• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Math Geek Mom: The Purpose of College

What do you hope your children will gain?

May 12, 2016

I discovered early in this sabbatical that I needed to learn more Game Theory in order to be able to write coherently about the ways it relates to the workings of the nonprofit sector. And so I began pestering the folks at our library for books on the subject on a weekly, and sometimes daily basis. In search of someone to teach me some of the concepts involved, I stumbled upon a course in Game Theory taught at Yale in 2007 and posted on the web.  I have found that course to be a life saver for me, although I must admit that one of the most interesting aspect of those videos actually had little to do with Game Theory, but much to do with the way the videos act as a “time machine” into a not so distant past. I think I can see other people carrying flip phones and there was discussion about a political candidate who had been governor of a nearby state (Mitt Romney) as well as talk about the number of banks offering sub-prime mortgages and recently being penalized for it. This was, of course, before the crash of 2008.

As I revise the text book I am working on, I have been “binge watching” that course most of this semester, reading along with the assignments and doing problems. At the end of the courses, a famous paper from Economics was discussed that describes education as a signal to employers that potential employees are hard workers. As someone who has recently stumbled into conversations with other parents about looming college costs and expectations, this brought back many memories of some recent and some long-ago discussions about what the purpose of a college education truly is.

I have quite a few memories of these conversations, since I come from a family in which I was in the first generation to earn bachelor’s degrees, and was certainly in the first to go on to graduate school. Indeed, in my home town, it was common for very academically talented people to skip college all together, some coming back years later to take a few individual courses to advance their jobs.

The question of what exactly the purpose of college is haunts me long after I finished watching those videos. The idea of college as a means to acquiring a “signal” is very different from the approach professed at the Jesuit schools I attended and the Ursuline college where I teach. In these faith-based schools, education is seen as a way to discern and launch one’s own unique vocation. I don’t recall any mention of “signals” in describing what it is that we do every day.

Others propose that college is actually a high-priced dating service, citing the number of students who go on to marry classmates. Again, this was not the experience I had in college. If this is a common view of college, no wonder some parents I talk to are so unhappy about paying for the experience for their children.

Over the years, I recall many conversations that have greatly devalued time spent in college. I remember the boy on my school bus who told me that I only wanted to go to college so that others could look up to me (he actually used much more colorful words to say that, but the idea was the same.) And there was the family who insisted their child pursue a particular (difficult) major so as to be guaranteed a job upon graduation. I also recall conversations with one woman who was rather proud that she and her husband did not financially contribute to their child’s education, since they would not be the ones benefiting from it.

 I have a few years to go before my daughter will be visiting colleges, and in that time I need to have many conversations with her about what exactly it is that she wants to draw from the experience. This leaves me with the question; what do you hope your children gain from the experience of going to college?


                                                                                                       Wishing my readers a very lucky Friday the 13th!


Back to Top