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?

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