From the recent thread about student loans a splinter discussion erupted about the purpose of college.
So in order to not continue the hijack of that thread, I decided to start this one.
I got my degree in accounting a long time ago. Thirty plus years later, every day I wish I had taken more classes about human behavior, psychology, sociology, of which my degree program did require a certain number hours of humanities courses, but today I wish I had taken more.
I believe that university level classes aren’t necessarily about teaching you a profession. The biggest part of an undergraduate degree program is to instill in students an intellectual curiosity and a love of learning. To make students more well rounded in many different disciplines, while providing them a foundational course of study in a chosen major. When I graduated with my degree and simultaneously passed the CPA exam, I was in no way prepared to embark upon a career in public accounting without further teaching, mentoring, etc. But I was prepared to learn more, to know where the resources to further my learning were, and how to ask for help if I couldn’t necessarily do it on my own.
Completing a bachelor degree program in any discipline, should provide those graduates with the ability to continue to learn. Which is why you do see many undergraduate degree holders with majors in humanities that do find successful careers in business, legal, medical, education, etc.
There are multiple purposes or benefits to going to college, but they fall into three broad categories:
I. Preparing you for a career. This includes specific training for a specific job, as well as more broadly applicable skills, like learning how to think and read and write and research and solve problems.
II. Preparing you for life. Outside of the things you do to earn a living, a college education can set you up to be a better citizen and have a better, more interesting life. The knowledge and habits of mind you gain, the interests you develop, the friendships and connections you make, all can profoundly enrich the rest of your life.
III. The experience itself is one which, at least at its best, is well worth having.
Ideally? A liberal arts education is designed to teach people critical thinking skills that are useful in many different subsequent paths.
Practically? It’s a kind of union card, necessary for getting into grad or professional schools, and most jobs,
Not so practically? It’s a way to keep you off the streets, and have a good old time while you figure out (or not) what the hell you want to do when you grow up. Meantime, you can meet interesting (or not) people, and profess to be doing something useful while you’re killing a few years enjoyably (or not).
Like pretty much everything in life, there’s no singular purpose. For some, it is vocational. For others it’s experiential. For others it’s to pursue a subject for the love of it. You get to pick. It’s not about one thing. I know that’s a curt answer, but I don’t think there’s much more to it, and I roll my eyes at folks who insist college must be primarily about increasing one’s value in the marketplace. That’s a common goal, but not the only worthwhile goal, so far as you’re aware of what you want to get out of college. My current career has absolutely nothing to do with my degree (English literature) and nobody has ever asked me where I graduated from in regards to hiring me (even though I went to a reasonably presigious university.) I’m happy with what I got out of it, and the four years were worth it. I did get my career (photography) though because of the people I met there and the extracurriculars I participated in (school newspaper.)
I went to college (at least for the time that counted, the one that resulted in a graduation) to be in the classroom, to have discussions I could not have elsewhere.
Four years after college, I became employed in a capacity for which college did not train me, and for which there had not existed suitable college training anyhow, and my work in that field spanned 20 years and lucrative pay. I don’t even remotely regret not narrowing my focus to a curriculum that would get me a job. College is for engaging your mind and grapping with questions and issues and stuff.
My university education was very much about preparing for a career. Not in a “practice the specific tasks you will be doing daily” sense, but more in a “give you all the background you need to make sense of what you’re seeing” sense.
To be more specific - my first degree was in geology & geochemistry. All the other courses I took (maths, physics, chemistry, biology, even astronomy) were in service to those majors. But my majors didn’t involve me going down a goldmine and mapping regularly. However, when I did that, I had the background to know what I was looking at, what processes shaped what I was looking at, and how to interpret that information. One couldn’t do that job without that background.
So I don’t agree in a case like mine that it was mainly about “how to research” or abstract knowledge or “the friends we made along the way”. It was primarily about a specific corpus of knowledge necessary to do a specific job (well, a whole range of specific jobs - the same background would have served me well had I gone into exploration geology, or engineering geology, or even paleontology)
When I was going through physical therapy, I would get a different therapist each day. Either a BS, or a Certificate, or whatever. I asked a degree PT what’s the diffference, she said “Im still the same therapist, but an educated one.” Good answer.
Especially in non-technical fields, some of the value of a degree is as a competence signal.
Your potential employer can see that you are smart and hard working by the fact that you completed a set of courses, even if they were in Medieval History or French literature, presumably not directly relevant to working in HR at a big company.
A professor in college told us that the majority of the things he would teach us would likely be proven incorrect one day. Therefore, he suggested we look at our education as being taught how to think rather than what to think.
Vast overgeneralization, but with (I think) a lot of truth:
The difference between high school and college is that, in a high school class, you learn history or math or science, but in a college class, you learn to think like a historian or a mathematician or a scientist.
I used to joke that the purpose of college was to keep young people out of the workforce until they had developed a greater degree of maturity. There is a kernel of truth to that - a lot of 18 year olds are smart and literate enough to begin employment in a job where they deal with substantive issues, as long as they get a lot of on-the-job training and mentorship. But they’re still kids and while they might have intelligence and various writing/math/other skills, virtually all of their life experiences are as children, so they lack adult wisdom and insight. A 22-year-old is usually significantly more mature than an 18-year-old.
It was a joke, though. I agree with many of the comments upthread about the value of a college education, especially liberal arts.
I believe this concept is more prevalent among first generation and parents of first generation college students. That was my thinking when I was choosing a college and a major. On the other side by many years, I see the broader value of a college education and the skills and attributes I gained or were honed as a student.
I am trying to remember why I went to college. It was somehow expected of me that I would win a scholarship and go to college. The first didn’t happen (all scholarships in those days were merit, not need based) so I decided to look for a job. The job I found was in a university lab as a technician and it offered, among other things, half tuition for courses taken as a general studies student. Two things happened in that job. First I discovered that I was not cut out for lab work (I had been planning to be chemist) and second, the result of an overheard chance conversation) that I really really loved abstract math.
So I went with only the vaguest purpose, but I discovered myself.
Actually, that’s sort of what my first thought was, other than the obvious academic and vocational reasons.
College seems to be a great transitional time- sort of “adulting lite” if you will. You go to a school, and you live on your own without Mom and Dad there for everyday decisions, but they’re still involved if you need them to be. And you’re in an environment that’s engineered for what you’re doing- shops, restaurants, etc… are set up for college students in a lot of cases. You get four years of that, and moving to living completely on your own is less of a shock than if you go from living with Mom and Dad straight to making your own living and maintaining your own apartment and life. For some students it’s more like going straight to work, and others it’s more like (or is) living at home with the parents, but the typical experience is somewhere in between.
I kind of think that in a lot of ways, that’s one of the more useful things you learn in college- how to be independent and behave like an adult in an environment without such dire consequences.
Modern college is actually a fusion of a lot of previously separate traditions, so it isn’t actually crazy to me that we should reject the idea of it having a singular purposes. Many degree programs are fairly obviously structured to be vocational, and it’s not terrible for the students to treat them that way. Others seek to offer degrees in more “classical education” fields (like the Humanities/Liberal arts etc) with some element of more vocational focused courses to help that person get a job while also receiving a classical college level education.
Completing my BS in civil engineering in a few weeks. It has certainly felt like a sort of vocational track or career prep. There has been a handful of general education courses but not much. The courses I took tracked very, very closely to the material covered in the NCEES FE exam. The degree program is accredited by ABET and it seems they have a lot of say in what is required to become accredited.
The degree program and general education requirements consume literally 100% of the required number of credit hours for graduation, so there’s basically zero room for taking courses just for the hell of it. I certainly could but that would cost extra time and money.