College and Emerging Adults
"I can definitely do better," Nathan reported to us in an interview two years after finishing college: "I feel like I'm not using my degree at all." On the surface, it was hard to disagree with him. Although he had majored in business administration, Nathan was living back at home with his parents, had significant college loans to repay, and—like many of his peers—felt lucky to have any job at all. He found his on Craigslist. Nathan was a delivery driver for a national retail chain. He picked up and dropped off items from the warehouse, shuttling materials to local branch outlets throughout the state. He had been working this job for the last six months and had annual earnings of less than $20,000. Nathan also reported to us that his employer had recently cut back his hours and that as a result he was spending five hours per week looking for other employment.
As far as college was concerned, however, Nathan apparently was considered an ideal student. He had graduated on time with a 3.9 GPA. Even so, when we asked Nathan about the experiences, events, or occasions at college when he had learned the most academically, he could initially think of nothing to report. After some prompting, he began to tell us about a final project for his business policy class that took "weeks and weeks and weeks of a lot of research." Nathan noted, "Each group was assigned a business and there [were] problems with the business and we had to come out with three different solutions and basically we had to look in every single aspect of this business and prove why our reasons would work." Nathan added that it was in "one of the toughest classes that I actually learned the most."
Nathan, similar to almost all of the graduates we interviewed, was socially engaged in college. "I went to a lot of events and parties and all that stuff," he reported. When we asked what he learned socially in college, he commented, "Not too much actually from college, I guess just hanging out with my friends." He readily admitted that he was what we have previously referred to as academically adrift while at college: "Like, when I first started, I really had no idea what I wanted to do. That is why I kind of took business—it was kind of a general thing that could help me with anything. I wish I would have put more thought in what I actually wanted to do with my life." He reported to us that he spent half his time studying at college with friends, and studied alone less than five hours per week. He also reported that he wished he had joined more clubs while in college.
As a college graduate, however, Nathan appeared to be no more engaged in voluntary associations than he had been at college. Aside from voting in the most recent national election, he did little that could be associated with civic awareness or participation. Although he spent his days crisscrossing the state's roadways, he seldom listened to the news. When we asked him how he kept up with current events, he reported, "Basically just the evening news. I read the Sunday newspaper and look at the string on the Internet that interests me." While his engagement with the news and public affairs was limited, apparently it was sufficient—coupled, perhaps, with his lived experiences—for him to conclude that the country was "kind of towards the bottom."
Given that he was struggling with college loan debts, living at home with his parents, and unable to find a job using his college-level education, one would think Nathan and his peers who were suffering similar fates since graduating college would be depressed, angry, or in general despair about the direction in which their lives were heading. However, this was far from the case. While Nathan reported that the country was "kind of towards the bottom," he quickly added that he thought "we're starting to improve." While he was frustrated by his post-college transition, he was hardly embittered. With respect to his college education, he noted that "I put a lot of money on this thing and I feel like I'm not getting much out of it at the moment, but I think I will in the future" (our emphasis).
In spite of current difficulties, Nathan and most of his peers believed that their lives would ultimately be better than those of their parents. "Just because I have had more opportunities," Nathan assured us. "That's the way the world is right now." College might not have delivered on all its promises, but one thing Nathan and his peers appeared to have acquired was a sense of social membership and entitlement. They were college graduates, and rewards would surely follow.
Other recent college graduates who were experiencing difficult transitions shared similar sentiments. For example, since graduating from a selective public university with a degree in public health, Sonya was back living at home with her mother. After struggling to find work, she had become a full-time babysitter. Two years after graduating, she was going back to school to become a nurse like her mother. Far from embittered, however, she was upbeat about how her life was going. "I'm very excited about the direction of my life," Sonya told us. "A year ago, I was depressed; I thought the world was going to end because I couldn't figure out what I was doing with my life." She went on to explain, "I guess it's just like my friends who graduated before me always say, that you go through that period of confusion and then you come out knowing, okay, 'This is what I want to do and this is where I'm going.'" Like Nathan, she told us she believed her life would be better than those of her parents.
And consider Alice, who was back living at home after graduating from an elite residential liberal arts college with a humanities degree. She worked as a grocery store cashier. But when asked about the direction of her life, she replied, "I feel generally confident in it." She continued with a statement that trailed off: "I wish I had a little more direction but...." Or consider Lucy, who had been unemployed for months, was deferring payment on her college loans, and was back living at home with her mother. Lucy perhaps captured this sense of undaunted optimism best for the struggling members of her cohort: "I'm feeling OK about the way my life is going. It would be cool if I had a job. I don't know—I'm like, I tend to look on the bright side because I do what I can to change the things I dislike in my life, but I'm not going to hate things that I can't change, because they're going to stay, so I might as well accept them." She, too, expected her life to be better than her parents' lives had been, "in the emotional sense and more likely than not in the financial sense." While almost one-quarter of the college graduates we studied were living back at home with their families two years after finishing college, a stunning 95 percent reported that their lives would be the same or better than those of their parents.
While some graduates in our study experienced struggles in post-graduation transitions, others were flourishing. Consider, for example, Julie, who majored in biology at a highly selective college and found work as a research associate in environmental sciences at a flagship public research university. When asked about aspects of her college education that she was using in her job, she noted that "they run the gamut from specific information that I learned about ecology" to "theories, and ideas, and papers, and research methods." Julie in particular emphasized that at college she had "learned how to think critically about information, what is useful to me and what is not, how to be selective, and I also learned how to manage my time really well." She was living in a house with her boyfriend, whom she had met in college, and a second bedroom in the house was being rented out to bring in additional income. She kept up with the daily news by reading the New York Times online and listening to National Public Radio. She reported that she had voted most recently in a local election held a few months prior in the spring.
Or take the case of Michael, who was already married to a woman he reported having met in college, "the first semester I was there, during exam week." Michael and his wife, "now with the housing market as it is," were considering buying a house. Michael had majored in engineering and technology at a selective public research university. Two years after graduating from college, he had already earned a master's degree in engineering and had landed a job in his field of choice. He believed that his undergraduate education had taught him not only specific skills, but how to think. "I can take on any problem now," Michael noted. "Even if I don't know the answer, I know I can figure it out." Michael also credited college with promoting his active involvement with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), an activity which connected him to employers and had led to a highly productive professional internship experience. Michael had voted in the most recent presidential election and occasionally kept up with current events by watching Fox News, because he was comfortable with "their more conservative approach."
We also have individuals such as Mindy, who found work as a fifth-grade math and reading teacher after attending a less selective public university and majoring in education. Mindy reported to us that she "spent probably all of my free time doing homework, and when I wasn't doing homework, I was either working or I was in like four or five clubs. All of them having to do with my major as well as a sorority." Mindy had recently broken up with her boyfriend and was living in a rental apartment with a friend. She could not remember the last time she voted, and she kept up with the news a few times a week by "looking on AOL news or like the local paper online."
C. Wright Mills, in The Sociological Imagination, argued that sociological research should work to illuminate how social and historical contexts shape individual life trajectories. We will attempt to fulfill that disciplinary mandate by documenting how recent college graduates in our study attempted to make post-college transitions from the spring of 2009 through the summer of 2011, during a particularly difficult period for the US economy. Throughout this book we will take care to emphasize the high level of variability in graduates' employment outcomes, living arrangements, relationships, and levels of civic engagement, as well as to illuminate how this variation was associated with different components of undergraduate education. We will describe how colleges and universities were implicated in shaping the lives of these young adults. Given the character of our data, while we will not be able to identify the effects of college per se, we will be able to provide a rich description of how students' lives varied during and after college—as well as how these patterns corresponded with the majors those individuals chose, the institutions they attended, and the general collegiate skills with which they left college.
This book is based on research that tracks more than 1,600 students through their senior year at twenty-five diverse four-year colleges and universities, and then approximately one thousand college graduates from this sample for two years following their graduation in the spring of 2009. The study does not include community colleges, a critically important part of US higher education, because of constraints on the original research design. Given that limitation, we focus our analysis and broader discussion in this book on four-year colleges and universities. We surveyed graduates each spring after college and conducted in-depth interviews with a subset of eighty graduates in the summer of 2011, not just to document their successes and hardships, but also to try to understand the extent to which their post-college outcomes were associated with collegiate experiences and academic performance. To what extent did it matter that students had performed well on an assessment of their general collegiate skills—that is, the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), a measure of critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication—around the time they graduated? Was post-college success associated with college majors and the selectivity of institutions attended? And what about the social networks they had spent so much time cultivating and investing in while enrolled in college? Were these social networks helpful, detrimental, or inconsequential in terms of supporting post-college transitions?
Before documenting the different post-college trajectories of the graduates in our study and examining factors associated with variation in these outcomes, we find it useful to first sketch the broad features of the historical context that provides the backdrop for the variation we observed. As a cohort, the individuals in our study enrolled in four-year colleges and universities at a particular time in US history, one in which they faced high tuition, heavy debt loads, and relative institutional inattention to academic learning (as opposed to social engagement and personal development): a historic period when US colleges and universities as a whole, and many of the students enrolled in them, were academically adrift. Many of today's college students graduate, but then transition only partially into traditional adult roles. While the state considers them legal adults, social scientists have come to refer to them with a more open-ended term: "emerging adults." The students in our study also graduated into a particularly difficult and unforgiving economic climate, where often they had little more than their own optimism and a diploma to sustain them in a quest to realize their expectations. In addition to discussing this larger historical and social context, we will provide readers with a brief outline of the ground covered in this volume.
Twenty-First Century Higher Education
The students in our study went through and were potentially shaped by four-year colleges and universities that existed in a particular historic moment—one in which the importance of rigorous academic study had been largely abandoned throughout many parts of contemporary higher education institutions. There are complex cultural, sociological, and historical explanations for the character of twenty-first century higher education that are worth touching upon to provide context for the empirical analysis that follows. While we have discussed some of this historical context in our prior work, we aim to extend those insights and focus more explicitly on the question of how higher education came to abandon academic rigor and promote social engagement for undergraduate students.
One widely shared explanation for the contemporary state of higher education, popularized by many institutional critics, depicts an organizational sector whose failings are a function of the creep of corporatization into academia's once-hallowed halls. This deepening corporatization is argued to have led to a decline in the role of faculty relative to school administrators, and a corresponding marginalization of academic pursuits and student learning. "Now, the Zeitgeist is the market," public policy scholar David Kirp has commented. "Still, embedded in the very idea of the university—not the storybook idea, but the university at its truest and best— are values that the market does not honor: the belief in a community of scholars and not a confederacy of self-seekers; in the idea of openness and not ownership; in the professor as a pursuer of truth and not an entrepreneur; in the student as an acolyte whose preferences are to be formed, not a consumer whose preferences are to be satisfied."
Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades refer to this as the emergence of "academic capitalism," where actors within higher education in recent decades have brought "the corporate sector inside the university." They argue that this corporatization manifests itself in multiple ways, including expanded ties with private-sector firms, growing attention to the economic utility of research endeavors, and increased market-based interactions with students, who have been redefined as consumers. The quality of instruction is compromised, according to Slaughter and Rhoades, because "expanded managerial capacity is also directed toward restructuring faculty work to lower instructional costs (although not costs generally)."
Scholars looking for evidence of a corporate turn in higher education can easily find ample material to support this claim by turning to various provocations provided by contemporary higher education administrators. Consider, for example, Rick Matasar, former law school dean and current New York University vice president for university enterprise initiatives, who wrote in his "Commercialist Manifesto": "Commercialism is here, now, and it is not going away.... We are a business, deal with it." Or perhaps consider the comments of the former president of George Washington University, Stephen Trachtenberg, who asserted that marketing colleges was similar to selling vodka—raising prices and improving packaging are generally sufficient to lure customers, as people mistakenly "equate price with the value of their education."