Why College?

When a person chooses to go to college, what does that person take herself to be seeking? What is the expected outcome of the (usual) four years of time, work and expense?

The first answer many in our culture offer is something like this: I go to college so I can get a better job than if I don’t go.

From at least the beginning of high school students are told that lifetime wages track directly with education. The more education one has, the more income one will have. If one has a bachelors degree, one will make more than another with just a high school diploma. If one has a masters, one will make more than another with just a bachelors. If one has a doctorate or professional degree, one will make even more. This common claim is easy to understand. It makes sense. It’s a good sales point for colleges and universities. It’s also not the whole truth, especially in the current economy.

Factors other than level of education affect one’s earnings. The two major factors are probably the field of study and the school granting the degree. Since wages are based on demand, fields where the demand for more workers is higher tend to pay more, the harder those positions are to fill. My BA was in history. I was a good history student. I had good grades. But the jobs for people with a BA in history are few. Engineers, on the other hand, are in greater demand. As far as wages are concerned, a degree in history (whatever the level) will almost always pay less than the same level degree in engineering. This field variance of wages is such that even a mere bachelors degree in some fields will pay more than a doctorate in others.

The school granting the degree is also a factor. While this is partially due to the difference in a school’s prestige, I believe it is even more due to the networks of relationship going to a particular school opens up to a student. In many fields the way one gets a job owes more to who one knows than what the diploma or transcript says. We might like to believe that all our businesses and institutions are neutral and objective. When humans are involved it’s just not realistic to believe this, however. Especially when the number the job applicants out numbers the openings, the people do the hiring will naturally listen to people they know. How better to sift through piles of applications and resumes that look essentially the same?

Colleges and universities say, explicitly or implicitly, Come to our institution. Invest four years of your life. If you do so, youwill get a good job, youwill get ahead in life. Often this is true. But not always. And our educational institutions can’t make it or guarantee it.

Are there other answers given to the “Why should I go to college” question? From what I’ve seen, one of the most popular answer boils down to, “College is fun.”

I liked my college experience. I got a good education, made lots of friends, found a wife, and had fun. My idea of fun is likely not the same as most other college students. Back in my day going to parties was one of the big events on campus. Most students seemed to think they were great fun. I tried a few and found them intensely boring. But that’s not the point. College is a big enough place, with enough varied opportunities, that almost anyone can find experiences that count as fun. Some of these experiences may be outright hedonism while others are exemplars of community service.

In my experience, college was way more fun than high school. Maybe the main reason for that was the greater freedom. In terms of classes, I wasn’t forced to take all the same classes as everyone else. I had the freedom to pursue my own interests and curiosities. College is more than classes, however. As a college student I also had the time and space to define my identity. I brought with me the material from my upbringing: my family inheritance, my life experiences, my church background, etc. College, through the classes, activities, and relationships with people from around the world, opened my life, giving me much more input to build my life. The college I attended was not in my home town, so there was no one looking over my shoulder to make sure I conformed to some ideal. I could be whoever and whatever I wanted, whether for good or ill.

Most colleges today seem to take a mostly hands-off approach to this project of identity construction. Well, at least that’s the official line. Sure they want their students to be excellent, ethical, and generous to their communities (especially later when the alumni fundraisers call). But the first two of these attributes shift with the culture and include values commonly called “politically correct.” Schools that identify as Christian schools sometimes take a more explicit interest in their students’ identity construction, wanting the students to come to faith in Christ, grow and solidify in that faith, and join the mission of Jesus with their whole lives.

Schools have a little more power to enforce identity creation than they do connecting graduates with jobs and nice incomes, but less than they used to. Some elements of identity are officially off limits. When I was in college, for example, having persons of the opposite sex spend the night in your dorm room was against the rules. Alcohol was also forbidden on campus, unless, as the rule stated, it was in a brown bag. (I never understood that one.) Then, as now, students were prohibited from having illegal drugs on campus. My first seminary roommate told me of the school he started at. I’d heard of schools so conservative that they had rules against listening to Rock music (since it was of the devil). He told me that his college was more conservative than that. Instead of identifying a class (or classes) of music students could not listen to, they passed out a list of the only albums students were allowed to listen to.

Our culture values autonomy. In fact, autonomy is one of our highest values. For that reason, most of academia takes it as axiomatic that our job in the quest for identity creation is to make space for development of that autonomy. We teach Piaget and Kohlberg and their models of moral development, which rate autonomy the highest. We eschew passing judgment on students’ life choices (well, at least we say we do).

Back to fun. Creating an identity is fun – and necessary for a well-integrated life down the road. Exploring new options and trying them out is an important part of what students seek at college.

Perhaps I should refine that. In my experience at least, while I enjoyed the identity creation element of college life, I never would have offered that as a reason to people asking me why I went to college. I simply wasn’t self-aware enough to know what was happening. Those who teach in my field (Religion and Philosophy) have a role to play here. At the Christian college where I teach, we not only advocate following Christ – all Christian colleges talk about that – but we also have the responsibility of helping students become aware of the identity construction process. We help them become self (and world) aware.

We cannot guarantee students either that they will leave with a well-constructed and integrated identity or any particular flavor of identity. Try as we might, the modern college and university is too large an institution to make such a promise for our students. It is also not something we have the right to enforce. Just as students can decide not to read, study, do their work or go to class, students can avoid the opportunities for identity creation. One of the main ways to avoid this project is through pursuit of a pure hedonistic fun that never submits to examination or evaluation. Delaying gratification, submitting our desires to rigorous examination, is profoundly counter-cultural. It is difficult, and often painful. It’s almost always easier to consume some chemicals (drugs, alcohol), watch a movie, have sex, or sleep. The path of least resistance is a popular one. While we cannot compel students to go the right direction (i.e., take up engagement with difficult questions of identity and a willingness to practice self-examination), we can advocate for it and exemplify it.

The biggest challenge to this model – college as identity formation – is the price. Who would pay hundreds of thousands of dollars (in direct and in opportunity costs) for a good they’re not aware of? Many parents would expressly reject the idea of paying their hard-earned money to an institution on the pledge of helping their children figure out who they are. Parting with a huge pile of money with the golden pot of likely higher wages is one thing; parting with it to change your kids into something you might not even approve of is another thing altogether. It is also unlikely that parents will part with that pile of money for their kids to merely have fun of the more hedonistic sort, however much the kids might want them to do so.

I’ve examined two reasons people might give for going to college. The first, Go to college and get a degree so I can get a good, well-paying job, the second, Go to college and have fun, whether of the hedonistic or the identity formation sort. It’s time for a third.

The next possibility is that a student comes to college driven by curiosity and a hunger for knowledge. It might even be that the student has tasted knowledge and wants to become part of an academic tradition. Some of these traditions will be knowledge based. She might have read about neutrinos passing their assigned speed limit or the quest for the Higgs boson, and wanted to be the one who made the next big discovery. Some will be service based. Perhaps he’s known a number of people who have suffered from cancer and he wants to join the health professions become equipped to help ease or even remove that suffering. Perhaps the student has experienced a calling from God and is pursuing training for ministry. Each of these quests can result in a well-paying job (or not). Each of thesecan result in fun (or not).

It is this third reason for going to college that our educational institutions can best deliver on. As students interact with faculty members, whether in class or out of class, they are interacting with people who are already participants in the various traditions of inquiry. The chemists are on campus to introduce students to the tradition of chemical inquiry. Historians are on campus to introduce students to the traditions of chemical inquiry. You get the idea.

How does this introduction happen? Perhaps most obviously it happens in formal classroom activity, in what are called “courses.” These courses seek to embody an transmit part of the body of knowledge and set of skills associated with the particular fields of inquiry.

A sometimes neglected component of this introduction is the affective dimension. This is the dimension of education that dives students the “want to,” that ignites their curiosity and fans it into flame. A syllabus alone won’t do that. Saying the course is required won’t do that. Even identifying a few Student Learning Outcomes won’t do that. Each of these means – and the possible outcome of a good grade – is compatible with never moving beyond the stance of the outsider, the one external to the tradition who never takes up a love for the tradition of inquiry.

[This is a work in progress. I will continue in the days ahead.]

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