College Polling, or Believing is Seeing…

More continues to stream forth on what college should be. We already discussed whether the sole purpose of college is vocational training; today let’s just pretend that is really important.  Thomas Friedman latched onto some Gallup/Purdue polling from last February (way to be on top of breaking news, Thomas!) about college to opine that colleges should be making sure students are mentored and offered internships .  Basically Gallup found that if you either had a mentor in college or professors who cared about you or had a professor who excited you about learning, you were about twice as likely to be engaged at work.  Interestingly, having had all three doesn’t really bump the number up much.  Similarly, having had an internship bumps up engagement at work, as does having an extracurricular activity or having completed a long term project; again, these don’t really multiply (so having all three doesn’t make you 8 times more engaged, just 2.4 times). 

Of course, the results tell us that college is failing students, right? Sorry, while colleges might be failing students, this isn’t the dataset that shows it.  Let’s ponder a moment. (Quick test: if you know where this is headed, maybe you had a good college education…)

First, these factors don’t multiply or even add.  In a way, that is odd.  Why would that be?  A MOOC professor might excite you about learning but would probably be unable to pick you out in a lineup. A caring professor might not even be your teacher in a class but might be a dorm RA (yes, that happens). Same thing with extracurricular activities and internships: if these are the factors producing more engaged workers, why don’t they build on one another?

Here’s the reason: these are the characteristics of engaged students; is it a shock they become engaged workers? They don’t become more engaged the more things they engage in; this is why these factors don’t pile up. And because this is the profile of a more proactive individual, they probably sought out more job opportunities before committing to one, meaning they sought out their work instead of settling for what came up.

Consider the kinds of students who have these experiences. With the exception of very small schools where students simply cannot hide, for a student to have a mentor or know a professor well enough for he or she to care about you, you actually have to be forward enough to speak with a professor.  A lot of students will not do this under pain of death. And this business about a professor exciting you about learning? Hey, half the war is having a student walk in the door eager to learn; even the very best and most engaging professors won’t excite those students who are going through the motions. So we’re talking about a subgroup of students who are willing to knock on a door or stay after class a minute to speak with a professor.  

Ditto for the extracurricular/internship/project group.  Nobody makes a student do any of these things (with the possible exception of the multi semester project; some degrees will require a capstone project of sorts, but most places a senior thesis or honors thesis is optional), so this is entirely reflecting choices the student makes, not deficiencies of the college itself.

It makes you wonder if the gang making these questionnaires has already settled on an interpretation before they set out to do the study….

Basically, what this survey is saying to students is…be engaged! Sure, colleges should be prepared to offer these students mentors (real mentors, not the guidance folks who are just traffic cops directing students to the path to a degree) and maybe encourage capstone projects more…but GG’s guess is that those who aren’t engaged, mostly aren’t going to be more engaged by being forced to do these things.

Does this take colleges off the hook?  Well, no.  One other quote from the Friedman column is combining a few other surveys.  Only 11% of businessmen surveyed felt strongly that colleges are graduating students with skills their business needs while 96% of provosts felt they were doing a good job preparing students for the real world. Seems really discordant, no?  Well, Friedman cooked the books some: 96% of provosts felt that their institutions were very effective (56%) or somewhat effective (40%); on the other side, only 34% of businessmen disagreed that colleges were preparing students for their business, so 66% thought that colleges were neutral or better. Still a disagreement, but not as dramatic as it sounded as written. (HigherEd had a more complete take on this back in February when these surveys came out).  Anyways, arguably provosts are the farthest from direct experience here of any of those surveyed (yep, academics who haven’t been in a classroom for decades or more with near zero experience in the real world, those are the ones who will gauge success the best); they have to rely on measures their university has on success (which, arguably, most schools will work hard to spin to make them look good so they can attract more students).  Conversely, the question to businessmen was if colleges were preparing students for their business.  If you run a garbage hauling company or auto assembly plant, odds are colleges aren’t doing a lot for you; more seriously, there are specialized needs in many businesses that are simply too specialized for most (or even all) colleges to address, so this might not be nearly as damning as it sounds.  Businessmen also like to say they evaluate hires on merits (another question on the survey), but GG can tell you that the old boy (and girl, more and more) network back to ol’ State U is still a great way for State’s grads to get into the workplace.

What these surveys show is (1) engaged students become happier and more engaged workers, (2) colleges are not perfect vo-tech schools.  Students should try to get more engaged: parents and peers can help (maybe more than professors). Colleges should probably find ways to make more involved projects part of the curriculum more–but a word to the businessmen, this will mean reducing the number of classes and so possibly sacrificing some major specialty courses. We really need businesses to return to the concept of actually training their employees for their business.  GG has seen directly a company employ one person with a background using a piece of software that is essential for the project for the next six months but is otherwise far less flexible and capable than other applicants. So long term planning isn’t necessarily a strength of the business world these days.

So take such polls with a grain of salt and op-ed columns based on them with a pinch of salt.  Of course, if you got a good college education, you already knew that.

Enough pontificating on colleges; will try to return to some earth science topics soon…

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