What is the Purpose of College?

Our purpose never occurred to us while we were working toward it — and looking back, I'm thankful it did not.

While it seems like longer ago, it's only been about 10 years since my brother and I used to sit together at the kitchen table and figure word problems. The various predicaments they presented were nonsensical and often dark, involving trains heading toward collision or how long the fallout from a nuclear explosion would contaminate the environment. The work seemed more geared to plotting an elaborate terrorist strike, but we were merely working on my homework assignment for a college-level calculus class, and all we had to rely on was our intellect and my $150 graphing calculator.

Thankfully my brother was gifted with mathematics — and also very patient. Though he's six years older and didn't have a college degree, he'd still take me through the initial question, explain what key words were implicit in setting up the equations, and show the steps for getting to the final answer. He was in effect my default tutor, exceptional at ignoring my questions about "why" I was being asked to find the answers to such abstract (and complex) problems using a skill that would never concern me beyond the one course.

These quiet moments when we sat together, for me, embody the essence of education. We racked our brains for hours together and often came up with the right answer. In the cases when we didn’t, we had applied the strategy that we best thought would work and questioned our thinking: why did the approach we used before not work in this situation? We were expanding our knowledge with practice and contemplation – and we were deepening our friendship.

I thought about those study sessions this week after a reader posted a simple question in the discussion forum on the Career College Central LinkedIn page: What is the purpose of college?

This question is as straightforward as they come, and yet the answer to it is far more complicated. We all know the appropriate response is multi-faceted. There’s the general conceit that the pursuit of a college education expands the intellect and leads to the betterment of the individual. In a college environment, students must interact socially with new people – many from different cultures and backgrounds – and ultimately learn the skills they need to develop relationships and ideally become a responsible citizen (online education has altered this somewhat, but students could be said to interact more than before in chat rooms and discussion forums related to class.) College is seen, by some, as an essential phase in becoming an adult. Learning to live on your own, balance your finances, and meet the requirements in paying for your education. And then there is an employment aspect where the degree or the knowledge imparted eventually leads to a well-paying job … in a reasonable amount of time after graduation.

But when you must choose directly between a career-focused path of learning or a more general degree direction, can you have the best of all these worlds? Does an education that essentially teaches you your job impart all that it could to make you a better person? Is that – or should that – be the role of a college education? Will a more general degree path translate into work?

The original LinkedIn question struck me as being surprisingly poignant. Lately, we’ve been more concerned as a sector with the false portrayal of the career college sector. The media has turned career education into an “industry” in which schools are nothing more than cogs that churn students out on long assembly lines that stretch through the suburbs and (allegedly) the homeless shelters.

Stock markets. Enrollment projections. Law suits. Behind-the-scenes dealings in Washington. They have little to nothing to do with the actual reasoning for pursuing a degree or the delivery and quality of career education. What we often find ourselves reading about higher education are stories about cold, hard cash – schools’ uses of taxpayer funds – and our failures as a nation to produce college graduates. Have we taken our eye off of the ball? Maybe we have.
Why do students go to college, especially when they will be graduated off a cliff (meaning many will labor for four years or more only to find there are no vacant jobs that fit their background)? So what purpose does college serve?

There are bits of all the various reasoning that applies, and yet it’s ultimately up to the individual to determine the purpose. Good jobs are fewer these days. Students are more likely to cite employment as the main objective no matter what type of school they attend. Without eventually finding employment, the other factors for pursuing an education will hardly feel real at all. Coming of age, being a better, responsible person, appreciating other cultures – those are all noble achievements. What confuses it all is that finding employment has much to do with becoming a contributing member of society and having a place to use those important values.

When you drop thousands of dollars on an education and find no jobs waiting for you, you take to the streets. Once you’ve expended all of your options, you do the only reasonable thing that’s left to do. You shout from the rooftops, you stand on Wall Street until you can force change.  I think we all – including recent graduates – would prefer the old way when you could study what you wanted and find a world of opportunity out there. I can’t say how I would have reacted if I stopped to think the degree I was working toward would take me nowhere. If I were a disgruntled student now and happened to live in the northeast, I would be out in the streets too, wondering how my future ended up on a train bound to collide with another.

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