What Does Higher Education Provide?

The cost of higher education and its implications have been discussed, challenged, and criticized repeatedly over the past several years.  Rightfully so.   As the price of attending college has increased, it has left many wondering what higher education actually provides. Kwame Anthony Appiah recently wrote a thought-provoking New York Times Magazine article posing this very question –  What Is the Point of College?

In the United States alone, there are over 17 million undergraduates enrolled in classes at “institutions small and large, public and private, two-year and four-year, online and on campus.” While each student is pursuing a college degree, this degree will undoubtedly mean something different to each student.

When it comes to attending college, there are many trains of thought.  Appiah focuses on two.  1) You attend college to improve your value in the workplace by learning practical skills. As Appiah calls it, a student on this path would be attending Utility U.

2) You attend school to learn about values. A liberal arts or humanities curriculum urges students to question topics such as societal injustice, and helps prepare students for the real world by building their soul as much as their skills. These students are would be attending Utopia U.

Neither Utility U. nor Utopia U. has the full run of any one campus. “There’s the performance-studies major who is putting up fliers for the Naomi Klein talk, collecting signatures for the fossil-free petition and wondering whether the student alliance for gender equity is as racially inclusive as it claims,” writes Appiah. “Then there’s the engineering major, first in the family to go to college, traipsing across the quad with a discounted, two-editions-out-of-date version of the material-science textbook. All that identity stuff is a dimly perceived distraction in this student’s light cone, readily tuned out.”

These students will cross paths on campus, but only physically. An exchange or discussion between them tends to be infrequent. It is almost like these students are attending two different schools.

A degree from either Utility U. or Utopia U. will put students on the right track for success in their future endeavors. However, each of these degrees has very different metrics for success and different potential outcomes.

An emphasis has been placed on the return on investment of a college education. As the cost of higher education has increased, students and parents want to be sure the investment is worthwhile. This mindset will often push students down the path towards a degree from Utility U.

It is important that society does not overlook the importance and practicality of the lessons learned from Utopia U. While the return on investment from a class at Utopia U. may not as immediate or tangible, these classes are often a once time chance to think deeply, challenge thoughts and values, have questions, and engage in meaningful discourse in a safe environment.

As Appiah puts it, “there is something to be said for the intellectual discipline for second-guessing what you thought was true. And that wasn’t just good for them. Who would want to live in a nation of people without doubts?”

In addition, a rich liberal arts education gives students the ability to think – to make connections between silos.  Critical thinking, creativity, and the capacity to learn outside of one’s comfort zone are ingredients in any success.  So the argument can be made that while Utility U. is giving students the skills they need for today, Utopia U is giving them the ability and learning agility to be successful in the future.  We know that we are not aware of many careers that will be available in 10 years.   Web designer?  Data Analytics?  Ten years ago these were a glimmer in someone’s eye, and now they are coveted careers.  What will the students from Utility U do when disruption comes along and they need to learn something new?  Some will be fine.  Others will panic.  Students need to learn how to learn – whenever and however needed.  A love for learning is invaluable.

Perhaps we do not want to separate the opportunities and skills that Utility U. and Utopia U. provide. While it is important to take classes that foster practical workplace skills, it is equally meaningful to learn about the “qualities of your soul.”  Higher education provides a unique environment where learners can find answers. College is a place for students to learn both what they can do and who they can be.

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