The Purpose of Colleges and Universities

Higher education, long considered a positive force for social, scientific, and economic development, has come under increasing fire in recent years. Many of these fights boil down to money– how much of our public capital should be spent on the venture? Colleges and universities have become targets for polemicists who paint them as “liberal” indoctrination stations (feel free to ask any of these folks just who these “liberals” are, what they are indoctrinating students with, and for what purpose– you’ll end up with some mash-up of coastal elites, African diaspora/gender studies/fatness studies identity politics, the gay agenda, multiculturalism, globalists, and/or anti-Christian policy). Others take a “Dirty Jobs” approach, bemoaning the decline of trade schools and the unnecessary promotion of four-year institutions (in fact, subbaccalaureate institutions have grown by 20% over the first two decades of the 21st century as compared to a 10% growth overall for higher education, making claims that we are ignoring such development seem rather empty). Whether people are promoting or attacking higher education, what goes unsaid is just what is the purpose of a university education?

Bryan Caplan, an economist from George Mason University is a great example of this. He argues in the most recent issue of The Atlantic that the United States might be better off not trying to provide universal access to college. While I can imagine quite a few solid positions one could stake out to support this argument, the one Caplan chooses is not among them. Put most simply, Caplan argues that ever greater access to higher education simply leads to credential inflation (which favors people with economic and social capital) while ignoring the less glamorous vocational path that could benefit society (increasing productivity and lowering unemployment) and less academically oriented students alike.

Booker T Washington would be so proud.

There is merit to this point. College is not for everyone. Very few in higher education would disagree. How Caplan arrived at his conclusion is the problem.

The labor market doesn’t pay you for the useless subjects you master; it pays you for the preexisting traits you signal by mastering them. This is not a fringe idea. Michael Spence, Kenneth Arrow, and Joseph Stiglitz—all Nobel laureates in economics—made seminal contributions to the theory of educational signaling. Every college student who does the least work required to get good grades silently endorses the theory. But signaling plays almost no role in public discourse or policy making. As a society, we continue to push ever larger numbers of students into ever higher levels of education. The main effect is not better jobs or greater skill levels, but a credentialist arms race.

This couldn’t miss the mark more if it tried.

This argument assumes that the primary mission of higher education is to prepare people for the workforce. It is not. Want proof? Google the mission statement of any major public or private school. Here is The Ohio State University mission:

The University is dedicated to:

  • Creating and discovering knowledge to improve the well-being of our state, regional, national and global communities;
  • Educating students through a comprehensive array of distinguished academic programs;
  • Preparing a diverse student body to be leaders and engaged citizens;
  • Fostering a culture of engagement and service.

Not one word on the subject of future employment.

There is a reason for this. Universities are about the pursuit of knowledge. As faculty and administrators, we set up general education requirements and curriculum that offers our students a wide base of knowledge guided by our professional expertise, mandated terms of accrediting bodies (who blend historical and contemporary public policy desires into their requirements), and the mission of our institution. Our curriculum is not simply the result of us teaching the “things we know.” I’d be very surprised if Professor Caplan served on any curriculum committees or took the notion of them very seriously if he did, given what he has written here.

As a student, you’ll be required to take courses that introduce you to a multitude of cultures– geographically, socially, and historically. These students learn to appreciate differences, shows where conflicts between people originate from, and helps them understand that solutions to conflict are rarely simple. This is engaged citizenship 101. You’ll take courses in mathematics and science, sharpening your reasoning skills and teaching you methods of inquiry that can serve you well in nearly any industry or service. You’ll read literature, not because you’ll need to have references to “Beloved” in your back pocket as the regional manager of Hertz, but because it enriches the human experience and allows you to slip into the lives of others. This is important for building empathy and being a better person (and yes, literature references are a signaler for future employers). You’ll encounter human development and psychology, learning more about how we learn, understand, and interpret the world. You might try out a class in sculpture or dance, learning to express your experience in non-verbal ways (or just have fun). You get the point.

Through this broad general education, students are offered new paths to travel– how many students change their majors or add a new one during the general education phase of their college experience? Moreover, to the discerning student, connections between the curriculum are made. Seeing how disciplines overlap and interact helps enrich their views of the complexity of the world. And if done properly, it makes them the kind of innovative thinker that creates change and development in the workforce.


This isn’t about a simple difference between job-specific skills learned in a major (Caplan uses engineers as an example here, but it could expand almost endlessly– for example, the accountants, copy editors, computer programmers, graphic designers, web designers, and systems administrators I’ve worked with closely in the last ten years in publishing and higher education all used their college training on a daily basis) and those “signaling’ skills they gain in the credentialing game. Identifying connections across the curriculum has both hard and soft value.

Caplan, like most faculty I know, has an ahistorical understanding of how much time students ever spent studying and the “increased” role of frivolous activity in their lives. I have old college journals sitting on the bookshelf behind me that detail the lazy, disengaged, drunken debauchery of college students at Harvard. It is full of parties, petty disagreements, silly pranks, and sophomoric humor. It was written in the 1890s but would be just as at home in a frat house of 2017.

Not only are these experiences not new, they are also not immaterial to work and life beyond college. Nothing is richer in the human experience than time spent with friends and family socializing. Learning to navigate friendships is an important life skill. Students build lasting bonds in college that impact where they live, work, and play. This is also where they learn to fit into social hierarchies, sharpen leadership skills, and develop strategies for managing themselves and others. They learn to collaborate and work towards goals. They confront authority or learn to operate within it (or move between both depending on the situation). This is where they learn to speak to peers, supervisors, and authorities. Learning these skills where the stakes are fairly low is invaluable training for leadership and growth in the future.

Caplan himself boils his argument down to this:

Civilized societies revolve around education now, but there is a better—indeed, more civilized—way. If everyone had a college degree, the result would be not great jobs for all, but runaway credential inflation. Trying to spread success with education spreads education but not success.

The whole argument is invalid because the premise is false. We are not attempting to spread education to spread economic success– that is simply a perk. Higher education tries to spread engaged citizenship, enrich the human experience, provide frameworks and processes necessary to understand and engage with the world around you, to promote a spirit of service to others (the state, nation, and world), and to continue building on our accumulated knowledge through training future generations of scholars, inventors, and entrepreneurs. This is the mission of higher education and its spread is inherently good.

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