The Real World of College

The Real World of College

What Higher Education Is and What It Can Be

By Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

Why higher education in the United States has lost its way, and how universities and colleges can focus sharply on their core mission.





Why higher education in the United States has lost its way, and how universities and colleges can focus sharply on their core mission.

For The Real World of College, Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner analyzed in-depth interviews with more than 2,000 students, alumni, faculty, administrators, parents, trustees, and others, which were conducted at ten institutions ranging from highly selective liberal arts colleges to less selective state schools. What they found challenged characterizations in the media: students are not preoccupied by political correctness, free speech, or even the cost of college. They are most concerned about their GPA and their resumes; they see jobs and earning potential as more important than learning. Many say they face mental health challenges, fear that they don't belong, and feel a deep sense of alienation. Given this daily reality for students, has higher education lost its way? Fischman and Gardner contend that US universities and colleges must focus sharply on their core educational mission.

Fischman and Gardner, both recognized authorities on education and learning, argue that higher education in the United States has lost sight of its principal reason for existing: not vocational training, not the provision of campus amenities, but to increase what Fischman and Gardner call “higher education capital”—to help students think well and broadly, express themselves clearly, explore new areas, and be open to possible transformations. Fischman and Gardner offer cogent recommendations for how every college can become a community of learners who are open to change as thinkers, citizens, and human beings.


$34.95 T ISBN: 9780262046534 408 pp. | 5.25 in x 8 in 1 b&w illus., 16 graphs


  • “This provocative book explores the views of thousands of students and other campus personnel. Finding many students alienated and narrowly focused on grades and resumes, the authors call for a renewed emphasis on the larger intellectual and social purposes of college.”

    Michael McPherson

    President Emeritus, Spencer Foundation, and Macalester College; coauthor of Crossing the Finish Line and The Student Aid Game

  • “In this bold and visionary book, Fischman and Gardner offer transformational solutions to the grave problems facing higher education today. The book's compelling recommendations are supported by their definitive study of contemporary college life.”

    William Damon

    Professor of Education, Stanford University and Director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence; author of The Path to Purpose

  • “Based on extensive field work and thoughtful analysis, The Real World of College offers an exceptionally valuable account of liberal arts education in the US today. There are some surprises in these findings, and much to ponder in the recommendations.”

    Nannerl O. Keohane

    President Emerita, Wellesley College and Duke University

  • “Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner distill decades of experience into this bracing, often surprising book about what college is, and is for. With rigor and wisdom, they burn away myths and challenge every American to recommit to truly higher learning.”

    Eric Liu

    CEO, Citizen University

  • “Readers of The Real World of College will gain a new and powerful way of thinking about the impact of college, as well as its perils and promise. Everyone who cares about modern society (and its youth) should read this book.”

    Susan Engel

    Class of 1959 Director, Program in Teaching, Williams College; author of The Intellectual Lives of Children

  • “Agree or not, it's impossible not to be inspired with findings from thousands of interviews that students today need deeper engagement with broad-gauged learning. Professors Fischman and Gardner demand we remember the educational importance, always, of asking 'why?'”

    Cathy N. Davidson

    Founder, The Futures Initiative; author of The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux

  • “Books that purport to describe the college experience appear all the time, but they are almost always too limited—a study of one institution; a study of a group of similar institutions; a study of a highly selective institution that is presented as if it is a universal ideal to use as a benchmark; or a very broad study but based on slim data. At last, Fischman and Gardner have written the book we've all been waiting for: The Real World of College is based on exhaustive data about a very large number of students at a large and diverse array of US colleges and universities. Moreover, the authors probe both the effects on students of the formal curriculum and the effects of what happens outside the classroom. Most importantly, this study connects the two domains of students' experience with a big enough sample of students to make the disaggregation of the data compelling in its findings for the subgroups of students who are discussed. Fischman and Gardner fully appreciate that not all students have the same experience and  they do not give us a falsely universal description of college-going. Nonetheless, they do show us the patterns and their implications in this careful analysis that add up to a case for a peculiarly American experience of higher education, while also providing readers with new grounds to appreciate the great diversity of institutional types. And the authors go even further: to lay out the broad strokes of what any reform efforts ought to emphasize in the coming years if we ever hope to succeed in making American postsecondary education better than it is today.”

    Richard Ekman

    President Emeritus, Council of Independent Colleges