The Purposes of Higher Education

This past Tuesday morning, I gave the convocation address for new students at Flagler, a private four-year liberal-arts college in St. Augustine, Florida. Founded in 1968, Flagler College is a relatively new institution built around the grounds of a stunning 19th century hotel and set in America’s oldest city. Perhaps because Flagler charges in tuition and fees about half of what the average private colleges does, it has attracted a fair degree of socioeconomic diversity.

I was asked in my remarks to reflect on the larger goals of higher education. Although speech givers are often advised to stick to three points, because studies find audiences don’t remember more than that, I outlined five purposes. In addition to the standard rationales for taxpayer support of education—producing well-trained employees in a free-market economy and intelligent citizens in a self-governing democracy—I outlined several additional goals, and in each case evaluated how well higher education is doing. (The full text of the convocation speech can be found here).

1.  To ensure that every student, no matter the wealth of her parents, has a chance to enjoy the American Dream.

It used to be that there were two major paths to economic security in the United States: Go to college or join a unionized occupation. But today, less than 7% of private sector workers are unionized, compared with 35% in the 1950s. So now, the most reliable avenue to economic security involves getting a four-year degree.

Overall, however, American higher education is not doing a very good job of promoting social mobility. According to recent data, 82% of those from higher-income families get a bachelor’s degree by age 24, compared with just 8% from low-income families. A society in which children from wealthy families are about 10 times as likely to get college degrees as those from poor families is one marked by profound inequality.

2. To educate leaders in our democracy.

Thomas Jefferson famously wanted the United States to be led by a “natural aristocracy” of “virtue and talent” rather than an “artificial aristocracy” based on wealth and birth. And a system of free public education, coupled with accessible higher education, was critical, in his view, to producing America’s leaders.

Yet, once again, in practice, many institutions of higher education fail to live up to this ideal today by admitting some students through so-called “legacy preferences.” As Michael Lind noted in a book I edited entitled Affirmative Action for the Rich, “By reserving places on campus for members of the pseudo-aristocracy of wealth and birth, legacy preferences introduce an aristocratic snake into the democratic republican Garden of Eden.”

3. To advance learning and knowledge through faculty research and by giving students the opportunity to broaden their minds even when learning does not seem immediately relevant to their careers.

As Louis Menand has written in The New Yorker magazine, college is a time for you to learn “things about the world and yourself that, if you do not learn them in college, you are unlikely to learn anywhere else.” Later in life, they will be caught up in family and career, so at least some portion of their time in college should be spent becoming “a reflective and culturally literate human being.”

Yet, here again, higher education falls short. Many colleges see themselves as vocational schools, and the study Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, famously found than an astounding 45 percent of students learn little in the first two years of college, as measured by progress on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA).

4. To teach students to interact with people different than themselves.

Our public schools are more segregated today than at any time in the last three decades. Even as our society is becoming more diverse, our student populations are being pulled apart into separate camps, divided by race and class. American colleges—because they draw upon students from a variety of neighborhoods and states, and countries—provide a unique environment in which students of different backgrounds can learn from one another.

Many colleges have done a fairly good job of promoting racial diversity through affirmative action programs, but most do a poor job of bringing students from different economic backgrounds together. As Walter Benn Michaels has noted, many colleges now have “rich kids of all colors.”

5. To help students find a passionand even a purpose in life.

When I was a senior in college, I wrote my thesis about Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign for president, in which he built a powerful coalition of working-class white voters and black and Hispanic voters—who were, at the time, at war with one another—by making appeals to common economic interests.  Kennedy thought that the economic divide in this country was even greater than the racial and ethnic divides, and that hypothesis—bolstered by lots of evidence—is something I’ve pursued in almost all my research and writing since college.

It’s hard to know how well higher education is doing in helping students find a passion, helping them think through what they’re really good at, what they’re truly interested in, and what they believe are the most critical problems facing the country. But as students start a new academic year at Flagler—and at colleges across the country—I hope that officials in higher education think deeply about how best to spark in students a passionate interest that will help them lead truly meaningful lives.

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