What’s College For?


In the media and in the halls of our legislatures, the talk these days about the purpose of a college education seems to focus almost exclusively on its value in expanding a person’s employment opportunities.  It’s a perspective that shapes many aspects of higher education policy—priorities for funding, standards for institutions, curriculum, and many other critical issues.

And it’s a perspective so dominant that it crowds out discussion of other values associated with higher education.

But is “workforce preparation” the sole value of a college education?  Is that all people are looking for when they enroll in college or send their children there?

Not according to a survey done by Public Agenda, the Kettering Institute, and the National Issues Forum and recently reported on in Inside Higher Education.  According to that survey, people overwhelmingly (89% or respondents, in fact) believe that students should develop their critical thinking abilities in college by studying a wide array of subjects, including philosophy, art and literature, history, government, and economics.  Two-thirds also agreed that college should foster a stronger sense of social responsibility in students.

The disconnect between these views and those expressed by many elected leaders is highlighted in a summary comment by William V. Muse, president of the National Issues Forum Institute:  “It seems clear from our results that leaders have underestimated the value that families and students place on college as somewhere that students can receive a rich and broad education. They’re concerned about the movement toward specific job training at the exclusion of these broader goals.”

We need a broader discussion about the purpose of a college education if we are serious about helping prepare students to become active participants in all aspects of their futures.