Why College Students Are More Disengaged Than Ever

To start, classes should better simulate real-world work projects

A woman writing on a whiteboard in a lecture hall.
College students don't want to pay attention anymore. Do they have a point?
Hill Street Studios/Getty Images

According to a recent survey conducted by the academic publishing company Wiley, college classrooms are at a bit of a crossroads. Over half of the students who participated in last summer’s State of the Student report responded that they’re “struggling to remain interested in their classes.” It’s an indicator that while American higher education enrollment is still hovering around an all-time high, more and more undergrads are confused about what, exactly, they’re supposed to be doing there. Hence, the disengagement.

Questions of real-world relevance seem to rule the day — 81% of those surveyed said that “stretch projects” (as some have called them online), in which they’d get to try their hands at company-led work, would be more likely to pique their interest…and keep their eyeballs open during a lecture.

On one hand, it’s easy to understand undergrads’ impatience with academia. Less than a third of college institutions offer access to industry professionals. Meanwhile, the average college cost in the United States is now $35,551 a year, with a preposterous annual growth rate of 7%.

On a day-to-day basis, students are inevitably left wondering: will this help me get a job? Or more immediately, will this help me get an internship? Do I need to remember this lecture for those express purposes? Should I switch to another class, considering this seat costs hundreds of dollars per session, and I probably shouldn’t wile away the minutes scrolling through Twitter?

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You could find fault with that sort of transactional disposition, but then, is anything as transactional as higher education? It’s understandable that certain professors may not have industry contacts, or may struggle to connect conventional coursework to the corporate world’s cloud-based workflow. And if you’re teaching Chaucer to law-track coeds simply hoping to knock off their humanities requirement, then, yeah, perhaps you can’t win.

It makes sense, though, that four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars should offer more than a degree. Higher education has its intangibles, obviously, offering a platform to meet your future business partner, or life partner, alongside endless opportunities to shed former versions of one’s self, court new ideas and celebrate Halloween five times in one weekend.

Any good college commencement speech, at its core, implores 22-year-olds to slow down, cherish the day and appreciate that they’re in an era of life where they don’t have to know all the answers. Good professors know how to tap into this ethos, too, helping students trade insecurity for curiosity, if only for a couple of hours a week. We need that. Students need that, no matter how much they want “stretch projects” in the classroom. Should ever lecture hall really turn into a battleground on the future of ChatGPT?

Some sort of compromise is in order. Students — even those not on the STEM or business school path — clearly want a head-start on the work years that await. Professors and administrators need to do a better job of acknowledging that there is a world outside their gates.

If you’re young, and hungry, and don’t have time for a notoriously slow-moving ecosystem to figure its shit out, you might just go with one of the “least-regretted” majors available to you: “physical sciences and math,” “computer and information sciences” and “engineering.”

But you could also buy low (while spending high, to be fair) on the majors no one is going for anymore: the social science degrees, the humanities concentrations, the ones that culminate with wacky theses comparing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the Supreme Court. If you’re determined to use your college years for old-school, Harkness method discussion, you’ll just have to be craftier when it comes time to make the leap to LinkedIn.

It’s not impossible, but it just requires a bit more introspection and branding — how can you translate so-called soft skills around the written word, language, critical thinking, research, querying and self-examination to a professional landscape? Figuring that out is never easy (and if you know anything about academia, the dusty and/or crunchy professors who helped you develop those skills are the least likely to set you up with a stable, high-paying job), but it can be deeply rewarding.

Ultimately, at the risk of cribbing college commencement copy, it’s important to cherish the years you don’t have to work for real, real-world deadlines. Stretch work sounds nice until it becomes normal work and normal work becomes your life. Think employees are “engaged” in their work? Not at all. About 70% of the workforce has characterized itself as “not engaged” (hence the quiet quitting surge in the back half of last year).

And the kicker: at least a fifth of people are actively repulsed by what they do every day. Our advice? Within the framework of what you’ve got to pay and what you’ve got to pay back….do your best to delay your repulsed days.

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