New research from the authors of last year's controversial book Academically Adrift suggests that lack of academic rigor in college is linked to -- among other things -- lower employment and higher debt after students graduate.
I was in college and graduate school for nearly ten years, and in that time I must’ve had 1,000 different people tell me, “Wait until you graduate and go out in the real world,” or “Graduating next year, huh? You’ll finally be in the real world.” And every time I heard such stupidity I wanted to slam a pie in the speaker’s face. Even toward the end of my Ph.D. program, when I was working 70 hours a week and earning $20,000 a year, an occasional nitwit would say something like, “Well the party’s almost over; time for the real world.”
The collegiate fairy tale myth supposes that I spoiled myself in early adulthood by avoiding “work” and going to college. Presumptuous garbage. Like my students today, I had in college an enormous and time-sensitive workload, social pressures, empty pockets, and little sense of physical continuity. Any psychiatrist will tell you that moving domiciles is one of the most stressful life events that humans experience, and yet we make college students move around like carnies, in and out of dorm rooms, and perhaps urging them to relocate to off-campus housing as upperclassmen. On September 13, the fraternity house of Pi Kappa Alpha at the University of Maine, where I teach, was condemned and 22 students were tossed out. My, how lucky they are to know nothing of real-world pressure!
College years are exciting and liberating, certainly, but they are also a time of myriad deadlines, limited self-efficacy, and a tightrope of time management. I met a college student a few years ago wearing a shirt popular among his classmates that read: “The University of Chicago: Where Fun Goes to Die.” While I doubt this elite institution resembles the Gulag, I did believe the young man when he told me that University of Chicago students are worked like dogs.
Not as a college student, but rather now, as a professor, I’m living the dream. I make a fair wage, have strong benefits, and get over three months a year to work almost exclusively on my own research projects. I wear jeans to the office and shave only when I’m bored. I feel no shred of guilt for such freedom; I didn’t start earning a livable wage until I was almost 30, and the creative flexibility of the professor’s life is what I toiled a decade for. I still work very hard, but I’m paid for it now, and the professional stress I feel is not at the unsustainable decibel that nagged me as an undergraduate.
Nostalgia is a sexy elixir, and it often blurs our recollection of distress as opposed to eustress. Eustress represents life pressures that motivate us and are pro-social, like a manageable work deadline or the tug on our conscience to exercise a few times a week. Distress is harmful pressure that causes us to lose sleep, eat or fast in unhealthy patterns, or exhibit short tempers. When many middle-agers compare their current lives with their college years, they do so while remembering their youthful distress as eustress, and by mislabeling many of their current positive pressures as atypical distress.
The stereotypes that college years are marked by experimentation with substances and sexual precocity do bear some truth, and these pleasures are what many Americans care to remember about their time in the academy, but the idea that college is a low-stress, light-work period is a damn lie.
Young Americans don’t go to college to avoid work. They work hard in college so they have a shot at earning a modestly rewarding living. Unfortunately for these young aspirants, they’re slogging toward a labor market that older generations of Americans have sullied. Rather than insulting college students by suggesting that they don’t know what hard work is, older Americans might instead consider apologizing for the pathetic employment market staring down graduates in this country.
The students I teach are professional jugglers who make a Cirque du Soleil show look like a barn dance. Among them they’re balancing academic course loads, community service, part-time or even full-time jobs, loan debt, athletic training and competition, transient housing situations, along with some of life’s other gems like a sick parent, a sibling in Afghanistan, or an unplanned pregnancy.
One of the primary reasons educated Americans are such successful professionals is that the college years are hard. “The real world” isn’t so daunting to college graduates because they’ve already spent four or five years in it. The deadlines they face are very real, and I know this because I rigidly impose some of them, and my students know that the word “dead” is in deadline for a reason. I don’t go easy on my students, but I also don’t belittle the loads they carry. College students in the U.S. are impressive people, and their hard work should be praised, not demeaned.
Justin D. Martin
Justin D. Martin is the CLAS-Honors Preceptor of Journalism at the University of Maine and a columnist for Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin
Under new regulations proposed by the Department of Labor, unpaid college internships are preferable if the intern “performs no or minimal work.”
That’s right: Even as many colleges and universities are expanding experiential learning, federal officials are issuing guidelines that would water down this powerful approach to education.
In April, the Department of Labor crafted a six-part “test” that employers, students and colleges must satisfy to ensure that unpaid internships qualify as legal. Among the six criteria is the following requirement: “The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern.”
Whether or not the Labor Department’s proposal would have a direct impact on most college internships is the subject of debate. Defenders of the policy argue that it is simply a more stringent application of the longstanding Fair Labor Standards Act. Their goal is laudable: to protect students from being used as free labor, particularly by for-profit companies.
However, just the threat of increased regulation could have a chilling effect on the willingness of employers to offer internships -- paid or unpaid. With experiential learning on the rise, through co-ops, internships and other approaches, the country cannot afford to create disincentives for employers to play a valuable role in the educational enterprise.
Why is American higher education heading in the direction of experiential learning? The value proposition is clear: According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ 2010 Job Outlook Survey, 75 percent of employers prefer job candidates with relevant work experience. More than 90 percent prefer to hire interns or co-ops who have worked for their organization.
But the real benefits of experiential learning go far beyond the practical advantage it affords students entering the workforce. Educators are increasingly realizing that the integration of study and practice is a more powerful way to learn.
Perhaps more than ever before, this generation of graduates will need to navigate the unknown. They will need to be nimble and responsive to change, and become leaders of change. A strong foundation in their field of study is essential, but less tangible skills will be just as important: confidence, poise, adaptability, and the ability to work collaboratively. These are the foundations of leadership.
When students participate in well-developed internships or co-op experiences, they immerse themselves in professional settings, ranging from multinational corporations to small not-for-profits. They bring their experiences back to the classroom, enriching the curriculum for themselves and their peers. They gain knowledge that will serve them for a lifetime.
Rules that encourage student interns to perform “no or minimal work” are antithetical to the premise of experiential learning. Under these rules, internships or co-op positions would deteriorate into job shadowing, a pale imitation of true experiential learning.
We all share the Department of Labor’s concerns about the potential for exploitation, but the role of determining the educational value of an internship or co-op should rest with educational institutions. Colleges and universities must continue their active monitoring of experiential learning programs, and place students in secure and productive environments that further their education.
A sustained commitment to experiential learning includes developing a strong network of employers who regularly provide employment opportunities for students. Through this network, institutions cultivate partnerships and work closely with students to find the best fit for both sides. Schools can and should require employers to provide detailed job descriptions that set clear expectations. In addition, employers should outline the learning outcomes students are expected to achieve upon completing their experiences.
An interesting consequence of the Labor Department’s proposal is that it may create more demand for overseas internships. At Northeastern University, where we just celebrated 100 years of cooperative education, we believe the second century of experiential learning will be global. This is vitally important for today’s students, who are more likely than previous graduates to live and work abroad. A co-op or internship in another country is, by definition, more than academic tourism; it is true global education.
But we don’t want international expansion to come at the expense of what we’re doing here at home. In a recent letter urging the Labor Department to proceed cautiously, Sen. John Kerry underscored the importance of experiential learning to the country as a whole: “Be it through internships, fellowships or co-op programs, this symbiotic relationship helps foster economic development and a competitive workforce.”
As we invest in our future by investing in higher education, we should look for ways to expand, not diminish, the impact of experiential learning. We owe this to our students, our economy, and our society.
Joseph E. Aoun
Joseph E. Aoun is president of Northeastern University.