What is the purpose of college?

By Kersley Fitzgerald

As college graduates picket the world, complaining of high loans and few jobs, a debate rages: what is the purpose of college?

A Pew Research Center report found that 47% of those polled believe the purpose of college is to be trained for a job, 39% believe it is for personal development, and 12% say it is for both. As the responders' education increased, their belief in college for personal growth also increased; twice as many who went to graduate school believed college was for personal growth than for employment.

This view is semi-historic. The Greeks used higher learning for literacy and math, but also for philosophy and religion. Medieval schools concentrated on law, medicine, and theology — subjects that were highly sophisticated at the time, but still gave students practical skills for employment — as well as arts, history, and logic, which would greatly benefit humankind. Trades, such as farming, weaving, and fishing were learned from fathers and uncles.

There has been a subtle shift lately. The personal growth aspect of university was originally to equip leaders of character and knowledge who could benefit society. More and more, universities teach post-modern relativism — that there is no absolute truth and we are all responsible for determining our own ethics. But the ethic of the average 18-25 year old is not focused on benefitting mankind; it's focused on benefiting self at that moment. As a result, the university experience has a very real potential to turn into an extended adolescence where students have a car, access to sex and alcohol, and the ethical maturity of a toddler.

It is not wrong to look to a university to provide tools for spiritual growth. What is wrong is to look to any university. Biblical worldviews are few and far between in the curriculum of secular colleges, and humanities classes should be taken with a heavy grain of salt. A Christian student in a secular school is still called to expose herself to the truth, even in a hostile environment. If standard curriculum doesn't provide a biblical worldview, she'll need to look elsewhere, like Christian campus organizations, reputable websites, books, and online sermons. If a student is young in her faith and unable to withstand the constant bombardment of a secular worldview, a Christian college really should be considered. An alternative is to attend a school that specifically concentrates on theology and spiritual growth (like the one-year program at Montana Wilderness School of the Bible that only costs $8000) to grow in faith enough that the humanism of a secular college isn't as influential.

Even when presented with a school that promises the best in personal development, students need to keep practical matters in mind. College costs money. Living costs money. A college degree is not a human rights issue — no one "deserves" to go to a university. And if it becomes difficult to find a job after school, neither the government nor the students' parents owe it to students to cover their debts.

What about going to college for skills? With the apprenticeship program all but gone, college has become essential for finding a decent job. But considering the expense in time and money, this requires wisdom as well. I am a firm believer that students should wait to get the big degree until they know what they want — where God is leading them, preferably. Foolishness is bound in the heart of the child, and it is foolish to expend all that work and money, exposing yourself to dangerous worldly influences, as a child. It's fine to strive for a bachelors right out of high school; but it should be intentional and deliberate, not assumed and careless. Look at the job market and where your skills and interests fit. If you have to have the romantic, low-paying job, recognize from the outset that high tuition loans have a tendency to stifle creativity and freedom.

The admonition given in Ephesians 5:15-17 is applicable to so much in life: "Be very careful, then, how you live — not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord's will is." Do not use me for an example in higher education. I took the degree everyone told me to, attended an out-of-state private school instead of an in-state public school, went into the military, and forgot everything by the time I got out. If it hadn't been for the grace of God (and an ROTC scholarship), I'd still be paying off that unused degree. I'm living proof that God can redeem any situation, but I wasted a lot of days.

Image Credit: John Russell; "University of Portland"; Creative Commons

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Published 6-28-12