Higher Education at a Crossroads

by Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

 A Changed Educational Landscape

In March 2020, as was the case in nearly every sector in society, college campuses shut down—higher education was forced to shift to a virtual experience. Within days of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, American higher education—developed and honed over hundreds of years and widely admired throughout the world—was forced to change its pedagogy as well as it means of transmission.

With the exception of a handful of universities which specialize in on-line education, like Southern New Hampshire University and University of Phoenix, nearly all colleges and universities are built on important, often unique features.  These include hundreds, if not thousands, of faculty and administrators, hands-on courses and discussion seminars, co-curricular and extra-curricular centers and programs, students from all over the world, and in many cases, residential opportunities. The underlying premise of higher education in the United States is that a remote experience does not sufficiently replace the in-person, on-campus college experience.

But now, given the uncertain trajectory of COVID-19 and perhaps other life-threatening disease agents, stakeholders of higher education are reflecting deeply on its shape in the future. With the appropriate efforts and adjustments to virtual education—via Zoom, Google Hangout, Flipgrid, and BlueJeans—many are asking:  Is there still a need for an in-person education? If the virtual experience has been improved enough that it can suffice as a replacement (at least for the short term), can much or indeed all, of higher education just simply stay on-line?

Certainly, a remote college experience solves significant problems associated with higher education today. It’s possible that more people will have better access to quality higher education. It’s also possible that schools could side-step or avoid problems that characterize residential higher education—safety issues, sexual harassment, drugs and alcohol, as well as issues of mental health and belonging. These problems require not only around the clock attention, but also significant resources—ultimately raising the sticker price. Accordingly, an on-line experience could soon—or at least eventually—become less expensive for both institutions and for students and their families. For those who go to college primarily for a degree to get a job, the computation of “return of investment” seems quite straightforward.

To complicate matters further, with unemployment at its highest level since the Great Depression, as well as a recession that appears to be looming, some begin to question whether college is even relevant.

A Pivot Point  

Accordingly, higher education stands at a crossroads. To be sure, questions about its importance and its viability have been swirling in the background for many years—but COVID-19 has increased a sense of urgency for a response and, possible, dramatic actions. Should the college experience focus sharply on the transactional benefits of a degree? Or should college revert  to its core  mission of transforming the minds of students? Put bluntly, is the principal purpose of college about earning or about learning? Which way should education turn?

We contend that now is the time for colleges to go “back to the basics.” In our view, the basics entail the honing, and where possible and appropriate, transformation of minds of all students. This mission needs to be front and center to its students and families, on-line and on campus, so that it is not ignored, unclear, or misunderstood.

Lessons from our National Study

Our deep concern for the state of higher education comes from our large-scale, national study of higher education. In this ambitious study, involving 2000 participants across 10 disparate colleges and universities, we spoke in-depth to incoming students, graduating students, faculty, administrators, parents, young alums, trustees, and job recruiters. In the course of the study we uncovered what we term “mental models”—the ways in which individuals  think about and approach the college experience.  With one exception, we focused on schools that described themselves as liberal arts, as providing a general (rather than strictly a vocational) higher education.

To our disappointment, we find that more than half of the students (and their parents) are not particularly interested in the honing of the mind—again, in our terms, they are “transactional” about the college experience. By students’ own testimony, individuals go to college in order to get a degree, build a resume, and get a job. Fewer students are “exploratory,” seeking new disciplines, interests, and experience; and only a small minority are “transformational,” viewing college as an opportunity to consider and reflect on beliefs, values, and perspectives. (Happily, few students are what we called “inertial,” unable able to explain why they are in college, simply seeing it as what one does after receiving one’s high school diploma).

You might be asking, “so what?” Everyone needs jobs and college can help. To which we respond, yes, we agree, but getting a job should not be the central focus of college.


Because if students are only focused on the transaction of getting a degree, they miss what we believe is the purpose, the mission, the raison’d’etre of college. As we see it, college is meant to help all who are enrolled to explore new disciplines (to take a class that seeks to foster learn new ways of thinking and problem solving, to discover events and processes of which they were ignorant, or even to explore a subject or perspective just because it sounds interesting), to discover personal strengths and weaknesses (which may involve not “acing” every exam and paper); to meet people with diverse perspectives and reconsider beliefs and values (requires leaving a comfort zone); and, to become independent, in terms of thinking for oneself and articulating viewpoints (not just learning to do the laundry or to balance a checking account).

Central Concerns on Campus

In our study we found that even when students are on campus, oftentimes, these central aims are easily lost on students. Consider three examples:

First, a preoccupation with jobs and career in college diminishes and devalues the curricular and extra-curricular experiences that higher education offers. We detected warning signs—students rarely talk about taking advantage of the plethora of meaningful opportunities on campus—the art exhibits, theatrical performances, concerts, public lectures, in-depth conversations with professors, and working on academic or community projects. Even discussions of powerful readings and classroom discussions are at best in the background when students are describing or reflection on their college experiences.

Indeed, even before the onset of the pandemic, the mental health center is by far the most important resource on most campuses. And while most institutions (and students) boast of hundreds of student-led clubs and campus organizations, if given free time, many students would much rather “relax” with Netflix, workout in the campus gym, “hang out” in the student center, or get away from campus for a meal or a hike. While these activities can be enjoyable and may have some educational bonuses, they also constitute ways in which students find to escape the self-induced “pressure” they feel to graduate with “perfection”—a portfolio with perfect grades in the major most likely to lead to a job, garlanded with leadership positions in a suitable organization. In fact, in our study, most students explain the existence of mental health problems as related to stress of doing well and appearing “successful” on a resume.

Second, and here is where our interviews of various constituencies are so telling, we find a disturbing disjunction between the views of students and those of faculty—one that leaves both parties dissatisfied.  Faculty are compensated to teach and to nurture new forms of thinking, problem solving, problem finding, expression—through careful planning, skillful expositions, and meaningful interactions with students.  While nearly all faculty (and administrators) espouse “transformational” views of the college experience, they are met with students—half of whom—approach college with “transactional” views. (And, also their parents!)

As a result, many students do not feel supported by faculty, and, in turn, faculty feel as though students don’t come to see them often enough (faculty often say “my door is open, but students don’t come.”). If students are only concerned about their grades, and not the content per se, there is little to discuss (unless students are griping about a grade, which does happen, and indeed, faculty do receive calls from parents too).

Alas, when students go to see faculty, it is more often for help with personal issues—often ones that most faculty do not feel equipped to support. Faculty and administrators recount stories of walking students to the mental health center on campus—in lieu of engaging with students in conversations about ideas, concepts, readings, projects, in any meaningful way. Indeed, when asked explicitly, most faculty don’t have a clear picture of how students spend their free time on campus—and some would prefer not even to think about it!

Third, when one approaches college simply as a means to an end, one is necessarily individualistic or even narcissistic. Many students do not view themselves as part of a larger community, a status entailing responsibilities as well as rights. Indeed, if students are primarily focused on building their own resumes and portfolios, not only are they less inclined to get to know others and prioritize helping others, but they may also find ways to get ahead of others, ignoring or mishandling important ethical conundrums.  As a single, but dramatic index, we tallied how often students say “I” rather than “we”—the results were astounding, and, alas, disheartening.

Another discouraging piece of data. While most students acknowledge that academic dishonesty is a problem, few, if any, prioritize solving the problem. Students even openly admit to cheating themselves—rationalizing their behavior in various ways: it is acceptable to cheat on homework or a quiz (as long as it’s not an exam); the boundaries of plagiarism and group work are fuzzy; faculty must sympathize with the pressure students endure because they look the other way.  And for their part, many faculty do look the other way, or complain that the processes for sanctioning cheating take far too long and most often result in a light slap on a student’s wrist—thus exacerbating rather than ameliorating the problem.

A Lamentable State of Affairs

In what we have presented, it may seem that we are placing the responsibility—indeed, the blame—on students and their families for misguided mental models for the college experience. We suggest that students and their parents tend to focus on what they can get most directly, rather than on what they might get more broadly, and what they might contribute to the wider community.  And of course, many institutions of higher education do take the line of least resistance (“the customer is king”)—and perhaps even more will do so in the wake of the pandemic.

Such a surrender of higher aims would be regrettable, indeed tragic. Institutions of higher education need to step to the plate and take responsibility for educating the various constituencies—most especially students and their parents. Clearly, most students (and their families) are unaware of the original mission of higher education and how it has changed over the decades. To be sure, few, if any colleges (with the exception of for-profit colleges), would suggest baldly, and without reservation, that the primary purpose of college should be to get a job. But, at the same time, the mission is left “up for grabs”—left to the interpretation of students and their families—because it is unclear, incorporates too many goals and aims, and in some cases, even submerged. 

As we’ve suggested, schools are often complicit in this transactional perspective.  To be blunt, in visiting campuses across the country, we were struck by the time spent during admission information sessions on internship programs and career rates for graduates, as compared to time spent on academic programs on campus (not just study abroad!). We were also struck by the prominence and lavish career center and athletic facilities on campus, as compared to the sometimes hard-to find, shared faculty offices. These mixed–even anti-academic messages—were evident to us even before we began talking with participants.

A Better Stance

From the first visit or the first day, on campus or on-line, students need to be explicitly introduced and “onboarded” to the academic mission of college—and importantly, this mission needs to be reinforced throughout the course of college—in two years, four years, or even more. To be sure there are other important goals—such as civics, ethics, religion, or even career development. But if any of these are to be promoted, they need to be carefully integrated or “intertwined” to the academic mission, lest students become confused or misguided. Furthermore, with careful “onboarding” and “intertwining,” schools need to make it clear to students that college is a long-term investment. A focus on transformation of the mind sets one up for lifelong learning—essential for individual students and society—but also for the long life of higher education (unless we want it to disappear, or simply become vocational—an option that may not be a good idea, given the rapidly changing nature of work).  

To be sure, COVID-19 has caused a real crisis for institutions of higher education, some of which may well not survive. The financials for every school are in jeopardy—even for those schools with sizeable endowments. However, this difficult time provides an important inflection point—a possible turning point for higher education. Whether the experience is largely in-person or significantly on-line, it’s high time for non-vocational higher education to make clear to all why it exists and what it can accomplish.

© Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner 2020

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2 Comments on “The COVID Pivot: Higher Education at a Crossroads”

  1. Diana Ramirez vargas June 1, 2020 at 1:10 am #

    Agradezco inmensamente estar hoy en día conociendo sus textos e investigación, Soy una mujer Colombiana de 35 años que en diferentes etapas de la vida ha sido inspirada por la educación , la lectura ,los buenos maestros y el hambre del conocimiento; no he tenido más que una educación básica , pero eso no ha sido impedimento para continuar siempre en la búsqueda de algo nuevo para aprender, he vivido los procesos de tener que emplear mi tiempo(trabajo) en cosas que no me brindan la satisfacción personal que me da el estudio y la idea de imaginarme encontrando algún día un foco de aprendizaje que me permita desarrollar mucho más mis capacidades y poder mejorar esos defectos ,ser buena realmente para algo que genere un cambio por pequeño que sea en sociedades actuales o futuras , eso creo que es mi meta al ser autodidacta .
    Trato de manejar el acceso a información lo mejor que me sea posible, y bajo estás circunstancias de cuarentena aunque han sido duras porque me encuentro “atrapada” en un país que no es el mío, he podido vivenciar procesos sobre la vida y la educación que solo vine a entender bajo este tipo de experiencia y quiero aprovecharlo al máximo.
    Cómo niña estudiante siempre sentí que quería más, (más libros en las bibliotecas,más profesores que pensaran diferente, más salidas educativas, más investigaciones libres,más herramientas nuevas…)
    Cómo joven estudiante cuando explicaban algo que me interesaba eso me generaba más curiosidad ( tenía tantas preguntas que no podia resolverlas todas en clase con la profesora ,así que aprovechaba los trabajos en grupo para hacer pensar a mis compañeros, quería saber que pensaban ellos , si había algo diferente algo más , si alguien pensaba o se interesaba en un tema igual que yo , tanto como hacer algo más que no estuviera en el trabajo), creo que esas fueron buenas epocas porque aunque mi familia era humilde me las ingenie con mis notas para que mi padre me regalará en navidad una enciclopedia Zamora y luego hasta un microscopio! Recuerdo con tanto cariño esto y lo comparto con ustedes porque creo que en esos momentos y cuando se me pasaba el tiempo en las bibliotecas moviles, creo que descubrí realmente lo que era FELICIDAD y aunque aún no soy ni una científica, ni una investigadora, ni una educadora, como madre que soy , si espero que mis hijas sientan alguna vez ese sentimiento por la educación, que todos los niños puedan sentir eso, que el sistema educativo realice un cambio y se vuelva a reencontrar con inspirar eso nuevamente , con hacer imaginar mundos utópicos como posibles, volver a dar la esperanza de que todos somos valiosos y no como materia prima de un mundo globalizado que se baja en la economía ,quiero que retomemos nuestra humanidad y el verdadero valor de nuestra sociedad.
    Gracias por mantenerse preocupado por el futuro y sobretodo por ayudarnos a entender mejor la educación.

    • Howard Gardner June 1, 2020 at 4:57 pm #

      Thanks for your kind words. At a time which is very difficult for everyone, it’s heartening to hear about your thinking and your aspiration for your family

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