Why Is College Valuable?

There has been a big push in the past few years—mostly from politicians, op-ed pundits, and tech venture capitalists—to make sure that college is valuable to students and their communities. This is understandable as the cost of a college degree can be expensive, the last educational investment before launching into a career. So, what makes college valuable? It depends on whom you ask, but not all answers are equally valuable.

One answer is that college is not valuable, that it stifles learning and creativity, pushes students into deep debt, and fails to prepare them for success in the “real world.” This is a critique that comes from—among various quarters—some wealthy technology CEOs who want to demolish higher education and remake it in their own image to serve the ends of technological and financial progress. The Thiel Fellowship, started by the billionaire Peter Thiel, stands out in this regard with its cash-lined and network-rich call for exceptional students to drop out of college and drop into its tech start-up program.

But this version of higher education (led, ironically, by a liberal arts college graduate and only open to a few select students) cannot be good for everyone. Besides, the average student debt for a liberal arts college degree is only as much as a new economy car. With this relatively minor debt, earning power is tremendously higher for those with college degree than those without. Moreover, in the peak earning ages of 56–60 years, liberal arts college graduates earn more money than graduates of professional programs.

Another answer is that college is valuable when streamlined to focus on competencies. This is the dream of creating an inexpensive degree—some daydream of a $10,000 degree—that prepares students for the workplace by training them quickly in the specific skills they need for certain careers. An example of this sort is Western Governors University where online students complete their degrees or certificates by demonstrating work-related knowledge and skills through a series of assessments.

A benefit of this approach is that it directly develops knowledge and skills for the marketplace. The disadvantage is that it can narrowly focus on technical training that soon becomes obsolete with the ever-changing job market.

Liberal arts colleges typically respond that they provide greater value. This is not just because of longitudinal financial benefits for graduates, but because of what is a cause of that result: the development of broad, diverse skills in the liberal arts that are transferable to any job.

Recent studies show that employers are less concerned with the discipline a job candidate studied in college—especially since companies can train employees in the technical skills they need—and more concerned that a candidate possesses  broadly applicable and adaptable skills such as critical thinking, creativity, clear communication, problem solving, ethical judgment, integration and application of knowledge, and collaboration in diverse settings. These are precisely kinds of skills that liberal arts colleges seek to cultivate in students, preparing them for a lifetime of work.

The benefit of this kind of education is the intellectual cross-training it gives graduates, a ready dexterity to tackle a multitude of unforeseen job duties and new professions for years to come. But this is not enough.

If the value of college is limited to professional vocations, this hamstrings education from preparing students for all of the other vocations they now have and will have in life as children, parents, friends, neighbors, and citizens in society (and the church).

The education that serves the whole of life moves beyond mere skills and employ-ability. Competencies and skills—while being good and necessary—are just tools, they are not the telos; they are merely means, not ends. The end of education—as it was for much of Western history—is about developing wise and virtuous citizens who can adeptly serve others in all facets of life.

The best way to achieve this end is to focus more on enduring questions and virtuous habits. Unfortunately, many college professors have entirely separated the task of teaching disciplinary knowledge and skills from engaging students in ultimate questions and developing virtues.

This is a serious problem since a clear majority of college students are deeply interested in life’s big questions—including spiritual ones. As one representative student shared in a recent study on this topic,

“[A] question I’ve been dealing with is . . . what is the point of college? [What does] the fact that we’re paying for this education so that we can make money later in life . . . have to do with the grand scheme of things?”

Reticence, or outright refusal, to engage students in enduring questions and virtuous habits is also a problem because it harms society. It hinders graduates from becoming wise and honorable citizens who can better address society’s ills, heal its woes, and protect its welfare.

So what if colleges shifted their focus to attend to students’ existential questions and society’s broad needs? Rather than orienting education—and learning outcomes—around temporary or transferable skills, what if colleges centered education on the great questions—and their attendant great ideas—that have moved and shaped our lives? What if colleges explicitly addressed salient questions such as Who is God? What does it mean to be human? What is justice? How should we understand and respond to suffering and death? What is beauty? What is a good society?

What if colleges also reclaimed their historic calling to cultivate character in students for a life of thought (vita comteplativa) and action (vita activa)? What if they overtly oriented education and its outcomes toward vital virtues such as freedom, humility, charity, courage, prudence, temperance, perseverance, hospitality, and responsibility?

Students would not only be well-prepared for their professional vocations, which are of service to others, they would also have a wiser sense of when and how to use their knowledge and skills to address pressing contemporary problems with a critical mind and a charitable soul. They would graduate taking these helpful skills, crucial questions, and healing virtues with them into all of life.

Scott Ashmon is Director of Core Curriculum at Concordia University Irvine