What Is the Purpose of College?

Knowing the risks and rewards associated with a college major including future job opportunities

I have a 17-year-old daughter who is graduating from high school this year. We did the typical barnstorming tour of visiting various colleges she was considering, spent hours getting her application together, and crossed our fingers while waiting to hear what institutions had accepted her. Her going to college though was not really a decision, but rather a foregone conclusion. It was just the expectation. And why was this? Because like many, our family has bought into the notion that one has to go to a university if they are going to find a good job. That college is the gateway to bigger and better things. It is just a stepping stone that one has to hop on before moving on to their real lives. And if one doesn’t go to college, that person’s in for a world of difficulty finding a good job.

But is that really the truth? Does one absolutely have to go to college? Is it necessary to be successful in life? It used to be a few decades ago that one could learn a vocation and then when they graduated from high school, they could enter the field of which they trained. These jobs are drying up, however. As more automation takes the work of manual laborers or these skilled jobs are shipped overseas to save money, jobs are becoming more and more specialized. If you want an excellent book to read on this topic, check out Brian Alexander’s “Glass House: the 1% Economy and the Shattering of an All-American Town.”

Because of this, it is difficult to train for such a profession. Colleges have convinced the public that they are now the vocational schools and without going, it will be challenging to find a good job. Why have they sold us on this story? Lest us not forget that colleges are a business. Unlike public school systems which operate as a non-profit, sinking in any overage back into the education of kids, colleges are in it to make money. Just take a look at the latest college admissions scandal where parents were bribing officials to guarantee admittance into their university. Why would parents spend that much money? Because they believe that by their child getting into a prestigious college, it guarantees success later in life. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. 40 percent of those graduating from college end up taking a job that does not require a degree. 1 in 5 still don’t have a degree-demanding job a decade after graduation. This begs the question, why did they need to go to college then?

Here are the percentages of those working a job that doesn’t require the degree they earned based on major:

My biggest issue with colleges is the fact that the entire purpose of them is to get students ready for a career in some field. And yet, they offer a lot of majors that do not translate into work.

Here is a list of concentrations that people can choose who go to Harvard:

Glancing through this list, how many of these do you think would translate into a job, other than continuing on to graduate school in the same area which is just delaying the inevitable job market? Not many Folklore and Mythology stores out there, Romance Languages and Literatures corporations, or Women, Gender, and Sexuality companies. Yet these people are spending four years of their lives minimum, as well as incurring a debt of on average $30,000. If they had simply entered the workforce upon graduating high school, they surely would have earned $30,000 a year during each of those four years.

Take me for example. I graduated from college in 1994 with a double major, history and creative writing. That should give me twice the chance to get a job, shouldn’t it? Guess how many jobs I was qualified for when I entered into the job market? Zero. I couldn’t even score an interview. More sadly, I didn’t even know what jobs a history or creative writing major should be applying for. My college had not given me any guidance for what I was to do with my majors and what avenues I should pursue. I ended up working as a manager in the movie theatre I had worked at during high school. I did that for a month before realizing that this was something I did not want to do for the rest of my life. I went back to school and chose a degree that would better translate into a job; being a teacher.

There are some that would argue that the purpose of higher education is just that; to propagate the idea of scholarship. That means majoring in philosophy is perfectly acceptable because the body of knowledge that will be generated will make it all worthwhile to future generations. The problem with this argument is that it doesn’t pay the bills. The pursuit of scholarship is certainly a noble cause and one that makes the world a better-rounded place, but it is not always practical. If I’m going to be plunking down this chunk of change, I want to see some return on my investment.

As for my own daughter, she originally wanted to go to college and major in interior design. A little bit of research uncovered that this is a heavily competitive field and even if you get a job, the starting pay is at the low end of $40,000 a year. She toyed with the idea of being a political science major. I quickly vetoed that as there were even fewer jobs than an interior designer. Eventually, we were able to mesh her design talents and her passion for politics and landed on the field of urban design, an up and coming profession with lots of growth potential. I can now send her to college with a clear conscience knowing that she will be able to learn a skill that would enable her to take care of herself when entering the adult world. And bonus; she gets to enter into a field she is excited about. It still doesn’t guarantee anything because there are a lot of variables, but at least the opportunities for success are greater than other choices.

My question is, shouldn’t colleges be having these conversations with their incoming students as well? Shouldn’t students know the risks and rewards associated with such a major including what job prospects look like? How much counseling is going on with students and their colleges?

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Todd Stanley is the author of several education books including Project-Based Learning for Gifted Students and Performance-Based Assessment for 21st-Century Skills, both for Prufrock Press. Additionally, he wrote a series of workbooks for them entitled 10 Performance-Based Projects for the ELA/Math/Science Classroom. He wrote Creating Life-Long Learners with Corwin Press and is a regular contributor of blogs to Corwin Connect which can be accessed at https://corwin-connect.com/author/toddstanley/. You can find out more about Todd at MyEdExpert.com and you can follow him on Twitter.