Is College The Real World?

When something deserves to be ridiculed, I feel something akin to a sense of moral responsibility to go ahead and point it out – usually by doing the ridiculing. Alumni magazine class notes fall squarely into this category. Classmates write in to brag about their jobs, awards, honors, and sometimes the jobs, awards, and honors of family members. And when they’re not pompous, they’re often boring. A recent notes column included a Tony Award, a Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics, a reference to a mention in the New Yorker, and many offspring admitted into highly selective colleges. It also included information on a 12-year-old who loves drawing cartoons of cats. But class notes really jump the shark when they jaw on and on about gatherings of classmates: beautiful people congregating in beautiful places having a beautiful time. Class notes were FOMO-inducing social media before there was social media.

So it was that on a trip to Las Vegas last fall with a few classmates – inelegant people congregating in a tacky place having a mediocre time – during a dinner in an oak-paneled restaurant, I asked our server to take a photo and drafted a satirical note to submit to our class secretary. A few months later, I gleefully opened the alumni magazine to read the following:

Ryan Craig sent us a note and photo. Ryan and Aaron Craig, Max Minzner, Dave Fierson, Dave Friedman, Ryan Bounds, and Dave’s younger brother Jeff – a group described by Ryan as ‘two Daves, two Ryans, too much fun’ – met at the start of October for a reunion weekend in the Sunshine State. After participating in a hurricane cleanup service project, they arranged a fanboat tour of the Everglades (always a dream of Max’s) and concluded with a memorable dinner at Mar-a-Lago (pictured).

To be fair, the room we were in could have passed for Mar-a-Lago – or the Mar-a-Lago of my nightmares – and Max avers he’s not averse to fanboats or swamps. But judging from the note’s reception, our classmates were less amused than we were.

Last month Inside Higher Education published an op-ed by Karen E. Spierling, the John and Heath Faraci Professor of History, Global Commerce, and Financial Economics at Denison University. The op-ed was titled College Is the Real World and appeared to claim that what happens at college is as economically productive and “real” as the private sector that produces all the goods and services she consumes. After reading it once, I wasn’t sure if Dr. Spierling was trying to pull a Mar-a-Lago on us and double-checked it wasn’t dated April 1.

“One of my greatest pet peeves – as an educator, academic and human being,” Dr. Spierling begins, “is the myth that life on a college campus is not ‘the real world.’” She goes on: “The fundamental problem with this notion is that it is premised on the assumption that the world of business (even more than any other professional world students might one day hope to join) is real, while the world of higher education is flimsy, ethereal or simply useless.”

Dr. Spierling’s problem is that “by not rejecting this myth that the world outside of higher ed is somehow more concrete and economically productive than what happens on our campuses, we undercut our own expertise as teachers and educators and allow others to assert authority in and over our classrooms.” Moreover, “the idea that the driving purpose of these institutions is to prepare students for that separate ‘real world’… [is] wearing down faculty and staff.”

Dr. Spierling makes the fair point that colleges have “all the real-world challenges of any organization, from managing financial resources and hiring, onboarding and retaining employees to navigating complicated personnel issues.” But that doesn’t mean college is the real world, let alone as economically productive as the private sector. The only thing resembling an argument was some vague hand waving about how teaching is valuable.

There are a hundred reasons why students benefit from college not being the real world. But let’s put that aside and focus in on Dr. Spierling’s point about teaching and economic value. It’s important to recognize that colleges aren’t exactly offering bespoke programs for the real world. Despite dramatic digital transformation, majors remain largely unchanged. The vast majority of schools continue to offer the same degree programs: business, nursing, psychology, biology, engineering, education, communications, finance and accounting, criminal justice, and sociology. Sure, many colleges now offer data science and even cybersecurity programs, but based on the list of the forty most popular majors at four-year colleges (following the aforementioned top ten are computer science, English, economics, political science, and history), you get the sense nothing has changed in forty years.

Students who earn these degrees graduate into a state of confusion. Lightcast, a provider of labor-market analytics, published a study showing that colleges don’t provide linear paths to good first jobs but rather a crazy flow or swirl. The report analyzed millions of graduates from six of the most popular majors and found that graduates of all six are effectively going after the same jobs in sales, marketing, management, business, and financial analysis. With no clear goal in sight, only about half of all students who enroll in four-year colleges complete a degree within six years. And a new working paper from Kansas State researchers finds that while taking a job unrelated to one’s major has always resulted in lower wages, the wage penalty increased 51% between 1993 and 2019.

Colleges continue to support dozens of so-called “not a job” majors long past their sell-by dates. In the Georgia State system, the board only acted to terminate programs that had not admitted a single student in two years and therefore were deemed inactive. What other products have no expiration date? Physical infrastructure and industrial goods can only aspire to last this long. Meanwhile, the new programs that colleges have launched don’t seem to be making much of an impression. According to Lightcast, about half of the new programs that first graduated students between 2012 and 2014 were reporting five or fewer graduates five years later. Thirty percent of new programs reported no graduates at all. Notably, of the programs launched, 75% were languages, arts, humanities, social sciences, or education; only 15% were technical and 10% were vocational.

Colleges know what the highest-value majors are but don’t prioritize them. Of the twenty-five most remunerative majors, two are economics and business; the rest are technical. Most schools are divided in two: a successful technical institution and a school for everyone else. While national student demand for computer science more than doubled from 2013–17, the number of computer-science faculty only increased by 17 percent. Schools like the University of Maryland, UC San Diego, UT Austin, and UIUC limit enrollment in computer-science courses. In 2021, NC State had twice as many applicants as available places in computer science. In fact, 75% of large public universities limit access to the highest-value majors. They’re playing a bait-and-switch game, admitting students as freshmen and then rejecting them from higher-value technical programs as sophomores and juniors due to lack of capacity. So nearly half of all students who say they want to complete these programs never do, which explains why computer science isn’t a top-ten major.

Why do colleges have such trouble building programs that students want? Thanks to U.S. News, which continues to equate terminal degrees with faculty quality, PhDs are privileged, which provides a disincentive to hire industry practitioners. In addition, curriculum is controlled by departments structured according to an encyclopedic organization of knowledge. That means yesterday’s knowledge – often not where the puck is going. And given the college-to-graduate-school-to-teaching track, it also means departmental deciders have little work experience outside of college. (According to her LinkedIn profile, Dr. Spierling has never had a private sector job.) This explains why lower-level courses rarely change and why upper-level courses are dictated not by graduate employability, but by faculty interests and research priorities see e.g., Dr. Spierling’s course on Witches, Saints, and Skeptics.

Curriculum decision-makers are also tenured. Say what you like about tenure – and there are good arguments on both sides (on the pro-tenure side, most notably the tragic experiences of academics in totalitarian states in the first half of the 20th century) – but arguing that tenure is like the real world is asking to be ridiculed. I can’t think of another profession where attempting to dismiss an employee for performance triggers due process rights i.e., multiple levels of review, formal hearing, clear and convincing evidence that performance has fallen significantly below standards, reasonable efforts to improve performance have been unsuccessful. (Actually, thanks to powerful K-12 teachers unions, maybe I can.)

As the real world has moved on, why hasn’t college kept up? Primarily due to poor governance. Trustees are accomplished in other fields, but their knowledge of higher education tends to be limited to materials provided by administrators ahead of board meetings. They’re not fluent in higher education issues, trends, or best practices and tend to agree with whatever the administration wants to do. No institution has ever attempted to fully reconstitute its board based on needed expertise i.e., education technology, science of learning, research funding, employability and the labor market, data analytics, and the business of higher education. On the flip side, external governance – accreditation – is a quality assurance fiction premised entirely on inputs and processes, not outcomes. A vanishingly small number of institutions are ever sanctioned due to poor student outcomes. And the deciders may be conflicted; visiting teams, accreditor staff and board members all come from member colleges and universities who’ll be up for reaccreditation in a few years, establishing a culture of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”

Nothing lasts forever, and so it is with college’s long vacation from the real world. The ultimate barometer of accountability is enrollment, and while highly selective schools have nothing to worry about – read last week’s Washington Post op-ed on the value of all college degrees from the president of Princeton sounding very much like an owner of a fancy Italian restaurant struggling to defend dinner at Olive Garden – for non-selective schools that day has arrived. We’ve had five consecutive years of enrollment declines. The less selective the school, the worse the picture; community college enrollment is down 37 percent since 2010; for-profit college enrollment has been cut in half. Ohio’s public universities and community colleges have experienced a 12% enrollment decline in a decade with schools like University of Akron and Wright State down by nearly half. In January, the Cal State system shared enrollment projections for 2023–24 that were 7 percent (25,000 full-time students) short of target. Lower enrollment means less tuition revenue, and that means budgets turned upside down and hard choices that don’t spare tenured faculty.

While Denison hasn’t announced any cuts, if cut, say, its course on Witches, Saints, and Skeptics, it would be Dr. Spierling’s best argument that college is the real world. (As Dr. Spierling graduated from my alma mater two years ahead of me, I’ll be keeping an eye on the class notes.) Yes, the real world is about to crash into college. But anyone who thinks that college as we’ve known it is the real world is as out of touch as that orange-hued denizen of Mar-a-Lago.