What’s the purpose of higher education? College is about more than simply getting a job

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I recently spoke with a college-bound student and his mother in my career services office. These types of meetings have significantly increased in the last few years as families want to inquire about all the statistical data related to job placement. I asked the young man what his ideal college experience looked like. His answer: “I want to roll through my classes, get the parchment, then get a really good, high paying job.”

Is that all a college education is? A piece of paper that gets you a job? My fear has been that this is what the college experience has come to for current education “consumers.” It seems my fears have been confirmed. According to Jeff Selingo, one of the nation’s leading higher education strategists, New York Times best-selling author, and Washington Post columnist, “prospective students and parents now study the financial benefits of higher education and career outcomes of graduates of campuses they’re considering as thoroughly as they scrutinize a college’s academic offerings, social life, and location.”

Selingo has captured the mindset that most college seekers and families bring to the college search. Families are shopping around to buy an education as a “transaction” to purchase a job. This view is affirmed by Hunter Rowlings, a former president of the Association of American Universities. He states that “most everyone now evaluates college in purely economic terms, thus reducing it to a commodity like a car or a house.” He goes on to say:

A college education is no car. The courses the student decides to take (and not take), the amount of work the student does, the intellectual curiosity the student exhibits, her participation in class, his focus and determination—all contribute far more to her educational ‘outcome’ than the college’s overall curriculum, much less its amenities and social life. Most public discussion of higher education today pretends that students simply receive their education from colleges the way a person walks out of Best Buy with a television.

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Both Salingo and Rowlings prompt us to ask the extremely important question: What is a college education? Having invested my life in college students and having talked with thousands of parents and high school seniors over nearly a quarter century, I have indeed pondered the purpose of education. Many individuals I have interacted with have articulated this misinformed and shallow definition of education and the pursuit of happiness. They say that success is found by going to college, buying a degree, satisfying the basic requirements, securing a well-paying job, going to work, getting a paycheck, and acquiring material possessions.

I have led a nationally ranked career services office, motivating students to find their calling and either secure a meaningful career or go off to professional or graduate school. You might think I would enthusiastically endorse this job-focused philosophy. I don’t. A college education should not be viewed as a product to buy which delivers self-centered opportunities. This is an inward-focused, narcissistic, and limited view of education.

Yes, the cost to attend college, the placement rate, the return on investment numbers, the on-campus recruiting stats, the acceptance rate to graduate school, and the average debt load of the alumni are all important figures to consider (all have their place in the equation/discussion/evaluative process). But these numbers provide a very superficial appraisal of the true hope, heart, and intrinsic “value” of education. Legitimate education assists students in their sincere pursuit of instruction, character development, competence, and virtues to deliberately and accountably engage all of life. Think about it: Where will students prepare for being an ethical employee, a faithful husband or wife, a loving father or mother, an involved neighbor or community member, a devoted friend, etc?

I proposed a follow-up question to the young man sitting in my office, asking him if there were other things he wanted to experience, be involved in, or develop. His answer was direct and firm. “No, not that I can think of.” With this response, a number of thoughts quickly ran through my mind. What about the development of his moral compass and the building of life-long friendships? Or his character development and leadership opportunities?  What has happened to becoming a life-long learner? To grappling with the significant questions of life? Learning how to live in community, respecting people much different than himself, seeking out opportunities to serve, and landing on a set of values that will direct his life—where do these come in?

The narrowly focused, data-driven view of the college experience espoused by this young man is consistent with the current research, but is it valid? No. Grove City College professors Gary Smith and Paul Kemeny note: “The goal of education is to help students to think deeply about the major ethical, historical, cultural, philosophical, and theological issues of our day. This will effectively equip them to work in crucial culture-shaping institutions, such as business, education, the media, government, and the church, in order to serve the common good.”

College graduates should not be viewed as round pegs to go into round holes, but as individuals who have the hearts, souls, minds, and skills to make a difference in the lives of others and the world. Students should be wholly educated to prepare them to serve their Maker and their neighbor in their particular vocation and in all of life. This preparation, this transformation, does not happen by the vending-machine approach to higher education. As I often say to parents and prospective students, a career or grad school “fit” is an appropriate expectation of a personal and financial investment in an education. But the personal growth, learning, and maturity are much more profoundly important than “the job.” This is education, and it is worth the investment!

—Dr. Jim Thrasher is the Senior Fellow of Grove City College’s career services office and the coordinator of the Center for Vision & Values working group on calling.

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