Many Americans have begun to ask whether college is worth it. And who’s to blame them? With college tuition rising at astronomical levels, it’s reasonable to think prospective consumers will do a more careful “return on investment” calculation. But instead of asking whether it’s worth it, we’d be better off asking a different question: what’s the purpose of college? Without nailing this answer, it’s impossible to discern whether it will be or was worth it. Even more importantly, being clear about the purpose of college also helps us make the most of it.
The problem is that our national narrative about “college” has created a decidedly false dichotomy between the two primarily professed purposes of college. There is the camp that says college is about preparing a person for work – to help them get a good or better job. In fact, this is by far the most commonly cited reason for why Americans value higher education – to get a good job. The other camp says college is about more broadly preparing a person for success in life – to be an engaged and enlightened citizen capable of thinking critically and communicating clearly, ultimately able to thrive in their well-being. Make no mistake, many of us see the purpose of college as both a job-driven and a life-driven purpose. But our dialogue is horribly stuck in the muck of an either/or debate on these two fronts.
It’s time to end the either/or debate and embrace the reality that college’s purpose is both. College is about both preparing people for a job (and helping them advance their careers and earnings) and to thrive in their overall lives. Findings from a Gallup-Bates College study released today give us convincing evidence of the importance of both/and – as well as point us toward an improved framework for thinking about the purpose of college. What if the purpose of college is finding one’s own, individual purpose? And what if achieving this is critically linked to finding purposeful work? Here are the study highlights:
- Eighty percent of college graduates say it’s important to derive a sense of purpose from their work.
- Yet, only 38% of graduates strongly agree they have discovered work that has a satisfying purpose.
- For graduates with low levels of purpose in their work, only 6% are thriving in their overall well-being. But graduates with high purpose in their work are ten times more likely to be thriving in their well-being (59%)!
- The top two drivers of a graduate achieving purpose in their work are whether they had an applied job or internship and someone who encouraged their goals and dreams during college.
- These findings are true for all generations of graduates, but especially true for Millennials who are more likely to derive purpose from their work than other sources and in looking back on their college experience are more likely to regret not having had real-life work experiences.
- Finally, graduates who are reflective are 67% more likely to have purposeful work.
What does all this tell us? It tells us that graduates value both purpose and work – and in fact, find the most purpose in and from work. It tells us that we still have a lot of room for improvement in helping graduates achieve purposeful work. It tells us that if you care about one’s well-being, you’d be smart to help them find purposeful work – because that boosts their odds of thriving by ten times. It tells us there are two very, very important aspects of college that we should ensure no graduate misses the mark on: applied work experience and faculty, staff, and students who embrace a culture of caring about one another’s goals and dreams. And it tells us that a classically liberal arts element of college (teaching students how to be reflective) is powerfully linked to their job success.
What more do we need to end the silly debate about the purpose of college as job training vs. life training? If we view it too narrowly as job training, we miss the purposeful elements that bring work to life. And if we view it too broadly as life preparation, we lose focus on the single most important aspect of bringing life to it’s fullest through work. Work is not just about a paycheck; it’s also about a purpose. Helping graduates achieve purposeful work may indeed be the purpose of college.
If we want to answer the question of whether college is worth it, we need to start by asking “what is the purpose of college?” Reflecting on that may very well be the key to unlocking the next era of higher education, economic and well-being prosperity for our nation.
Brandon Busteed is a Forbes Contributor and is President of Kaplan University Partners and former Executive Director of Education & Workforce Development at Gallup. This blog was published on Forbes.com.