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