Seniors across the country are using the month of April to finalize college choices. After years of observing this culmination of the college search process, I'm attuned to the many variables that factor into their decisions: proximity to (or distance from) from home, cost, perceived strength of the academic program, residential offerings, and social life are among the most important. Ideally, seniors choose a college that is comfortable enough to start, and demanding enough to challenge their growth through four of the most exciting years of their lives.
It's hard to get that balance right, so it's also true that we end up making decisions based on other factors, some of which are fleeting and some of which are so deeply etched into our psyches that we can barely articulate a single persuasive reason why we make such an important life decision. I've seen students turn down a great college option because it was cold and rainy on the day they toured. I foolishly chose not to apply to Rice University because I thought the tour guide was weird and I couldn't understand why he would sacrifice his Spring Break to read Dickens' Bleak House.
And I'll never forget a conversation with a Woodberry Forest father many years ago explaining why he wanted his son to go to the University of North Carolina: "I've always wanted," he told me, "to go the games with my boy." In my household, the one non-negotiable was we had to leave home for college. So when we lived in Nashville, Vanderbilt was off the table, and when we moved to Lubbock, Texas Tech went off the radar. My dad (who definitely loved me by the way) couldn't have cared less about going to game with his boy, he just wanted me get a good education, preferably at a school a good long way from home.
Lurking beneath these calculations and family dynamics is a question that we should answer: What is college for? We should candidly allow that the answers to this question are murkier now than they have been at any time in our nation's history since the GI Bill in the aftermath of World War II. For generations we have assumed that going to college was the surest route to social and economic mobility. But with undergraduate college loan debt at an all-time high and with the labor market still stubbornly soft, more and more Americans are questioning return on investment.
With the dawn of the Information Age, we're seeing the jobs we took for granted being outsourced across the globe, and associated career paths are drying up and being re-directed in ways we can barely predict. Google now admits that they care very little about test scores and grades and a college record when they hire new employees. What matters more is "emergent leadership" and the ability to work together as a team of humble learners more interested in getting to the right answer than claiming individual credit.
If college is meant to be merely a credential or an assumed rite of passage between childhood and adulthood, the traditional model we know today is sure to fail. The debt is too great and the outcomes are too uncertain. Even a steady flow of conference and national championships in the super-funded world of college athletics are not enough to save college as it was when I went to the University of Virginia in 1990 and to graduate school at the University of Texas in 1992. After all, wouldn't it make more sense to get a far less expensive degree on-line than risk the downside of significant debt and a shrinking labor market? Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are treading into the marketplace, and some colleges and universities are beginning to offer credit for life experiences outside of the walls of the Ivory Tower, arguably two signs that what we have valued in the past is no longer as relevant today.
But if we grapple more rigorously with the question about what college is for, we might chart a path forward that renews our belief in the purpose of education as the engine of economic and social mobility and restores our ailing political culture. I believe we should hold ourselves more highly accountable to the larger purpose of an education. It is for sure important to train the next generation of the nation's workforce, and business publications like Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and Business Week all offer assessments of return on investment for students and families anxious about what's after college.
The College Board doubles down on the economic argument, emphasizing that "greater wealth means more choices. Whatever your dreams--owning a home, traveling the world--college is the way to support a richer life." And except for some spectacular exceptions, and reputable and necessary trades that don't require traditional college, it is true that most of us need a university education to open doors that will otherwise be shut.
But I like to think that the answer to "what is college for" includes far more than mere preparation for a job. After all, we hear constantly that most of the jobs of the future don't exist today. The best way to prepare for that uncertainty is to make a commitment to life-long learning, starting in kindergarten and continuing through retirement. The stakes are higher now in The Information Age. While we can take far less for granted, Socrates' call to a self-examined life is more relevant than ever. And as former Barnard President Judith Shapiro suggests, we crave a life of learning because "you want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life."
Finally, college in a democratic republic should be more than about mere self interest. We need in our nation a more educated and more thoughtful citizenry, less susceptible to demagoguery and more inclined to commit to the common good. Perhaps John Alexander Smith, professor of moral philosophy at Oxford in the early twentieth century said it best when he addressed his students: "Gentlemen: Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after (college) life--save only this--that if you work hard and intelligently, you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of an education."
We’ll continue this conversation at Randolph’s Thurber Arts Center on Wednesday, April 16th at 7:00 p.m. when we host Dr. Judy Bonner, President of the University of Alabama, and Dr. John McCardell, Vice Chancellor at the University of the South in Sewanee. They will share their thoughts about the purpose of higher education, and we’ll open the floor to your questions, concerns, and hopes as we keep digging into answers for that important question: What is college for? This event is free and open to the public. Please RSVP here.