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Whose Real World?

The big-picture viewpoint of a new book on higher ed misses the mark

By Kathryn A. E. Enke

March 29, 2022

The recently published book, The Real World of College, written by Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner, conceptualizes the college experience using empirical evidence collected over eight years. In designing, conducting, and presenting their research, Fischman and Gardner aimed to create a set of recommendations for the entire sector of higher education. I commend this goal and the researchers’ dedicated collection of data to inform their recommendations. As a qualitative researcher myself, I value their research design, including their attention to hearing from individuals engaged in a variety of activities on campus.

At the same time, I am critical of Fischman and Gardner’s “deliberate decision not to systematically collect conventional demographic data (racial, ethnic background, socio-economic status, sexual orientation) about [their] interview participants.” And, I question their conscious decision not to report findings based on demographic data they did collect (including gender, first-generation status, and geographical residence).

In defending these undoubtedly complex decisions on their website, Fischman and Gardner note both practical and philosophical reasons: Colleges “need to be singularly focused on the broad intellectual development of all students.” Comparing individuals across different stakeholder groups, campuses, and demographic differences would have taken too long and cost too much. Data on gender and race are too readily misused. Raising questions about demographic characteristics may have skewed participant responses within interviews or skewed the researchers’ “objective” interpretations of their responses.

These defenses are predicated on assumptions that research can be objective and that the real world of college is generalizable across the diversity of the country, our institutions, and our students. These assumptions are deeply flawed, as evidenced by Fischman and Gardner’s own research practices and findings.

  1. The researchers ostensibly sought honest and candid perspectives. But candor is not likely within a research environment that ignores the way demographic characteristics affect engagement with higher education. And honesty is not fostered within a qualitative interview design that is blind to the positionality and subjectivities of the researcher, and the power dynamics present between researchers and participants. Only by acknowledging and intentionally mitigating one’s own power can a researcher begin to approach honesty and candor.
  2. The researchers used both opportunistic and strategic approaches to select participants. This practice demonstrated a desire to obtain a sample that was somehow representative of all students. This strategic approach could have been employed to ensure a demographically representative sample as well. Yes, it would have taken effort and time. All good research does.
  3. Fischman and Gardner describe four distinct mental models of college: inertial, transactional, exploratory, and transformational. The articulation of these mental models—and the degree to which they are identified by students, faculty and administrators, parents, alumni, and trustees—is useful. The artificial characterization of the mindsets as distinct is not. As a White female college student from a rural area of the United States, I found that, for me, the transactional outcome of college (a degree) was a ticket to a transformed life (economically, geographically, politically, spiritually), and it freed me for a future exploratory mindset. These mental models of college are intertwined, developmental, and inherently tied to background experiences and demographics.
  4. The authors introduce a measure of Higher Education Capital (HEDCAP) and find no major differences in HEDCAP scores among students across demographics on which they have information. We do not know whether HEDCAP scores differ across racial and ethnic groups, reflecting the effects of systemic racism. The decision not to collect this key demographic data diminishes the usefulness of this measure.
  5. The authors were pleased to report that many more students talked about belonging in college than about alienation. This is heartening but not all that useful to those of us who seek to foster diverse and inclusive educational environments. Even after eight years of data collection, Gardner and Fischman tell us little about who (demographically) is more likely to feel belonging and who is more likely to feel alienated. I have my own suppositions, which I will not voice without empirical evidence. Unfortunately, that evidence is not provided by The Real World of College. It is a disappointing miss, given the value of understanding the lived experiences of students based on their race, ethnicity, and other demographic characteristics.

A key finding of The Real World of College is that students are more alike than different in their descriptions of the college experience. We should not be at all surprised by this finding, given that the research design (and what was intentionally included and excluded) was predisposed to such a conclusion. In fact, the researchers made deliberate decisions to ignore the individual experiences of college in favor of a big picture.

Purporting that their big picture is the “real world” of college is a vast overstatement. It’s a bit like viewing the earth from space and claiming that one can describe the “real world.” I commend the ingenuity that rocketed the individuals into space and acknowledge that their perspective is different from mine. However, I do not believe that this view of the world is somehow more real or valid than my experience on the ground. This big-picture viewpoint leads to recommendations for colleges and universities that are unnecessarily blunt and distanced.

The real experience of college is meaningfully affected by demographic characteristics, individual circumstances, and systems of power and privilege in the larger society. Obfuscating those differences is consequential for the entire sector of higher education—but not in the positive ways the authors intended.


  • Kathryn Enke

    Kathryn A. E. Enke

    Kathryn A. E. Enke is secretary to the board and strategist for presidential initiatives at the American Association of Colleges and Universities.