Chapter 2: What’s College For?

Alise Lamoreaux, Dave Dillon

“Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere.”

– Chinese Proverb

What’s college for? That’s a little question with a big answer! A college education comes in many shapes and sizes. In 2014, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were over 4,700 different post-secondary degree- granting institutions in the United States.[1]

These schools may be public, private, religious, small, large, for-profit, community colleges, junior colleges. Considering the variety of college options, there is no single answer to the question, “What is college for?” Brenda Hellyer, Chancellor of San Jacinto College in Houston and Pasadena, Texas, wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education that students “are seeking more than an education—they are seeking options, opportunities, and guidance.”

How do you view college?
What will define college success for you?

People go to college for a variety of reasons. The type of college you select will help set parameters and expectations for your experiences. Before jumping into the details of going to college, it’s important to stop and think about the purpose college has in your life. Traditionally, college was a place young adults went after high school to explore courses and majors before settling into a job path. According to a 2015 UCLA survey, most people currently go to college for one or more of 7 main reasons:[2]

1) To be able to get a better job
2) To gain a general education and appreciation of ideas
3) To become a more cultured person
4) To be able to make more money
5) To learn more about things that interest me
6) To get training for a specific career
7) To prepare for graduate or professional school

Video: Don’t Just Follow Your Passion: A Talk for Generation Y, Eunice Hii at TEDxTerryTalks 2012

What impression does this TED Talk leave you with? Which generation are you?

An article from 2015 in the Washington Post, What’s the purpose of college: A job or an education? says that students entering college today list getting a better job as the most important reason to attend college. In the past, learning about things that interested them was listed as the top reason to attend college. When did the change in priority occur? Dan Berrett says the change in priority can be linked to Ronald Reagan, when he was Governor of California.[3]

Economic times were tough in 1967 for California. Everyone needed to “tighten their belts.” At that time, California was known for its excellent higher educational system. In a speech Reagan gave on Feb. 28, 1967, a month into his term as Governor, Reagan assured people that he wouldn’t do anything to harm the quality of their public education system. “But,” he added, “We do believe that there are certain intellectual luxuries that perhaps we could do without.” Taxpayers should not be “subsidizing intellectual curiosity,” he said. By the time Reagan won the presidency, in 1980, practical degrees had become the popular choice. In the 1930s, around the time Reagan went to college, about 8% of students majored in “business and commerce.” When he was elected Governor, that share was 12%. By the time he moved into the White House, more students majored in business than anything else. Business, as a major, has held that top spot ever since.

What frames your value of education?
What kind of return on your investment do you expect from college?

Deciding to go to college has an “opportunity cost.” An opportunity cost is based on the economic principle that there are limited resources available and choices must be made. Examples of resources would be things like time and money. If you are spending time doing something, you must give up doing something else you want to do. That is the opportunity cost of your choice. Going to college will have an opportunity cost in your life. An important question to ask in the beginning of your college venture is: what are you willing to trade off for going to college?

Opportunity costs are tied to the idea of return on investment. Once you make an investment of your time and money in college, what investment are you hoping to get in return? How you define success in relationship to your college experience impacts how you see the concept of return on investment. Some ways to gauge return on investment include: job opportunities after college, immediate financial benefit to earned wages, social network/connections made while attending college, development of communication and other “soft skills,” and personal enrichment and/or happiness.

Short-term rewards compared to long-term rewards are another way to look at return on investment. For example, it takes much longer to become a CEO (Chief Executive Officer) of a company than it does to get a well-paid job at the same company. Different skills would be required from the CEO and it may require more investment to acquire those skills. Frances Bronet, the Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Oregon, conducted a survey of former engineering graduates when she taught at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She asked former graduates what they felt they had missed in their education. The results were very different depending on how recent their graduation was. Students who had graduated 1 year ago felt that they needed more technical skills. People who had graduated 5 years ago felt that they needed more management skills, and people who had graduated 10-20 years ago felt that they needed more cultural literacy because their work now involved more working with other cultures.

Deciding to go to college is a big decision and choosing a course of study can seem overwhelming to many students. Considering the changing world we live in, knowing what direction to go is not easy. According to Richard Riley, secretary of education under Bill Clinton, “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t exist using technology that haven’t been invented in order to solve problems that we don’t even know.”

Video: Do Schools Kill Creativity? Ken Robinson at TED 2006

Personal Inventory Questions:

  1. Why are you here?
  2. Why college, why now?
  3. How do you define college?
  4. What do you imagine college life to be like?
  5. How do you know when you are ready for college?
  6. What have you done to prepare for college?
  7. What do you think college expects from students?
  8. What does going to college mean for your future?
  9. Using the list of 5 reasons students attend college provided in this chapter, rank your reasons for going to college.
  10. In your opinion, is it a good idea for academic counselors to steer high school kids towards either a 4-year degree or vocational training?
  11. Should students be steered towards careers that would be a good “fit” for them?
  12. Opportunity Cost Analysis: Create a pie chart identifying how you currently spend your time (daily/weekly).

Suggested Readings:

Scott Carlson, “How to Assess the Real Pay Off of a College Degree,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 2013.

Jeffery J. Selingo, “What’s The Purpose of College: A Job or An Education?,” The Washington Post, 2015.

Licenses and Attributions:

CC licensed content, Shared previously:

A Different Road To College: A Guide For Transitioning To College For Non-traditional Students. Authored by: Alise Lamoreaux.  Located at: https://openoregon.pressbooks.pub/collegetransition/chapter/chapter-1/  License: CC BY: Attribution.

Adaptions: Reformatted. Added learning objectives. Modified reasons for going to college. Updated sources.

Ken Robinson: Do Schools Kill Creativity? Authored by TED.com
Located at: https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity

License: CC BY – NC – ND 4.0 International.

All rights reserved content:

Don’t Just Follow Your Passion: A Talk for Generation Y. Authored by TEDxTalks

Located at: https://youtu.be/sgbzbdxTm4E. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube license.

 


  1. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 2015 (National Center for Education Statistics 2016-014), Table 105.50.
  2. Kevin Eagan et al., The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2015 (Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA, 2015).
  3. Dan Barrett, “The Day the Purpose of College Changed,” Chronicle of Higher Education, accessed April 26, 2018, https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Day-the-Purpose-of-College/151359.

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Chapter 2: What’s College For? by Alise Lamoreaux, Dave Dillon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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