05/02/2012 11:30 am ET Updated Jul 02, 2012

What Do Today's Students Think About the Future of Higher Ed? You Might Be Surprised

"Do you actually believe in this stuff?" one of my colleagues at The Chronicle of Higher Education asked me last week.

The stuff he was referring to were the disruptive innovations that are supposed to revolutionize how higher ed is delivered in this country, a topic I've been writing a lot about lately.

I had just returned from the Education Innovation Summit at Arizona State University, a gathering that had attracted some 800 educational entrepreneurs, CEO's, and investors to hear talks about the future of education and see demonstrations from more than 100 companies promising to bring massive change to the tradition-bound industry.

As I considered his question, I started to tell him about recent campus visits that had much more of an impact on my thinking about this subject than the Arizona conference. In the last month, I have talked with students at six institutions that represent nearly every corner of our diverse higher-ed system: Arizona State, the University of Central Florida, Valencia College, Franklin & Marshall College, Southern New Hampshire University, and just this week, Georgetown University.

My conversations with the students weren't meant to be scientific survey, but rather a collection of anecdotes and ideas for this blog and my book on the future of higher ed. The students were randomly chosen by me in some cases, and by faculty members or administrators in others. I picked these colleges because they were on my travel itinerary for other purposes or were nearby.

My goal was to engage the students in the debates that seem to be swirling around them but so often don't include them in meaningful ways.

How did they pick a major, out of a passion or for its job prospects? How do they judge the value of a college degree and weigh it against its rising price tag? What's the purpose of a college education? Have they ever taken an online class or used online resources, like the Khan Academy, to brush up on certain concepts? Would they consider taking a massive online course with 100,000 other students if it led to an alternative credential, such as a badge, as well as a job?

And because Frank Bruni's column in Sunday's New York Times was fresh on my mind when talking to the Georgetown students this week, I asked if majors in philosophy and anthropology are career-relevant. Or, as Bruni suggested, should the federal government and universities use incentives to steer students "into the fields of studies that will serve them and society best"?

Their answers, in many cases, surprised me, based on what I have been hearing from both traditional leaders in higher ed and the people who want to disrupt the industry. And the students were much more nuanced in their thinking than they often sound in the news media, where sound bites and pithy quotes are usually favored over substance. So now at the risk of doing just that, here are three of the themes that emerged from my conversations (I'll tackle two other themes from these conversations in a post tomorrow):

Face-to-face education matters even more now. Because these students see the world through screens (mobile, tablet, and laptop), I expected them to embrace the idea of online education. Just the opposite. They want to engage with a professor and with their classmates, they crave the serendipity of classroom discussions, and they want the discipline of going to class. Even the adult students I met preferred a physical classroom. Online "you're pretty much paying to teach yourself," a Valencia student told me. "It's like text messages. There's no tone of voice."

That doesn't mean these students like everything about traditional higher ed. They're over the lecture, they like the idea of "flipping the classroom," and they do seek out online resources to brush up on certain subjects. "A lot of professors are petrified by online classes," one Georgetown student said. "They really want to improve the classroom experience."

More career exploration is needed before college. When describing how they picked their majors, many of the students described it either as a random process or a last-minute decision. That's in contrast to the extended, thoughtful plan some of them had for choosing a college.

"I had to pick something my last week of my senior year of high school to put on my college application," said one Valencia student. "So I said, What have I always liked to do? I knew as I kid that I liked Legos and always like to take things apart to see how they worked. I did research and put that into Google and engineering came up." So he's now a mechanical engineering major.

Some of the students described how they thought they had the perfect major selected only to discover that it required too much math or science for them, or that their parents wanted them to major in something more practical. As a result, a few switched their major and others hedged their bets and added a second major. The bottom line is that while college is for exploration, students shouldn't get to campus to discover something they want to do requires too much math or some other subject they struggle with.

Majors don't matter. Perhaps a better question is why we force students to pick a major at all. The number of majors on campus has proliferated in the last two decades, but some academics, such as Mark Taylor or Roger Schank, think we should abolish our traditional notion of majors and build the undergraduate curriculum around broad ideas or problems we face, like water and food production.

Sure, some of the students I talked with were focused on pursuing a specific profession (marketing, for instance) and wanted a degree that would give them a skill set to secure the right internships that eventually would lead to a full-time job. But most of the students said they were less concerned with picking the right major than they were with choosing the classes that would expose them to new subjects or help them connect ideas across disciplines.

"Coming out of high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do," said a student at Franklin & Marshall. He liked film and met the producer and writer Steven Bochco, who gave him this advice. "He said I didn't need to go to a big California school. If I came to F&M, he said I'd learn how to write well and learn how to learn anything, and that's valuable. I knew I could come here and live out my interests."

Several students talked about how they never viewed their major as preparation for a specific job, given the economy is in a constant state of flux. A few of the students at Georgetown who interned at banks, for instance, were struck by the fact that they saw English majors sitting next to finance majors doing the same job. "As information becomes rapidly irrelevant in the future, skill sets won't matter as much," a philosophy and psychology major at Georgetown told me.

A few international students who were part of the various groups said they specifically decided to study in the United States because they live in countries where students are tracked into specific majors and careers early on. "I loved studying everything, and I could do that here," said a Georgetown student from South Africa.

As you can see, the future of higher ed should not be a one-size-fits-all online world where students are directed to a small set of career-focused majors. That's an appropriate model for some students, particularly working adults, who might need just a few more credits for a degree or any credential to get ahead in their careers. We often talk about how diverse our higher-ed system is, but as we design the next-generation model, perhaps we should be listening more to this generation of students to ensure it remains that way.