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Seal of Approval

When a sociology professor surveyed six classes of College alumni—from 1975 to 1993—he found that the demographics have shifted, but the intellectual tradition remains.

By Andrew Abbott

I don’t remember whether somebody told me about it. Maybe I learned by watching people. But by the end of my first year as a graduate student I knew you weren’t supposed to step on the brass tablet of the University seal in the Reynolds Club foyer. Undergraduates told me that you wouldn’t graduate in four years if you stepped on that seal; God only knew what would happen to a graduate student.

Twenty-five years later, in 1995, I found myself again watching students step around that brass plaque. Curricular change was in the air and I was writing a book on the college major and its role in liberal education. By offering to survey how alumni viewed their U of C education, I could secretly answer my burning question: Did the plaque’s prophecy really hold?

With Ford Foundation money and the College Dean’s blessing, I went to the field and surveyed all alumni of the College classes of 1975, 1980, 1985, 1988, 1990, and 1993. My main substantive questions had to do with the relative importance—in alumni’s current lives—of the skills learned in core and concentration. Along with the usual background questions, there were side questions on finances and contact with other alumni, as well as the questions about the brass plaque. Knowing U of C students, I also left a full page for written comments.

Either I pleaded well or U of C alumni are much more interested in helping advance knowledge than is the average person. I got back nearly half of the questionnaires, a truly heroic response for a mail survey. And here’s what I found. First, the demographics. There have been some shifts in who attends the U of C. Mirroring the general increase in American educational levels, parents of more recent alumni are more highly educated than those of 20 years ago. Alumni representing the first college generation in their families dropped from 30 percent in 1975 to around 15 percent in 1993. At the other end of the scale, alumni whose fathers have advanced degrees climbed from 30 percent to 60 percent over the same period. But the occupational mix among “alumni fathers” has changed only slightly—from 5 percent to 10 percent doctors is the biggest change—which means fathers are doing the same things but with more credentials. Among alumni mothers, of course, the big change is the disappearance of homemakers—35 percent of 1975 alumni mothers, but only 11 percent of the 1993 alumni mothers. There are now many more businesswomen and nurses among alumni mothers.

Alumni—and by extension, today’s students—are a dramatically more international group. Astonishingly, about a third of 1993 alumni had fathers born outside the U.S. The figure is the same for mothers, which means that probably over 40 percent had at least one parent born outside the U.S. The largest new group is Asians and Asian-Americans, who made up only 1 percent of the class of 1975, but are 20 percent of the class of 1993.

So there has been a considerable shift in who comes to the U of C. What about what they do after they leave? The long-term pattern is surprisingly steady since 1980: About 10 percent of each class goes into academics, 10 percent into medicine, 15 percent into law, and 25 percent into business. Research science, computer science, and teaching have all risen to around 8-10 percent each in recent classes. This may be because these are to some extent “early life cycle” occupations—occupations that are characteristic of youth and that will be succeeded by academics, business, law, and other pursuits as alumni age.

Like most American college graduates, however, alumni arrive at their eventual occupations more slowly today than 20 years ago. In 1975, about 40 percent of the class went directly to graduate or professional school. In 1993, only 20 percent did so. Conversely, only 40 percent went directly to full-time employment in 1975, while nearly 60 percent did in the classes after 1985. While the number of alumni planning eventually to get advanced education has risen slightly, the destinations have changed. Business school peaked as a destination in the mid-1980s and has fallen since, while medical school shows precisely the reverse pattern.

One occupational fact has remained true throughout these alumni classes; undergraduate concentrations have remarkably weak connections with eventual occupations. Most doctors do come from biology or chemistry, but there is at least one doctor each from anthropology, classics, English, mathematics, music, philosophy, and romance languages. Similarly, four of ten bankers come from economics but 10 percent majored in English and 10 percent in political science. Lawyers and professors come from everywhere. Looking the other way—from the concentrations forward—things are just as scattered. For example, romance language alumni in this sample include an actuary, a banker, a salesman, a college administrator, a lawyer, a doctor, a nurse, a non-academic researcher, two high-school teachers, and a psychotherapist.

On the financial front the income data look reasonable for the mix of occupations, but the persistence of college debt seems striking. Only 58 percent of the class of 1985 were totally free of college debt by the time of the survey ten years later. To be sure, college loans have usually been cheap debt in a world of expensive mortgage and consumer credit. But college debt remains an important factor in the lives of most U of C alumni. Although college debt has clearly risen nationwide, rates among U of C alumni may be higher than those elsewhere, as the proportion of scholarship students has always been very high at the U of C—nearly 80 percent of the classes in the early 1980s, for example.

I was, of course, most interested in what parts of their education alumni have found most valuable. Following questions asked in the general surveys of the Council on Funding Higher Education (COFHE—a group of 40 elite colleges and universities of which Chicago is a member), I gave alumni a list of intellectual achievements and asked 1) how important they were in the alumni’s current lives, 2) how much the core curriculum had contributed to them, and 3) how much concentrations had contributed.

On a five-point scale, the same five items ranked at the top (around 4.6) for every class: critical thinking, analytic skills, a capacity for lifelong learning, the ability to work independently, and the ability to write clearly.

Below them but still high (from 3.8 to 4.2) came the other six items: general knowledge, knowledge of a particular discipline, self-understanding, acceptance of people with other beliefs, the ability to work cooperatively, and an understanding of science.

Note that the top five achievements are all skills. General and specific knowledge both fall distinctly lower than things like critical thinking and the ability to write. Alumni thus rate knowledge skills more important than actual content, at least in terms of their current lives. These results parallel the COFHE data from surveys that cover alumni from all 40 COFHE schools. In those surveys, U of C alumni show the same patterns as alumni of other schools, but are somewhat more extreme in their judgments of the importance of intellectual matters. In addition, they are far more satisfied with their intellectual training in college—almost by an order of magnitude—than graduates of any other COFHE school.

Where did these skills come from? The vast majority of alumni feel that both core and concentration contributed more to the five central skills than they did to actual knowledge or to the other intellectual achievements. Not only do alumni value the central skills most, they think that both their general and their specialized education did more for central skills than for anything else. Both core and concentration have their main effects as vectors of general education—education in how to think.

And a considerable majority in every class rated the core as more important to their education than their concentration in every single area other than knowledge of a specific discipline. For every central skill as well as for general knowledge, self-understanding, and the other secondary achievements, the core was rated higher than the concentration. The verbatim comments—often filling the page available—made this judgment in no uncertain terms. The core is the heart of the U of C for this sample:

“I saw my concentration as an extension of the core, not as a way to learn specific information.”

“A solid liberal-arts education is a thinking woman’s defense against a changing world.”

“As a biologist I feel that the focus on learning to think critically both in the core and in my concentration courses was essential to my development as a scientist.”

Again and again, alumni urged that the Common Core be maintained or strengthened.

Alumni’s one disappointment—and the main curricular lesson I take from the survey—is that Chicago doesn’t have enough cooperative learning experiences. This disappointment is greatest among alumni of earlier classes, whose lives have gone beyond the competitive throes of youth to the cooperative complexities of middle age.

Thus, on intellectual matters the survey’s basic result is that alumni value their education very highly, value skills more than content, and value the core above the concentrations. Indeed, this result dovetails nicely with the finding that concentrations are not all that closely related to current occupation. The skills learned in concentrations matter, not the particular knowledge.

Of course these results echo very clearly the College’s longstanding educational philosophy. Since the Hutchins years, Chicago has followed the liberal education tradition in its emphasis of skill over material. Like alumni of other schools, but even more strongly, Chicago’s alumni prize those skills and value the college years that brought them.

But we may be at a turning point for such attitudes. Higher education in America requires less and less work from college students. Most of our university competitors deliver their education in large lecture courses, requiring occasional papers, easily thrown together in a few late evenings and read by graduate students rather than faculty. Students spend much of their time on extracurricular activities. Seniors spend their entire last year finding their post-graduate jobs. Grades average A- or better and three quarters of students receive honors.

This has not been the Chicago way; we believe in education and insist that our students get the reality, not the show. That reality is costly but effective. Our alumni love it and echo our own faith in it. But unless we are both careful and courageous it may be difficult to defend real liberal education. Since graduate degrees are replacing college degrees as the common currency of success in American society, students have less and less incentive to challenge themselves in college, both here and elsewhere. This is the more true since substantial numbers of our competitors deliver high grades and second-rate education to many of the brightest young people in America, who enter the graduate and professional school competition looking wonderful on paper even while having had—by Chicago terms—very little college education. It will be more and more difficult to stand apart. A sign of this difficulty is the fact that Chicago itself is up to a 3.3 (B+) average GPA and a 50 percent honors rate among graduates.

And what of the brass plaque—symbol of Chicago’s rigor? I asked alumni two things: “Did you step on the brass plaque?” and “How long did it take you to graduate?” They knew just what I meant; only 13 percent checked off “What brass plaque?” (Older alumni were more likely to have forgotten—a third of the class of 1975, for example.) So the first fact about the brass plaque is that everybody knew about it. And the second fact is that it does have an effect.

In every class, those who stepped on it were less likely to graduate in four years. Overall, 93 percent of alumni who did not step on the plaque graduated in four years, but only 85 percent of those who did step on it graduated in four years. The effect is statistically significant; I invite readers to write in with explanations—real or artifactual—of the effect. As for me, I stepped on it before I knew better.

My Ph.D. took 11 years.

Andrew Abbott, AM’75, PhD’82, the Ralph Lewis professor in sociology and the College, is the author of The System of Professions (University of Chicago Press, 1988). The U of C Press will publish his new book, Department and Discipline, in 1999.

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