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While it’s possible that today’s students seem more disconnected than ever before, the lack of student engagement is a longstanding issue — a contemporary form of the “anomie” Émile Durkheim detailed well over a century ago. At the heart of the disengagement is a lack of belonging, one amply documented by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary’s “The Need to Belong,” and by the higher ed-focused research of Jennifer Case and Anthony Jack, among others.
On the surface, the pandemic seems the sole explanation for the apathy and emptiness felt among college students in 2022, but this would be to deny historical precedent. Distressed and dissatisfied young people have repeatedly separated themselves from mainstream society — whether it be the “uncommitted” youth of the 1950s or the “young radicals” of the 1960s and 1970s. Disengagement is not going to evaporate as we get back to “normal” on campus, whatever that might entail. Anomie among college students is not new — and it’s not just focused on academics.
Just before the pandemic, the two of us completed a major study. Over five years, we interviewed more than 2,000 people across 10 campuses: 1,000 students, 500 faculty members and administrators, and 500 parents, trustees, young alums, and job recruiters. In our comprehensive, pre-pandemic study, fully one-third of college students expressed alienation. Further, students reported not just a lack of engagement with academics, but also feelings of alienation from their peers and their colleges. Importantly, we did not ask students directly about whether they felt a sense of belonging or alienation, rather they shared these feelings in response to open-ended questions about their goals for college, their experiences in the classroom and on campus, and their perspectives on higher ed in general.
What leads to students feeling so disconnected from college, and how could such feelings be so widespread?
In our 1,000 hour-long conversations with students, we found that nearly half of them miss the point of college. They don’t see value in what they are learning, nor do they understand why they take classes in different fields or read books that do not seem directly related to their major. They approach college with a “transactional” view — their overarching goal is to build a résumé with stellar grades, which they believe will help them secure a job post-college. Many see nothing wrong with using any means necessary to achieve the desired résumé, and most acknowledge that cheating is prevalent on campus. In short, they are more concerned with the pursuit of earning than the process of learning.
This is not to say that the current state of affairs is students’ fault. Messages from secondary schools (and from family members) have helped form their narrow view of college. Their high-school experiences prepared them to get into college, but did little, it seems, to educate them about the purpose of college. As a result, most college students don’t appreciate the expertise of their faculty, nor value what these scholars do, nor understand what they are generally not prepared to do (for instance, why faculty members might not feel comfortable in the role of therapist or life coach). Students often feel that professors aren’t available to meet their needs. And yet those same professors report that students rarely come to office hours or take them up on offers to meet for coffee or lunch.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, we find that students become more disenchanted with their college experience over time. In comparing 500 first-year students to 500 graduating students, more graduating students expressed feelings of alienation than did first-year students.
An example: Reflecting on her college experience (in 2015), a graduating student at a highly selective school described her apathy to us:
“I’m just here for college because I thought that was something that you had to do … Now I’m just sort of sullenly sulking my way through and, like, hating it, and hating myself, hating anyone around me … That’s, like, not the way it should be … If you are going in with th[ose] kind of intentions … it’s bad for you, and it’s bad for everyone else around you.”
This deep-rooted alienation will not be easy to repair. But in our view, colleges can significantly enhance the prospects of belonging by promulgating a single, primary purpose of college — that it is a place to focus on learning and transforming one’s mind. Students need to be “onboarded” to this mission by faculty members, administrators, and staff members who model, support, and believe in it. Common experiences like core academic courses or service activities should help diverse groups of students forge connections with each other — and in doing so, reinforce the intellectual mission. If an institution wants to include a second mission — for example, a focus on religion, civic participation, or entrepreneurship — that ancillary mission needs to be carefully “intertwined” in class and across the campus with the primary intellectual mission.
To be sure, some of the advice offered by other higher ed-watchers may help: rewarding students for participation in class discussion; easing up on grading policies; offering other benefits to get students to come and remain more regularly on campus (food pantries, mental-health services, or perhaps even free parking). But these are only temporary fixes. In order to dissolve longstanding student alienation, colleges need to reflect on and embody their central educational missions; they should use all means possible to help students connect with that mission, believe in it, embody it, and gain from it over the course of a lifetime.