The True Purpose of a College Education

Rethinking the aims of an undergraduate education.

November 4, 2021

There are metaphors that we live by. If we think of the United States as the world’s policeman or as a nation of immigrants or as a land of self-made men, these metaphors inevitably shape people’s political attitudes and public policies.

Similarly, if we think of our students as customers or creators of knowledge or partners, those metaphors, too, color the way we think about teaching and our professorial responsibilities.

I am a historian of the life course, so I supposed it’s not surprising that I think of college students through that metaphorical lens.

Some undergraduates are late adolescents who continue to engage in adolescent-like behavior. At the same time, a growing number are adults who juggle their college-going with a variety of adult responsibilities.

But most undergraduates, especially at four-year institutions, are emerging adults, and, in my view, the education they receive should reflect that reality.

Emerging adulthood is the extended period of life that lies between adolescent dependence and adult independence. It is the life stage that exists when individuals have begun to leave home yet before they have committed themselves to a steady job and a committed and sustained relationship -- the roles that structure most adult lives.

As scholars like Jeffrey Arnett have shown, emerging adults encounter a series of Erik Erikson-like developmental tasks. These include:

  • Identity exploration: experimenting with various life possibilities.
  • Psychological and behavioral maturation, which typically entails developing more intimate interpersonal relationships, assuming new levels of personal responsibility and cultivating a capacity to handle increasingly complex life demands.
  • Developing competences, which encompasses not only skills development and knowledge acquisition but obtaining technical or professional expertise and creating a supportive network.

During this protracted, stressful, problematic life stage, emerging adults are especially prone to mood disorders, high levels of anxiety and substance abuse. Risk-taking behavior tends to peak during this time of life, evident in the widespread incidence of binge drinking, illicit drug use, drunk or drugged driving, and casual sex.

In my view, a deeper understanding of the needs of emerging adults and the psychological, emotional, interpersonal and behavioral challenges that they face should inform the ways that we think about a college education.

We should ask ourselves:

  • How can we better nurture the development of higher-order cognitive skills and students’ aesthetic, cultural, historical and intellectual sophistication?
  • How can we best help our students better handle problematic emotions (such as anger, anxiety, depression, fear, guilt and shame) and fraught, dysfunctional and abusive interpersonal relationships?
  • How can we best help students to develop a sense of direction and purpose, autonomy and the ability to monitor and self-evaluate the quality of their performance?
  • How can we assist students in developing mature interpersonal relationships, including a respect for difference among people, ideas and values?

The Strada Education Network’s 2021 Alumni Survey, which asked a nationally representative sample of college graduates to reflect on the value of their education, suggests to me the gap between what many students consider the purpose of their education and what it could and should be.

According to the survey, most students attend college in order to qualify for a good job, be successful at work, make money, learn new things and grow as a person. I’d consider this a rather impoverished understanding of the purposes of a college education.

Yet even with this narrow conception of the aims of undergraduate education, only half of the graduates felt that their education was worth the cost and had also helped them fulfill their personal goals. Alumni of color, first-generation and female graduates all were significantly less likely to feel that their education was worth the cost or had helped them achieve their aims.

Whether or not graduates found their education worthwhile, the surveyors concluded, hinged on three variables:

  • Whether the graduate had developed a connection with faculty.
  • Whether the graduates’ education was connected to their postcollege career.
  • Whether the graduate had acquired in-demand professional skills.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Strada Education Network would have a particular interest in degree value and the alignment of higher education with careers. Originally United Student Aid Funds, Strada was among the largest guarantors of federal student loans under the bank-based Federal Family Educational Loan program, until that program effectively ended in 2010.

I, too, believe that we should embed career preparation across the undergraduate experience. But we shouldn’t focus on employment outcomes to the detriment of other essential aspects of students’ maturation.

For anyone who cares about the education that our colleges and universities provide, the Strada survey should raise certain red flags. Three questions stand out:

  1. Are we doing enough to help students articulate the value of college beyond its employment and income outcomes? If most graduates think that a college education’s essential value lies in career preparation, then we’re doing a poor job of explaining our broader objectives: to produce culturally literate, well-rounded adults who are knowledgeable about the arts, the humanities and the social, behavioral and natural sciences, who can think critically, communicate effectively, argue logically and solve complex problems.
  2. Are we doing enough to connect students and faculty? Among the variables that separate those graduates who did or did not find their education worth the cost, one factor that stands out is whether the student felt a connection to a faculty member. In the best case, that faculty member was a mentor, a trusted adviser, a role model and ardent supporter. But those qualities weren’t essential. At a minimum, the professor needed to be a skilled teacher, a provider of helpful feedback and someone who helped the student see the world in fresh ways.
  3. Are we doing enough to draw connections between an undergraduate education and postcollege careers? The degree to which graduates value their education hinges, to a significant degree, on whether they gained insights into the job market, acquired essential professional skills and crafted a realistic pathway into a career.

What would it take to make more graduates feel that their education was worthwhile? Here are certain principles that I think ought to guide our efforts.

  1. Transparency. Be explicit about the purposes of every requirement, assignment and assessment. These should not simply repeat the learning objectives specified on your syllabus. These should speak more broadly to the purpose of your course, the logic behind your class’s organization, the themes you are examining and the skills you are building.
  2. Authenticity. Use real-world examples to illustrate concepts. Have students work with authentic evidence. Create assessments that have real-world analogues, like policy briefs or environmental impact statements.
  3. Relevance. Speak to the applicability of the concepts, knowledge and skills that you are teaching to a variety of contexts -- academic but also nonacademic.
  4. Transferability. Integrate transferable skills building activities into your courses. If your goals include enhancing students’ written and oral presentation skills or their analytic and critical thinking skills, make sure that your class activities build these skills and your assessments evaluate student mastery.
  5. Mentorship. In my view, mentorship needs to become an integral part of the undergraduate experience. I’d urge departments to redesign their curricula to include a greater emphasis on mentored undergraduate research and, above all, opportunities for students to undertake a meaningful project in collaboration with a faculty member.
    To develop the interactive courseware that I use in my introductory U.S. history survey courses, I had the opportunity to work with a team of undergraduates who co-created the user experience and designed many of the interactive features. As an undergraduate, my stepson had the chance to work with a professor and classmates on a gamelike app used by hospitals to monitor the well-being of adolescents suffering from chronic pain.
    Collaborative projects like these result in much more than a useful product. In addition to learning much more about the relevant content, the process teaches the students many skills that they will find useful in later life, whether they pursue history (in my case) or psychology (in my stepson’s). These include organizational, collaboration and project-management skills and personal accountability.
  6. Incentivizing desired outcomes. I understand full well that no one-size-fits-all path through an undergraduate education will fly. Higher education’s stakeholders are too diverse to ever reach much more than a superficial consensus about the literacies, competencies and attributes of a successful bachelor’s degree holder. But we could incentivize the kinds of educational experiences that we most value. These incentives might include certificates or another kind of diploma designation (like the certificate offered by Purdue’s Cornerstone Integrated Liberal Arts Program) or participation in a cohort program (like Hunter College’s Athena, Daedalus, Muse, Nursing, Roosevelt and Yalow scholars cohorts), or in the programming offered by specialized centers and offices (for example, an office of the arts or the health sciences or public policy).

To return to my theme, the metaphors we live by, let me conclude by asking: What should the relationship of a college to its students be? Obviously, it can’t be “paternal,” with its associations with hierarchy, condescension and control. “Maternal,” with its connotations with warmth and caring, is a bit better, but this metaphor, too, reduces an undergraduate to a childlike status.

Nor should we think of ourselves as our students’ peers or friends or confidantes.

Neither should we think of the relationship as permissive, given the revival of the in loco parentis principle by the courts, parents and activist students. Lenience, tolerance, even indulgence are expected, but treating students wholly as adults has proven unacceptable, though we should also not embrace the role of problem solver, either.

So here’s my suggestion: follow the advice we give to parents of emerging adults. Recognize that undergraduates are undergoing a messy period of transition.

  • Create opportunities for your students to experiment with identities and test new ideas with as few constraints and penalties as possible.
  • Foster a responsible independence.
  • Model desired behavior.
  • Nurture an atmosphere of mutual trust and open communication.
  • Provide empathy, support, feedback and guidance as needed.
  • But don’t facilitate continued dependence or immaturity.

Above all, take to heart another message from the advice provided to parents of emerging adults. Maturation is a prolonged process that is trying and problematic, not just for emerging adults but for those of us with a duty of care.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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