1 What’s College For?

“Develop a passion for learning. If you do, you will never cease to grow.”
-Anthony J. D’Angelo

What is college for? That’s a very light question with an endless amount of answers! After all a college education comes in many different shapes and sizes. A 2010 report from the National Center for Education Statistics estimates that there are 4,500 different post-secondary degree- granting institutions that exist in the US.

These institutions may be categorized as public, private, small, large, for-profit, non-profit, community colleges, universities thus considering the variation of college options, there is no definite answer to the question, “What is college for?” Brenda Hellyer, Chancellor of San Jacinto College in Houston and Pasadena, Texas, wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education that students “are seeking more than an education—they are seeking options, opportunities, and guidance.”

How do you view college?
What will define college success for you?

People go to college for a variety of reasons and the type of college you select will ultimately help set parameters and expectations for your experiences. But before jumping into the details of going to college, it’s important to first stop and ponder about the purpose college has in your life. Traditionally, college was a place young adults went after high school to explore courses and majors before settling into a job path, but the standards have drastically changed since then and today, most people generally go to college for one of five main reasons:

  1. Job Opportunities: A college degree is seen as a minimum qualification for entry into the skilled labor market. Higher education can better prepare you for work, but also increase your flexibility to change jobs and locations. A degree or certificate can act as a springboard for employment.
  2. Security in a Changing Economy: College experience may give you the ability to better adapt to changing business conditions.
  3. More Money: A degree or certificate may mean greater expertise to an employer and result in higher wages. Investing in a college degree may make it easier to maintain employment in economically challenging times.
  4. Better Health: Many jobs that require college degrees are less physically demanding in terms of the labor requirements to preform them. In addition, health insurance options may be better through employers.
  5. Learning Things of Interest: College is a pathway to exploring new studies and finding personal passions leading to alternative career paths.

Eunice Hii: Don’t just follow your passion (TED Talk)

Video: https://youtu.be/sgbzbdxTm4E

What impression does this TED Talk leave you with? Which generation are you?

An article from 2015 in the Washington Post, What’s the purpose of college: A job or an education? says that the most important reason students attend college today is for a better job, whereas in the past, learning about things that interested them was listed as the primary reason to attend college. So what caused such drastic change and when did the change in priority occur? In the article The Day The Purpose of College Changed, Dan Berrett says the change in priority can be linked to Ronald Reagan when he was Governor of California.

Economic times were tough in 1967 for California. Everyone needed to “tighten their belts.” At that time, California was known for an excellent higher educational system. In a speech Reagan gave on Feb. 28, 1967, a month into his term as Governor, Reagan assured people that he would not do anything to harm the quality of their public education system. “But,” he added, “We do believe that there are certain intellectual luxuries that perhaps we could do without.” Taxpayers should not be “subsidizing intellectual curiosity,” he said. By the time Reagan won the presidency, in 1980, practical degrees had become the popular choice. In the 1930s, around the time Reagan went to college, about 8% of students majored in “business and commerce.” When he was elected Governor, that share was 12%. By the time, he moved into the White House, more students majored in business than anything else. Business, as a major, has held that top spot ever since.

What frames your value of education?
What kind of return on your investment do you expect from college?

Whether you are aware of it or not, deciding to go to college has an “opportunity cost.” An opportunity cost is based on the economic principle that a benefit, profit, or value of something must be given up in order to acquire or achieve something else; examples of such sacrifices would be things like time and money. If you dedicate time to do something, you must sacrifice doing something else you might want to do and that is the opportunity cost of your choice. Going to college, will also have a similar opportunity cost in your life so the important question to ask at the beginning of your college adventure is: what are you willing to trade off for going to college?

Opportunity costs are also tied to the idea of return on investment. Once you make an investment of your time and money in college, what compensation are you hoping to get in return? How you define success in relationship to your college experience can impact how you see the concept of return on investment. Some ways to measure return on investments include job opportunities after college, an immediate financial benefit to earned wages, social network/connections made while attending college, development of communication and other “soft skills,” and personal enrichment and/or happiness. A return in investment ultimately varies based on the individual.

Short-term rewards compared to long-term rewards are another way to look at return on investment. For example, it takes much longer to become a CEO (Chief Executive Officer) of a company than it does to get a well-paid job at the same company. Different skills would undoubtedly be required to become the CEO and it would likely require higher investments to acquire those particular skills. Frances Bronet, the Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Oregon, conducted a survey of former engineering graduates when she taught at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She asked former graduates what they felt they had missed in their education. The results were very different and varied depending on how recent their graduation was. Students who had graduated 1 year ago felt that they needed more technical skills. People who had graduated 5 years ago felt that they needed more management skills, and people who had graduated 10-20 years ago felt that they needed more cultural literacy because their work increasingly involved more working with other cultures.

In the end, deciding to go to college is a big decision and choosing a course of study can often be overwhelming to many students. Considering the constantly changing world we live in, choosing what direction to go is not easy. According to Richard Riley, secretary of education under Bill Clinton, “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t exist using technology that hasn’t been invented in order to solve problems that we don’t even know.”

Sir Ken Robinson: Do Schools Kill Creativity?  (TED Talk)

Video: https://youtu.be/iG9CE55wbtY

Personal Inventory Questions:

  1. Why are you here?
  2. Why college, why now?
  3. How do you define college?
  4. What do you imagine college life to be like?
  5. How do you know when you are ready for college?
  6. What have you done to prepare for college?
  7. What do you think college expects from students?
  8. What does going to college mean for your future?
  9. Using the list of 5 reasons students attend college provided in this chapter, rank your reasons for going to college.
  10. In your opinion, is it a good idea for academic counselors to steer high school kids towards either a 4-year degree or vocational training? Should students be steered towards careers that would be a good “fit” for them?
  11. Opportunity Cost Analysis: Create a pie chart identifying how you currently spend your time (daily/weekly).

Suggested Readings:

The Day The Purpose of College Changed by Dan Berrett

What’s College For? Commentary Chronicle of Higher Education 4/22/2013

How To Assess The Real Pay Off Of A College Degree by Scott Carlson

What’s The Purpose of College: A Job or An Education by Jeffery J. Selingo

Works Cited

Berrett, Dan. The Day the Purpose of College Changed. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 26 Jan. 2015, www.chronicle.com/article/The-Day-the-Purpose-of-College/151359/.

Carlson, Scott. Is ROI the Right Way to Judge a College Education? The Chronicle of Higher Education, 22 Apr. 2013, www.chronicle.com/article/Is-ROI-the-Right-Way-to-Judge/138665/.

Selingo, Jeffrey J. What’s the Purpose of College: A Job or an Education? The Washington Post, 2 Feb. 2015, www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2015/02/02/whats-the-purpose-of-college-a-job-or-an-education/?utm_term=.7a10daaf7720.

The Chronicle of Higher Education Staff. What Is College For? The Chronicle of Higher Education, 22 Apr. 2013, www.chronicle.com/article/What-Is-College-For-/138683.

Licenses and Attributions

Original chapter work is attributed to Alise Lamoreaux. Chapter editing and additional work on the chapter is attributed to Grecia Garcia and Ashley Duran.


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A Different Road To College: A Guide For Transitioning To College For Non-traditional Students by Alise Lamoreaux, Grecia Garcia and Ashley Duran is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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