Why College?

Does anyone go to college today for anything other than practical reasons? Are all students looking for jobs?

I very much enjoy talking with high school students about college. At Curry College, I regularly see prospective students and their families, from the early inquiry stage to applicant, accepted students, and then, possibly, matriculant. When the process works well, over a twelve to eighteen month period from high school student to college student, these young people learn a good deal about us, about higher education in general, and most importantly, about themselves. I participated in the same processes when I worked in the City University of New York (CUNY) system, too. It is a fascinating time of tremendous personal growth. I see prospective students building knowledge, strength and awareness from a known base, their home and high school, and then challenging that foundation as they explore of potential places for themselves in the future. You can sometimes witness them asking questions as they project themselves into the future. It is a journey that we in academia need to attend to and research.

Often these discussions return to their interests, goals, values and expectations. And if the timing and setting is appropriate, I like to ask why they are going to college. The answer is uniform: a job.

That is not to state that they necessarily see college as vocational. Nor are they often able to articulate what sort of job. That isn’t the case with some students, of course. Nursing students know that they want to become nurses. For many, though, there are multiple threads of hopes and aims: wanting to make a difference, wanting to make money, wanting to grow, and wanting much, much more.

It is rare, if ever, that I hear of students wanting knowledge and learning for its own sake.  When I do pose that question, the answer is resounding silence. This holds true whether talking with the children of the working poor or the wealthy. Aspiring college students consistently link their college education with an eminently practical and useful goal – a job or career.

A fundamental challenge we face in higher education is that of student expectations and aligning that with our knowledge of outcomes.

David Potash