“I came to learn,” the ideal student says. “I came to party,” the humorist in the crowd answers.
“I’m doing it because everyone in my family has done it,” the student with no direction says. “I’m doing it because no one in my family has done it,” the student with nothing but drive responds.
There does not necessarily need to be a universal purpose to college. Indeed, words like “knowledge” and “skills” so often associated with higher education imply such broad meanings that one could argue it’s impossible to define the goal of an undergraduate degree.
But with tuition costs rising and the job market looking disappointingly bleak for many recent college graduates, evaluating the purpose of higher education is more important than ever.
So what is the reason for going to college? And more specifically, what should a student expect to gain during his or her four years?
To try to answer these questions and others, seven people highly involved in the University of North Carolina system weighed in.
Those people –
- Steve Ballard, chancellor of East Carolina University
- Assad Tavakoli, dean of the School of Business and Economics at Fayetteville State University
- Benjamin Uwakweh, dean of the School of Technology at NC Agricultural and Technical State University
- Nicholas Correa, student body president at UNC School of the Arts
- H. Frank Grainger, vice chairman of the UNC Board of Governors
- Christopher Payne, associate vice chancellor for student affairs at UNC-Chapel Hill
- Nancy Gutierrez, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at UNC-Charlotte
– provided responses from which arose a number of overarching themes (or in this case, key words).
As seen in the word cloud above, according to the respondents, knowledge was the most important thing students should gain from college. However, skills like problem-solving and character traits like confidence are also crucial.
Perhaps the most interesting finding was the verbs that appeared frequently – give, prepare and change.
Students should feel like college gives them something other than a diploma – whether it’s a technical skill, a job offer, or a greater understanding of the world. They should feel like college prepares them for the twenty-first century economy — be it through information sciences or a psychology degree. And finally, students should feel like college has changed them in a way that demonstrates a marked improvement in their lives.
Of course, this explanation is based on the findings of a word cloud. The story is obviously a much larger one to tell. But provided with some highlights from the interviews, how would you define the importance of a college education? Which side is missing from the debate?
WhichWayNC: What do you believe is the purpose of a college education?
Steve Ballard: There is a major social value to a college education, which has been viewed to be central to a strong democracy since our founding. Specifically, democracies work best when the voting public is educated and engaged in the issues of the day. An additional social value is to enhance social mobility – a college education has always been central to our nation’s commitment to enabling citizens to improve quality of life. College education is also instrumental to the individual – to provide the opportunity to realize one’s dreams, to have the career that one desires, and to be a responsible citizen. A successful college education gives confidence and “power” to the individual in the form of knowledge, skills, competencies and credentials. All are important.
WWNC: Are there certain paths that are better to pursue than others once in college?
H. Frank Grainger: There are some paths that are better to pursue in college than others. For example, any major in engineering, chemistry or agriculture will prepare you for very highly skilled jobs. We need less and less liberal arts degrees. That does not mean we don’t need philosophy majors and political science majors. We just need less of them. What do you do with a liberal arts degree today?
WWNC: Are there equally valuable alternatives to college?
Nancy Gutierrez: The short answer is of course. Any individual can be entrepreneurial, can educate his or herself, and be successful in creating a life that’s satisfying. The problem is marketing yourself or those alternatives so that others can understand that you are qualified or that you are a viable life partner or whatever else. You don’t necessarily need a college education to be engaged and interesting and employable, but it’s a credential. Of course there are alternatives, but those alternatives have to be explained.
WWNC: Is a person without a college education disadvantaged?
Benjamin Uwakweh: Without a college education, you cannot survive in North Carolina. The state is making strategic investments in science, engineering, nanotechnology and manufacturing. Therefore persons without a college education cannot compete.
WWNC: Is getting a job after graduation the best reflection of a successful college career?
Christopher Payne: Employment after graduation is only one measure of a successful college career. The ability and desire to engage in productive dialogue, provide service as a member of a larger community, and make a difference in the lives of others are also measures of success as a result of a higher education.
WWNC: What threatens the purpose of a college education?
Nicholas Correa: Of course, the ever-rising cost of higher education makes it difficult for many students to attend college. That being said, we as students have to do our part. We are our own worst enemy. Without students who value their education and who are willing to make sacrifices to get as much as they can out of college, students will go to college and waste our resources by just going through the motions. We make our own educational experience by tailoring our selection of college, classes and networks that we feel best prepare us for our future.
WWNC: What is the future of higher education in North Carolina?
Assad Tavakoli: I think the path is toward a more hybrid education – a combination of in-class and web-based instruction. It’s a paradigm you see evolving. This hybrid, which is a result of new technology and interactive teaching, is an opportunity for North Carolina.