What Is the Purpose of Higher Education? (Part 3)

A New Hope

In Part 1 of this series, “Attack of the Politicians,” I pointed out the growing consensus, particularly among some prominent Republican governors, that the primary purpose of higher education is to prepare students to obtain a well-paying job after graduation. In Part 2, “Higher Education Strikes Back (Weakly),” I noted the fragile balance struck by higher education faculty, regardless of whether their particular focus is in the liberal arts, in professional or applied fields, or in community college teaching, in support of the notion that higher education is a big tent, and there is room for several different purposes and outcomes for a college education. Different campuses have different missions; there is no single purpose that encompasses all of them.

The problem is that this delicate balance of accepted (and expected) educational outcomes has been thrown into a cocked hat by state and national politicians who have openly challenged the economic value of some majors (virtually all within the liberal arts), and who have implicitly or explicitly threatened to remove governmental funding to support these programs (see, for example, Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 30, 2013, “North Carolina Governor Joins Chorus of Republicans Critical of Liberal Arts”).

As a consequence, various individuals, and especially faculty in the liberal arts, have found it necessary to become verbally defensive of the value and integrity of the liberal arts. That response has been ridiculed by much of the blogosphere, further inflaming the situation. (An article in Inside Higher Ed, Feb. 16, 2015, “Gov. Scott Walker Mixes It Up on Higher Education, Generating National Headlines” generated 90 comments from readers within a day of being posted, many of them mocking supporters of the liberal arts.)

Is there no way out of this dilemma? Must one side prevail, and the other collapse in defeat?

There is a middle ground – a new hope – but occupying it will require both sides to move from their currently entrenched positions. Supporters of the liberal arts must recognize, whether or not they approve, the primary reason today that families invest in higher education for their children is to increase the likelihood that their children will obtain well-paying positions and enjoy some level of economic success. Opponents of the liberal arts need to accept that there is considerable intangible value in a liberal arts education, and that the worth of a university degree cannot and should not be measured in monetary terms alone.

All of that is easy to say – but what can possibly motivate the two sides to move toward a compromise?

Enter a new study from the Gallup organization, in conjunction with Purdue University and the Lumina Foundation. Great Jobs, Great Lives, a 2014 report of a study of more than 30,000 college graduates, demonstrates unequivocally that a college degree has much greater value than simply paving the way to a first job – and that studying the liberal arts can be an effective way to maximize this value (although some colleges and universities are far more successful than others). Moreover, these greater values are not limited to those who study the liberal arts. Professional and applied programs can convey the same enhanced value, when they are properly structured.

Gallup found that it was possible to identify the characteristics that collectively comprise a satisfying life – a “life well lived.” Moreover, Gallup also was able to link certain things that either did or did not happen during an undergraduate’s college years and connect those to the characteristics that constitute a satisfying life. As a consequence, colleges and universities now can focus on maximizing the likelihood that their students will have precisely those college experiences and outcomes that enhance the likelihood that the graduates will enjoy a life well lived.

Put another way, the value of a college education goes far beyond job preparation (although that’s important). And while it is relatively easy to measure the value of a college education with just two metrics – job placement rates and starting salary – a true determination of value would include all of the things that contribute to a life well lived. Thanks to the Gallup study, these other factors have now been clearly identified, and a family considering sending a child to college would be well served to examine the evidence that a particular college is especially successful in imparting these outcomes to its graduates.

So what are these other factors? And how effective are colleges and universities in general at ensuring that graduates have experienced them at the time of graduation?

It should not be particularly surprising to learn that the two primary factors underlying a rich and satisfying life are being engaged at work (“a great job”) and having an overall sense of well-being (“a great life”).

A Great Job

Through its survey of 30,000 college graduates, Gallup determined that only 39 percent are “engaged” at work. (“Engagement” is a term that summarizes 12 different measures, such as feeling emotionally and intellectually connected with their work, doing something they enjoy, etc.).

How does being engaged at work relate to a graduate’s specific experiences in college? Having a mentor – someone who encouraged, supported and believed in them, and who made them excited about learning – more than doubled the likelihood of their subsequently being engaged at work. Semester-long, project-based learning experiences, or a job or internship where students could apply their classroom learning, plus being very actively involved in student clubs and organizations, collectively also doubled the likelihood of subsequently being engaged at work.

That’s not a particularly surprising list. Many people would assume that most graduates would have experienced most of these. But the distressing statistic revealed by the Gallup study was that only three percent of college graduates strongly agreed that they had had that entire set of opportunities and experiences!

A Great Life

Gallup found that “well-being” was comprised of five different factors: a sense of purpose in one’s life; strong social and familial relationships; a level of financial security; engagement with one’s community; and good health. Based on their responses to a set of questions, survey participants were placed in one of three categories on each of these factors: thriving, struggling or suffering.

Only 11 percent of college graduates were “thriving” in all five categories – and 17 percent were “thriving” in none of the categories.

How does the likelihood of “thriving” relate to one’s college experiences? Again, mentorship, a relevant college job, internship or semester-long project, and extracurricular activities all significantly increased the likelihood of “thriving” after graduation. Additionally, if graduates felt that they had been well prepared for life after college, if they believed that their college was passionate about the long-term success of its students, and if they have a strong emotional attachment to their college, they were far more likely to “thrive” than those who did not share those feelings.

So in large measure the same set of college experiences and opportunities correlate with both a great job and a great life. The challenge for prospective students and their parents is to find a college or university that does a great job of ensuring that these experiences and opportunities actually happen.

The Employers’ Perspective

It’s all well and good to link specific college experiences to a good job and a good life – but graduates have to be hired in the first place, in order to have a chance at either a good job or a good life, and the media abounds with stories of underemployed college graduates. What are employers looking for?

In 2013, the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) hired Hart Research Associates to conduct an online survey of for-profit and nonprofit executives of organizations that hire significant numbers of college graduates. The results are available in a publication titled It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success that can be downloaded from AAC&U’s website.

The good news is that many of the skills and experiences desired by employers broadly overlap those of the Gallup survey. Internships, a senior thesis and work in a real-world setting all are important to employers. So, obviously, are the specific skills required of the particular job – and employers generally give high marks to the quality of preparation of graduates in applied fields such as engineering and accounting.

However, employers are much less generous when evaluating the quality of the so-called “soft skills” of graduates – oral and written communication; collaboration; critical and analytical skills; good judgment and ethical decision-making – with only 14 percent of employers saying that graduates are well prepared in these areas.

These are skills and abilities that are the hallmark of the liberal arts – and the danger is that if there is too much focus on applied learning for the workplace, attention to the skills emerging from the liberal arts will suffer, at a time when employers are saying these are the skills where current graduates are already weak.


From surveys by AAC&U and by Gallup, we now know the specific skills and experiences that are both valued by the marketplace and predictive of a life well lived. We also know that, broadly speaking, those skills and experiences are embedded in the traditional undergraduate experience.

However, it is also clear that, with this new information, colleges and universities have the opportunity – indeed, the obligation – to ensure that the great majority of their students not only have access to but actually acquire these same specific skills and experiences.

There is an aggressive agenda now under way to coerce colleges and universities to focus even more strongly on preparing students for jobs – and the success of colleges in making that transition is to be measured by the job placement rates and starting salaries of their graduates. If this change in emphasis comes at the expense of the traditional deep dive into the liberal arts and sciences that is currently a part of most undergraduates’ education, it will be devastating to the likelihood that graduates will have both great jobs and great lives on the one hand, and to the American economy on the other. From whence will come the ability to innovate? To solve complex problems? To think and analyze critically?

To my friends in the academy I will point out that the politicians will not be thwarted by motions of censure and irate letters to the editor. We must stop defending the status quo as if it were the pinnacle of perfection, and focus instead on ensuring that our students have both marketable skills and the experiences that will increase the likelihood of their having a life well lived. That doesn’t mean abandoning the liberal arts, but instead demonstrating unequivocally their value in leading to a great job and a great life.

Next time: How Roger Williams University is equipping its graduates to find a great job and lead a great life.