Monthly Archives: July 2015

What is the purpose of 21st Century College Education?

As part of an Aspen Institute-sponsored panel discussion of the Purpose of Higher education in the 21st Century, one panelist, Dr. Claude Steele, identified three general purposes for higher education: serving as a vehicle for personal development, serving as part of a system of innovation, and producing educated citizens. Steele’s statement captures a perspective on the purpose of higher education typically referred to as acquiring a liberal education, the idea that college is a vehicle for intellectual development, developing a flexible mind, and, regardless of the field of study, helping students acquire knowledge and intellectual skills that can be applied in a variety of different contexts. Dan Berrett, in a more recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, “The Day the Purpose of Higher Education Changed,” presents a competing, more utilitarian perspective about the purpose of higher ed. He discussed the historical moment in February 1967 where then California governor Ronald Regan argued that the real purpose of higher education should be instrumental , to help young people gain skills to secure jobs and their individual goals. These two perspectives exist in a kind of ying-yang relationship; as the influence of one perspective increases, the other decreases and vice versa. Over the last 40 years, it seems as if the instrumental / utilitarian perspective has been gaining ground.

For several years I’ve taught a class, The Sociology of Higher Education, at Portland State University, in Portland Oregon. This year, after my students viewed the Aspen Institute video discussion and read Berrett’s Chronicle article, I asked them to write essays on why they were attending college and trying to earn college degrees. Not surprising their essays reflected elements of both perspectives. While many talked about the importance of gaining a diverse perspective (after all they are Sociology majors) all of them also noted that they were attending college to earn degrees in order to get jobs that would be fulfilling and economically rewarding.

Again that is not surprising. Portland State is Oregon’s only urban university and the majority of PSU undergraduates transferred from primarily 2-year community colleges. The undergraduate student population is close to 50% first generation students, i.e. students for whom neither parent completed a 4 year degree at a U.S. college and university. PSU’s percentage of first-generation students is much closer to those of community colleges than the percentages of elite private schools. We also have a significant number of older, returning students including international students and student veterans. Higher education, whether starting at two- or four-year college, is seen as a vehicle for economic advancement. So it is not surprising that my students agreed that an important purpose of higher education for them was to further their occupational careers.

There are real financial benefits for completing a college degree. Adults 25 to 34 years old with college degrees, working year round, earn about two-thirds more than high school graduates and about 40% more than someone who attended college but did not complete a degree (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015). This means that a college graduate’s lifetime earnings can be as much as half a million dollars more than those of a high school graduate.


But there is an elephant in the room that won’t go away; many students who begin college leave without ever completing their degrees. Unfortunately students are not the only ones impacted by the issue of degree non-completion.

Next: Why Should We Care Whether Students Complete Their College Degrees?

College Student Mentoring Matters: 3 Big Questions

Welcome to College Student Mentoring Matters. I am launching this blog to share the insights, experiences, and resources I have gained over my 25+ years of formally and informally mentoring college students in the hope that this material will be of value to my readers. I am at an interesting crossroads in my own life. As an Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Portland State University, I have traded in my tenured teaching role for a new position as a consultant offering support for colleges and universities that are trying to develop mentoring programs to facilitate their students’ higher education success and degree completion. My new book, Developing Effective Student Peer Mentoring Programs: A Practitioner’s Guide to Program Design, Delivery, Evaluation and Training, published by Stylus Press, is due out in August, 2015.


I also have developed a complimentary website that provides some background on mentoring, why mentoring can help address issues of degree completion, and my own approach for using mentoring to promote college student success. With this blog I hope to be able to share my thoughts on these and other important higher education issues, as well as connections to useable resources.

As a newbie to the blogosphere, I initially wasn’t sure exactly how to proceed. I have plenty to say (just ask my family, friends or students), but where should I start so that all the different pieces fit together and make sense?  Then I got some assistance. I was having breakfast with a friend right after my website went live and his feedback was that in order to help readers understand what they would gain from following my blog, I need to answer three BIG questions.

Three Big Questions

  1. Why is the issue of college student degree non-completion important?

This area includes topics such as what exactly is the purpose of 21st Century higher education? How does college provide students with the skills they’ll need for future occupational success in a changing world? What is the value of a college degree? Do all groups of students have equal opportunities to succeed at college? How does the percentage of young people with college degrees in the United States compare with rates from other industrialized countries? Why do so many students who begin college take longer than planned or fail to complete their degrees? What are some of the adjustment issues all students must address to succeed at college? What are additional adjustment issues faced by first-generation students, student veterans, and international students?

  1. How is mentoring relevant for addressing higher education issues?

Specific topics in this area include what are the differences between hierarchical and peer mentoring? What are some mentoring-associated benefits for college students? How can mentoring help address adjustment issues faced by all college students?   How can mentoring help address group specific adjustment issues faced by first generation and international students, and student veterans? What are best practices for design, delivery, determining program content, developing mentor training, and program evaluation form effective programs?

  1. What are some of Pete Collier’s ideas for using mentoring to improve college student degree completion?

This area includes topics I am most looking forward to sharing with my readers including how does perceived credibility impact the relative effectiveness of different mentoring approaches? How can models of role mastery, decision-making and expertise development inform mentor program design and delivery? What are the best ways to package program content to facilitate student learning? How can mentoring help students better understand and appropriately respond to expectations associated with the culture of higher education? Why should service be an important part of mentor program content? What should be included in an effective mentor training curriculum?

These three big questions will be the main threads that connect the different posts on my blog.

Slide13-e1435874981887My plan is to share a new post every couple of weeks. I also plan on weaving into my posts connections to other resources I have discovered as I put my practioner’s guide to program development together. I welcome your comments and will endeavor to respond in a timely manner.

Next: What is the purpose of 21st Century College Education?