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“Is the purpose of college to ensure a good job after graduation, to provide a broad and deep humanities education, or to create an engaged citizenry?” (Chunoo & Osteen, 2016)


Susan D Blum, Department of Anthropology, the University of Notre Dame:

In my book “I Love Learning; I Hate School”: An Anthropology of College (2016) I wrote a chapter addressing this question. I called it “The Myriad and Muddied Goals of College.” I concluded that there are idealistic as well as pragmatic goals people believe are important for college, and each type gives rise to different criticisms and different solutions to assessed problems.

On the idealistic side, for instance, we find Learning for Learning’s Sake (the liberal arts), Colleges that Change Lives (idealistic goals), Saving the World, Academicizing, Growing Up, Moral Development, and Citizenship and Social Value. On the pragmatic side, we find Credentials and Economics, Signaling and Sorting, Transferable Skills, Getting Through It, Return on Investment, and Training. Some--few--of these goals are societal and collective; most are individual or corporate (economic).

People in different types of institutions and studying different topics, at different ages and in different economic conditions may have wildly different views of college. But this is really a crucial question, and it determines things as diverse as the sources of funding and measures of success.

Janni Aragon, University of Victoria, BC, Canada:

The purpose of college is multi-layered. Some of our students are in college or university based on their parents’ wants, and others are there believing that this is what’s next for them after graduation from high school. Another group views college as the means to later success. College is about continuing life-long learning and hopefully finding a vocation or career that fulfills you.

College was a dream that I was repeatedly told to pursue. As a first-generation college student, I viewed going to college as privilege. I had the weight of my family on my back as I walked around the beautiful San Diego State University campus. Now that I am on the other side, and in my mid-career, I help students and others find their place at the University of Victoria and for many I mentor them and offer guidance. I still believe that the purpose of college is varied, but I am ever hopeful that our students learn lots and leave ready for what is next in their lives.

A. S. CohenMiller, Nazarbayev University Graduate School of Education, Astana, Kazakhstan

Since moving to Kazakhstan a couple years ago, I have been learning about the cultural context of the country, and the ways college--the undergraduate degree--is considered by many. While not applicable to all, as we see from emerging research on this topic, college is seen as a direct means towards a “good” career. Many families encourage certain degrees/careers for their children and high expectations are sought for those who have the means to enter college/university. The general focus is on the future trajectory of the student, the achievement of the particular career.  Nuances of the topic emerge relating to issues of access and diversity (e.g., gender, those living in rural areas, those with exceptionalities), which are being considered through governmental educational reforms and through NGO work (e.g., UNDP, UNWomen, UNICEF). Likewise, the development of Nazarbayev University in 2010 has provided a changing view on the primary focus on career trajectory with often an integrated mission to build educational leaders, a type of engaged citizenry, across the country and region. It will be interesting to see how college/university completion may be viewed differently over the next few years with the growing research university presence and implementation of educational reforms.


Chunoo, Vivechkanand and Osteen, Laura. June 2016. Purpose, Mission, and Context: The Call for Educating Future Leaders. New Directions for Higher Education.

Tugind, Alina. May 4, 2012. New York Times. Vocation or Exploration? Pondering the Purpose of College.…

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