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 2020, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 3,982 degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the United States[1]

Associate degrees may be obtained at a community colleges or technical schools and usually require approximately 60 credits. Bachelor’s degrees are most often offered by four-year colleges or universities, although some community colleges may offer bachelor’s degrees. Most bachelor’s degrees will require the completion of approximately 120 credits. Some students may begin at a community college and transfer to a four-year college or university to pursue a bachelor’s degree while others may start and finish at a four-year college or university. Both associate degrees and bachelor’s degrees usually require general education courses and courses focusing on a specific major. A master’s degree is an advanced graduate degree that shows a high level of mastery concentrated in a specific subject area. Many master’s degree programs require completion of 30 and 60 credits. One distinction between colleges and universities is that colleges do not offer graduate degree programs while universities offer both undergraduate (associate and bachelor’s) and graduate degree (master’s and doctorate) programs. A doctorate degree is the highest degree available to earn in many fields. Also called a “terminal degree,” this signals achieving the highest level of academic mastery in some disciplines.

Colleges and universities may be public, private, religious, small, large, for-profit, community colleges, junior colleges, regional universities, research universities, or international universities. In addition to a degree and an “education,” students often pursue college for options, opportunities, knowledge, curiosity, 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 University of California at Los Angeles survey, most people currently go to college for one or more of 7 main reasons:[2]Kevin Eagan et al., The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2015 (Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA, 2015).

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?

A Forbes article from 2019 says that the most commonly cited reason for why Americans value higher education is to get a good job.[3] 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.[4]

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,” personal enrichment and/or happiness, and the ability to improve socio-economic circumstances for students’ family and community.

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.

In the most watched TED talk of all time, educationalist Sir Ken Robinson claimed that “schools kill creativity”, arguing that we grow out of creativity rather than growing into it. Robinson also argues that “creativity is as important as literacy and we should afford it the same status.”

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

What do you think the purpose of college is? Do you think schools “kill” creativity?

Asking yourself the questions below may help you add more depth to your foundation for the purpose for you for college. It is OK if you don’t have answers for some of the questions. You may want to discuss some the questions, your answers, and your goals with a counselor or advisor.

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 7 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).


Licenses and Attributions:

CC licensed content, Shared previously:

Lamoreaux, Alise. A Different Road To College: A Guide For Transitioning To College For Non-traditional Students. Open Oregon Educational Resources, 2018. License: CC BY: Attribution.

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

Robinson, Ken. “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” TED, TED Conferences LLC, Feb. 2006.

License: CC BY – NC – ND 4.0 International.

All rights reserved content:

Hii, Eunice. “Don’t Just Follow Your Passion: A Talk for Generation Y.” TEDxTerryTalks. University of British Columbia, November 3rd, 2012, Vancouver, BC, Canada. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube license.

Version History: Minor edits and updates for more currency, cohesiveness, inclusiveness, alignment, and cultural responsiveness, July, 2021.


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Chapter 2: What’s College For? Copyright © 2021 by Alise Lamoreaux, Dave Dillon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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