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I was disappointed, but not surprised to read Libby E. Tseng’s op-ed (April 9) “ To the class of 2026.” Her description of the student experience elucidates findings of our national study of higher education, in which nearly half of one thousand students across 10 disparate campuses view college principally as a means to build a resume and get a (first) job. Consequently, like Tseng, many students face disappointment and sadness with the college experience—a third of these students feel alienated from their institution and nearly all of the students report mental health as the biggest problem.
It is no wonder students have grievances at Harvard and elsewhere — colleges overpromise and underdeliver. In an effort to please all of customers, colleges offer a multiplicity of missions focused on everything from career development to citizenship to innovation—which not only becomes confusing to students, but also self-defeating. Students, like those at Harvard, feel that they should be involved in everything—and sometimes lead everything—in order to be a “successful” college student, one that will be attractive to employers. Rather than bringing students together in a common pursuit, colleges foster students who become overwhelmed, divided, and splintered.
In our research we learned that campuses with a strong mission (optimally, one focused on intellectual development) that is promulgated from day one and reinforced until graduation, constitute healthier environments. Indeed, these campuses offer a transformative culture focused on learning and growing personally, and not primarily on earning.
As a long time member of the Harvard community, I admire much about the institution, but its challenges and problems resemble those observed on quite diverse campuses.
Wendy Fischman is a project director at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. With Howard Gardner, she has co-authored The Real World of College: What Higher Education Is and What It Can Be (MIT Press, 2022).
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