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Investing vs. Harvesting

Why (and how) to help undergraduates make the most of their extracurriculars

July-August 2022

Illustration of students choosing different paths through college

Illustration by Gwen Keraval


Illustration by Gwen Keraval

Pforzheimer professor of teaching and learning Richard J. Light likely knows about more American colleges and universities—small and large, public and private—than any other scholar of higher education. He has met with the leaders, trustees, faculty and staff members, students, and alumni of hundreds of institutions, always asking what works, what falls short, and how to make the student experience better. He complements this learning from practice with surveys, structured interviews, and data analysis (his Harvard Ph.D. is in statistics), melding evidence with vivid, memorable storytelling to enhance higher education for all its constituents. One result of this work is his Making the Most of College, a perennially bestselling guide used by parents and students alike. (The book and its making were the subject of a 2001 Harvard Magazine profile, “The Storyteller.”)

Now, Light and his former graduate student, Allison Jegla, Ed.M. ’20 (now global director of impact for 100 Women in Finance), have produced a practical guide to no- or low-cost changes any institution of higher education can make to address concerns that were pressing on many campuses before the pandemic, and are even more so now. Becoming Great Universities: Small Steps for Sustained Excellence, like the earlier book, can be read from any perspective. One hopes presidents, deans, advisers, and teachers will take it up—along with parents and prospective students who hope for productive, fulfilling undergraduate experiences. How can students from under-resourced high schools succeed in rigorous post-secondary settings? In what ways can more rural American students be attracted to colleges that seem too far away or out of reach? What techniques might any diverse campus use to foster interactions among students from different backgrounds? And how can instructors improve students’ learning—and measure the outcomes?

One subject of particular interest at Harvard concerns the seemingly rich extracurricular environment. As Light and Jegla observe, “Considering that most students spend roughly 10 to 15 out of 168 hours per week…inside classrooms, the large amount of their time spent outside the classroom should be given the substantial attention it merits.” The College is justifiably proud of the activities seemingly on offer—and many alumni consider their extracurriculars central to their undergraduate experience. They may hope the same for their own children. But in fact, many of those potentially enriching, even life-shaping options are effectively foreclosed to some would-be participants. When the dean of students asked Light and one of his graduate classes to study the situation, they dove deep, examining how seemingly logical standards for participation work against student exploration and learning. Drawing on practices throughout higher education, they recommended modest reforms that Harvard, or any undergraduate institution, could readily adapt—to the benefit of many. The following excerpt, adapted, from chapter 3, places that topic, and the recommendations, in the context of academic and other efforts to encourage students not only to build on established strengths, but to genuinely explore new and unfamiliar fields and opportunities. ~The Editors

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Ask any entering undergraduate first-year student about why they decided to matriculate at their given university, and answers will clearly vary. Some may say they are interested in a particular academic subject and are excited to further hone their knowledge of that field. Others are looking forward to continuing to play the sport that they excelled at in high school but at a higher level of competition. Another group may be completely unsure about what they are hoping to achieve from their college experience. Regardless, all students have to make decisions about how they will spend their time on campus.

We present a framework for categorizing the many choices students must make while thinking about their college experience. We do not pass a value judgment on what is a “right” or “wrong” choice, since of course that will vary by each unique student. We hope nonetheless that thinking about developing a structure will help both undergraduates and their advisers to be maximally intentional about crafting a college experience that allows each student to embrace new ideas while continuing to cultivate existing talents.

Investing and Harvesting

We have created the simple nomenclature investing vs. harvesting to help students make sense of their options for using their time on campus. Let’s consider a pair of college juniors: Stephen and Joanne. Both entered college intending to major in chemistry and to do something related to science after graduation.

Stephen’s high school only offered classes in core subjects. He earned the best grades in his class, and he had been especially looking forward to college and having a multitude of options for quenching his thirst for broader learning. Stephen took a literature class emphasizing the history of science during freshman year. He loved it so much that he decided to major in the subject. He also tried out for and was admitted to an a cappella group after his roommate suggested that he put his shower singing voice to good use. During the summer between his sophomore and junior year, Stephen interned for an investment-banking firm and reflected on how much he had enjoyed the analytical nature of the work. He still intends to work with some aspect of science. Yet now he wonders if perhaps there would be a role that better suits his interests within the financial department of a pharmaceutical company. Stephen’s actions illustrate our definition of “investing”—when students try something completely new, investing their time and taking the risk that perhaps a new talent or interest will emerge.

Joanne is also an aspiring scientist, but her collegiate path has been quite different from Stephen’s. When Joanne was in high school, her AP chemistry teacher asked her to stay after class one day. “You’re incredibly gifted, Joanne,” she remarked. “I really hope you continue to pursue chemistry in college. You would be good at it, and it seems clear to me you certainly would enjoy it.” Joanne took her words to heart, adopting a mentality of “eat, sleep, breathe chemistry” for the vast majority of her college experience. She became president of the Chemistry Club, earned top grades in her organic chemistry class, and spent every summer working for a lab that is housed in the medical school. She developed a close relationship with the principal investigator and hopes to publish a paper with her during the first semester of senior year. Joanne exemplifies our definition of “harvesting”—she is continuing to pursue something that she already knows she excels at and has since high school. Thus, she is harvesting the fruits of a seed that has already been planted.

On campus after campus, graduating seniors overwhelmingly report that juggling a healthy balance between the two students’ strategies is a key both to a substantially successful college career and to a happy experience. Campus advisers can help students make the important decisions and trade-offs about how to achieve a reasonable balance of investing and harvesting to get the most out of their college experience. This skill is not only important for a student’s time on campus but also extends far beyond into their post-graduate lives.

The Importance of Creative Thinkers

So why are investing and harvesting so important? Suppose you are an undergraduate with an idea for a new invention. You already have interest from investors and are getting ready to pitch the idea during Startup Night at your college. Your team is just missing one thing: a chief marketing officer to help with publicity and branding. You narrow the applicant pool to two options. Candidate A is a very traditional marketing major who has done all the “right things”—she has taken a vast array of marketing classes, worked her way up as an intern at local and then national agencies, and is currently vice president of the undergraduate Marketing Club. As a textbook harvester, you feel confident that Candidate A has the technical chops to help elevate your invention.

People who have pushed themselves to explore new areas often find that doing so makes them even more effective when pursuing their original passions.

Candidate B is also a marketing major and successfully completed the core requirements, but she also diversified her résumé by blending investing behavior into her college experience. A lifelong urban dweller, she decided to spring forth from her comfort zone and work on a ranch in Colorado during the summer before her junior year. Although her role had initially been to help with preparing horses for trail rides, she became adept at capturing content with her cellphone camera. She ended up completely revamping the ranch’s website and social-media platforms. Candidate B spoke about this experience during her interview, and you were impressed by the results she had achieved as well as how fascinating she was as a person. Since you are developing a new concept with limited funding, your team will need to be nimble and respond to challenges quickly. You feel confident that Candidate B would be adaptable and also would strive to infuse new ideas into your work.

The choice between Candidates A and B, we believe, is not completely obvious. In a situation with the requisite resources, the best course of action might well be to invite both students to join your team so that it has adequate depth and breadth. This, unfortunately, is not always possible. In any situation involving team-building, the decision-maker typically has to make difficult choices about the type of background that will be most helpful in addressing their daily challenges.

One of Allison Jegla’s former colleagues, Maya, presents a compelling example of how seemingly unrelated courses of study have more in common than one would anticipate. As an undergraduate at Princeton, Maya majored in art and archaeology. Following graduation, she worked in art galleries in Manhattan, then completed a master’s degree in art history at Columbia. Soon after, she realized that a career in the art world was not the best fit. Maya attended Johns Hopkins to complete post-baccalaureate work and then went on to medical school and residency at the University of Michigan. She’s now a dermatologist. “Do you regret spending so much time focused on art?” Jegla once asked her. “It just doesn’t seem all that related to what you’re doing now.” Maya laughed and then detailed an experiment in which a group of medical students who took a course on how to examine paintings were more likely to correctly diagnose images of medical ailments than their peers who had not taken the course. “You know, I use my art history background almost every day as a physician,” she said. “Dermatologists need to be able to quickly distinguish atypical visual cues and identify patterns. I spent years learning how to do that.” The college experiences for “Candidate B” and for Maya underscore the importance of investing as well as creative thinking. People who have pushed themselves to explore new areas often find that doing so makes them even more effective when pursuing their original passions.

How Universities Help Students with Investing and Harvesting…and the Case of Extracurriculars

We find stark differences among colleges and universities in how they encourage their students to build upon existing passions and strengths while also taking some risks. Some college leaders are vocal about their recommendation for students to try new things. Often they emphasize the unique experience of being in college. For example, while president of Ithaca College, Thomas Rochon posted a blog on the school’s website reminding students to take advantage of all the college had to offer:

One of the most common but nonetheless valuable messages we give our students is: ‘Get out of your comfort zone.’ It is especially important for new students to hear this, because the only way to fully take advantage of an Ithaca College education is to sample the enormous breadth of experiences that are available. There are a wide variety of courses to be taken, student clubs and activities to get involved in, friends to meet, perspectives to encounter. The college years are a period of remarkable growth for most young adults, and time spent out of one’s comfort zone is a significant factor in producing that growth.

Another especially powerful and positive example comes from Akirah Bradley of the University of Colorado Boulder. We particularly appreciate the way that she not only tells students they should try new things, but gives examples of investing and harvesting from her own life. She writes for new students who arrive at Boulder:

I made a life-changing decision last year that required me to step out of my comfort zone, and I bet many of you can relate to this experience. Last year, I moved from California to Colorado when I accepted the position of associate vice chancellor of student affairs and dean of students at CU Boulder. Of course, I had some reservations about moving to a new state—what if I didn’t fit in? What if the culture wasn’t right for me? What if I couldn’t handle all the snow in the winter? I was pretty comfortable in California, but I also knew I shouldn’t let those reservations hold me back from a good opportunity.

I’m happy I made the decision to embrace the unknown, as it has led to a rewarding experience here….The community could not have been more welcoming, and I’m still able to hike and enjoy hobbies I had in California. I’m actually stepping outside of my comfort zone again this winter: I’ve signed up for skiing lessons, which will be completely new for me. I’m nervous but excited!

I strongly encourage all of you to go out and try new things. I know how easy it is to stay in your room and text your friends from home, but you end up missing out on so many experiences by staying comfortable with what you already know. You might be happily surprised by what you find you enjoy and who you meet.…

While many colleges make public statements about the importance of trying new things—doing some “investing”—some campuses are in fact organized and structured to almost guarantee that many students become quickly discouraged. Undergraduates are sometimes turned away when they make an effort to try something different for the first time. Some are turned away from multiple efforts to join new activities, student groups, teams, or clubs. There are more than a few examples of students who arrive at college, try out to join four new activities, and are turned away from all four because “they aren’t good enough yet.”


Illustration by Gwen Keraval

At times, curricular risks aren’t comfortable or even desirable for certain students. New arrivals to campus may prefer to achieve depth rather than breadth, diving headlong into their chosen academic pathway and becoming as close to an expert as is possible between the ages of 18 and 22. This is perhaps particularly true for students on a pre-professional track who have been told that graduate schools will only accept their candidacy if their résumé looks a certain way. Especially for these focused students—many of whom are hesitant to deviate from the academic profile they had anticipated when entering college—extracurricular activities can be a low-risk way to elevate creativity and to develop valuable soft skills.

Yet earning a spot in a new extracurricular activity is not always as straightforward as some may imagine. Richard Light, working with a team of graduate students, found that more than 60 percent of newly entering first-year students at several selective colleges did not know before arriving that they would be required to try out competitively for at least some of the activities they wished to join. They had expected that when they arrived on campus, they could pretty much join any organization or activity group they wished. This does not seem like an outrageous assumption for a student to make. After all, most extracurriculars are an “extra thing.” There is no academic credit. They require a great deal of time input, and many ask for a serious commitment from students. So, one might think that pretty much all students who want to join would be welcomed with open arms.

Unfortunately, not all groups at a college can possibly accept every student who applies or tries out—even if they want to. For example, a typical college debate team might only be able to accommodate 12 members. Suppose 50 new students show up the first day. Think of who will probably be accepted. Of those 50 students, maybe four or five were the captain of their high-school debate team. Perhaps half a dozen others were not the captain but were still solid members in high school. Meanwhile, the remaining students—though eager to learn—may never have debated in their lives. They might not even fully know the rules of debate yet. Surely one can’t fault the leaders of the debate team for choosing the 12 students who seem to be the strongest debaters. After all, debating is a competitive enterprise. Everyone on the debate team wants to perform well in “matches” against other schools. So a new student who simply shows up and wants to learn how to debate, in the good-hearted spirit of trying something new, clearly is at an enormous disadvantage.

Other groups may have constraints on their numbers, based on other factors. For example, many colleges have a small group of students who participate in a student crisis helpline. These volunteers receive phone calls from other students on campus who are experiencing mental-health challenges, have just heard very bad news, might be severely depressed, or are even potentially considering self-harm. This is truly serious business. Most colleges indeed do take it seriously. Becoming a student staff member of such a group requires both thorough training and excellent judgment. Clearly these students cannot just be random volunteers. To act responsibly, the organizing group’s leaders need to select students who already have certain skills or certifications, or who are willing to go through a great deal of training. To do otherwise would be irresponsible. This is a slightly unusual example, yet it makes the main point that not all students who want to invest in a new extracurricular activity during college can—or should—immediately be accepted into a voluntary, extracurricular group.

So what happens when students try out for an extracurricular activity on campus and are rejected? One Harvard student reflected on the frustration that can arise: “Harvard always says that we have a million clubs, so there’s so much that you can do. But in reality, the number of clubs that are completely open to everyone is somewhat limited,” she noted in the student newspaper. “College is a chance to experiment and try new things, and [the competitive process] here just makes that profoundly challenging.”

Katherine O’Dair, the Harvard College dean of students, invited Light and a team of 14 graduate students to explore this very topic. They interviewed Harvard students and compared practices with those at many other institutions, including Pomona College, Brown University, Pitzer College, the University of Virginia, Princeton, Georgetown, and Cornell.

The key takeaway from this research was that many students come to campus anticipating their biggest challenges will arise in their formal classes and with their academic work. Of course, that is indeed sometimes correct. Yet to the research team’s surprise, a majority of challenges and rejections came not from regular classes, but rather from the “other part”—the many voluntary, not-for-academic-credit extracurricular activities. A simple benchmarking effort with other colleges and universities found that students arriving at those campuses face roughly similar challenges.

How Universities Can Improve: Rebalancing Extracurriculars

What can a college or university do, then, to welcome students into extracurricular pursuits, to facilitate the balancing of investing and harvesting? While some campus leaders now encourage students to achieve a balance between building on existing strengths while also trying new things, often this idea is presented in broad terms. For some students, more specific and focused advice about how to actually do this could be helpful.

Light’s graduate-student team identified five recommendations to improve students’ extracurricular participation. None are expensive to implement.

Tiered participation. Encourage student organizations at a college to develop tiered membership levels rather than simply using a “You are in or you are out” joining process. For example, a prospective writer for the student newspaper may not have the time nor the inclination to write the three articles per week all year that are required of a full-time staff member. Instead, they may be more than delighted when invited to contribute one article per week as an associate op-ed editor.

Pursue a noncompetitive activity. On each of the campuses that Light’s team contacted, approximately half of the student organizations have open participation (no competitive tryout involved), while the other half have requisite application or audition processes that can involve rejections. Across campuses, examples of open clubs include those such as the College Chorus for singers, the Mountain Climbing Club for those who enjoy mountain climbing, and dozens of religious organizations, political groups, and clubs based on academic or professional interest.

Surprisingly, a majority of students’ biggest challenges and rejections arise not in their classes and academic work, but from voluntary, extracurricular activities.

The recommendation then is to encourage each new student to select, join, and engage with at least one or two organizations that warmly welcome everyone. That same student should of course feel free to try to join a different one or two competitive groups they find appealing. If they are accepted to one or some limited-admission groups, they are free to leave the open group. If not accepted, they know for sure they have a slot in an organization they themselves chose and are enthusiastic to join. This way each student at college can invest in and try at least one or two new activities, even if other, competitive groups may turn them down for some reason.

Welcome casual participants. Student organizations that have full-time members who are fully committed to that organization (such as the student newspaper) should find ways for nonmembers to participate. It is understandable that students who are “all in,” meaning they are committed to doing the work and building events and outputs, should become the leaders of campus organizations. Yet surely—staying with the campus newspaper as a concrete example—there can be room for an occasional contribution from a student guest writer, one who contributes an op-ed, or someone who volunteers to cover a specific event, like a campus speaker or basketball tournament. If the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal can figure out how do it, perhaps many colleges can too.

It should not be hard to structure such opportunities, thereby creating a tone of both inclusion and welcome that extends beyond the limited membership of any student club. Meanwhile, that new student who writes just three or four guest op-ed articles over her entire first year at college might decide she really loves doing it. In fact, she might even go on to write for the Washington Post. This could be “investing” at its best.

Inform students thoroughly. We recommend enhanced and thorough communications with incoming students to share more details in advance about the amazing opportunities available to them outside of classes. This information can include details about a typical level of engagement with each organization, how much time is required each semester since that varies enormously among organizations, and what skills are especially helpful or needed. Finally, each organization should convey whether they require a tryout or application process. For example, if the student newspaper in fact asks every prospective member to write four short articles and one longer, feature-length editorial in the first two months of fall semester, that is their choice. Such a requirement may help the leaders of the student newspaper to see how well new applicants write. Plus, the level of follow-up from applicants can convey how eager each new applicant actually is to do the real work. Our point is—just convey this simple fact to incoming students. There should be no reason for secrets.

Engage students as teachers. Student organizations can be encouraged, if they find it a useful idea, to incorporate a modest level of a “teaching function” for newcomers who want to “invest” and learn a new skill, yet clearly have no experience in an outside-of-classroom activity. A drama group can have a small number of their more experienced, full-time members devote a fraction of their time and energy to teaching students who are excited to learn how to act and have never tried it before. Same for singing groups. Same for the debate team, where the dozen debaters who all participated in high school can “harvest” their own skills by teaching new students who don’t even know the precise rules of debating. While doing this, the new students who are “investing” may decide they want to try out for the college debate team next year, after they have learned the ropes far better.

This fifth recommendation has an upbeat takeaway. It is that if a campus organization has a few members who are willing to harvest their expertise and to devote modest time and energy to teaching, to working with new students who are investing to try to learn new skills, both groups win. The experienced student harvesters are making a major contribution to their college community. The new student investors are learning an entirely new skill that can enrich their lives for years to come. And the bonus comes when both groups of students—those investing and those harvesting—form new and perhaps lasting friendships and bonds with one another around a shared interest. Both the tutor and the tutee have put some effort into working together.

At most colleges, these changes won’t happen by themselves even with many students having the best intentions. It might require the office of the dean of students, or the office of student affairs, or the dean of a college to take a lead role in encouraging student organizations to consider these recommendations.

 

Many new students grapple with what can feel like an overwhelming number of options for learning. Formal and informal advisers can help to ease this learning curve by collaboratively providing students with an investing and harvesting framework. Our hope is that students feel supported and emboldened to craft a college experience that builds upon their existing strengths, while also cultivating a genuine love for learning and grappling with new opportunities that continues for the rest of their lives.  

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