Here at HESA towers, we’ve been doing some work on how students make decisions about choosing a university (if you’re interested: the Student Decisions Project was a multi-wave, qualitative, year-long longitudinal study that tracked several hundred Grade 12 students as they went through the PSE research, application, and enrolment process. We also took a more targeted qualitative look, specifically at Arts, with the national Prospective Arts Students Survey). We’ve been trying to do the same for colleges, but it’s a much trickier demographic to survey.
In both studies, one of the questions we asked is what students really want from their education.
Now at one level, this question is kind of trite. We know from 15 years of surveys from the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium that students go to university: i) to get better jobs; ii) because they like learning about a particular field; and also, iii) to make friends, and enjoy the “university experience”.
Where it gets a little trickier, however, is when you break this down by particular fields of study. With most faculties, there tends to be a positive reason to attend. However, when it comes to Arts, enrolment is often seen as a fall-back option – it’s something you do if you don’t have concrete goals, or if you can’t do anything else. Now, Arts faculties tend to take the positive here, and spin this as students wanting to “find themselves”. But in deploying this bit of spin, Arts faculties often end up heading in the wrong direction.
One of the problems here is that the notion of students “finding themselves” (not a term students themselves use) is not as straightforward as many think. Broadly, there are three possible definitions. The first situates “finding yourself” in academic terms: by exploring a lot of different academic options, a student finds something that interests her/him, and becomes academically engaged. This is one of the reasons that Arts faculties are built around a smorgasbord model, which lets students “taste” as many things as possible, and hence “discover” themselves.
But that’s not the only possible definition of “finding oneself”. There is another option, in which students essentially view PSE as a cooling out period where they can “find” what they want to do, in a vocational sense. Yes, they are taking courses, but since they recognize that Arts courses don’t lead directly to employment, they are more or less marking time while they discover how to make their way in the employment world, and think about how and where they want to live. Then there is a third, slightly different take, in which students view “finding themselves” as the process by which they acquire transversal skills, and the skills of personal effectiveness needed to be successful adults. School is something they do while they are learning these skills, often for little reason other than that going to school is something they have always done, and in many cases are expected to do.
Though all of these interpretations of “finding yourself” have some currency among students, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that the one about “finding yourself” being a voyage of academic discovery is, in fact, the least frequently mentioned by incoming students. Now, maybe they come around to this view later on, but it is not high on the list of reasons they attend in the first place. To the extent that they have specific academic interests as a reason for enrolling in Arts, they tend to be just that: specific – they want to study Drama, or History, or whatever.
Which raises two questions: if this is true, what’s the benefit of Arts faculties maintaining such a wide breadth of requirements? And second, why aren’t Arts faculties explicitly building-in more transversal skills elements into their programs? Presumably, there would be a significant advantage in terms of recruitment for doing so. Someone should give it a whirl.