Nearly every single college and university promotes “lifelong learning” as a core goal for its students and graduates. So much so that it’s written into most mission or purpose statements of higher education institutions. And although most Americans—students and parents especially—say their number one reason for attending or valuing college is “to get a good job,” lifelong learning—to most academics—is considered a core mission of higher education. Given how much emphasis is placed on lifelong learning as a goal, it would be reasonable to think that higher education institutions have measured whether this outcome is being achieved. But the honest truth is they haven’t. It’s simply been a hope and a promise. And, unfortunately, new Gallup research suggests that’s all it is: a promise, far from a reality.
There are many ways that lifelong learning could be measured. One way is by asking activity-based questions such as how many books or articles someone reads, whether they do research on the Internet, visit a library, have a conversation with someone from a foreign country, engage in debates about important issues with their friends, or cast an informed vote in an election, etc.
Decades of Gallup research about what it means to be engaged in your work and thriving in your overall well-being suggests there is a simple but powerful measure of lifelong learning—to ask the direct question: “Do you learn something new or interesting every day?” It’s highly likely that a person doing any of the activity-based measures of learning described above would most certainly agree with this statement.
Gallup asked this question of a representative sample of more than 170,000 adults across the US in 2014, and we cut the data by varying levels of educational attainment. What we learned is there’s no difference whatsoever in the likelihood that college graduates agree with this question compared with those with any lower level of education—even those without a high school diploma! It turns out that only postgraduate or professional degree exposure or attainment moves the needle on lifelong learning, as measured by whether someone agrees that they learn something new or interesting every day.
What an unbelievable disappointment. So much for the promise of a bachelor’s degree leading to lifelong learning. Time to modify the mission statements! Lifelong learning? Only for those for who reach postgraduate or professional degree levels.
Yes, on average, people with college degrees make a lot more money over their lifetime than those without a degree. This is one important outcome of a degree. The academic world, however, is quick to dismiss purely economic outcomes as the sole purpose of higher education and for good reason. The common refrain then goes something like, “Yes, but it’s not just about a job, it’s about creating lifelong learners and engaged citizens.” At which point everyone just nods approvingly without ever demanding any evidence. It’s time to start digging for that evidence—and quickly! So far, what Gallup has found doesn’t look very good.
Although it is, at first glance, a shocking finding that college grads are no more likely than anyone else to learn something new or interesting every day, it may not be so surprising when you piece together what else Gallup has learned in the last year. Findings from the Gallup-Purdue Index—a massive study of over 30,000 college graduates—revealed that nearly four out of 10 graduates did not strongly agree they had a single professor who made them excited about learning and a solid majority (fully two thirds) of all college graduates missed out on working on a long-term project that took more than a semester to complete, or a job or internship where they applied what they were learning in the classroom. How do we expect higher education to produce lifelong learners when many grads are missing the mark on having exciting professors, long-term projects and applied jobs and internships? We shouldn’t.
The famous quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupery from The Wisdom of the Sands is quite apropos to this startling revelation about college and lifelong learning: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” It begs the question: Is higher education drumming up students, gathering seat time and credits, and handing out diplomas? Or is it teaching students to yearn for the vast and endless sea of knowledge? Don’t bet on the latter. Unless, of course, you plan to go as far as a postgraduate education.