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>> Thursday, 9 June 2011

What exactly is the purpose of higher education? Volumes of literature on issues in higher education often look at partial problems within education, but fail to look at the overall structure of higher education. These micro issues or problems can often be traced to two questions: who is education for and for what purpose? This paper attempts to argue that higher education is for everyone and for any reason. Said otherwise, it is lost in its purpose. This lack of a defined purpose has led to an undermining of higher education’s most fundamental function, learning. Its current dominant purpose of credentialing students for employment has largely turned higher education into a tool for social mobility and a highly individualized and privatized one at that. This paper recommends that higher education retrain its focus on dealing with social issues that impact larger society. In other words, shift higher education from a private good to a public good.
                                                      Education Lost
At the most fundamental level, the question of deciding what the university’s aims and priorities ought to be seems insoluble, if only because empirically there is so little agreement at present about them within society and even less prospect for achieving some general consensus among all the protagonists involved… For the immediate future, it seems unlikely the university will abandon any of its multiple tasks.
                                                      - Crisis in the Academy[1]

What seems to be the problem with education? If you were to do a quick shelf read through the education stacks of any academic library you would quickly be convinced that higher education (and education in general) is in a state of disarray. The spines of the books have eye catching titles like The Lost Soul of Higher Education[2]Gone for Good[3]Crisis on Campus[4], and The University in Ruins[5] to name a few. Books like these on the state of higher education are published in copious amounts annually (each one with a more sensational title as the next). Yet, we still seem to have an unlimited supply of issues to deal with in higher education. What is the reasoning for this? It is the sheer volume of material that is produced and the scrupulous detail that this literature goes into that creates a stalemate. In the spirit of Charles Sykes[6], regarding the surplus of educational material, there is a lot of information out there for no other reason than for being out there. In other words, there is a lot of digging to do before you get to the buried treasure. This abundance of material tends to cloud the deeper issue in higher education, its lack of a defined purpose. Because higher education has not established a clearly defined purpose from within, others outside of the institutions have laid claim to their own. What they (employers and students) have decided is that higher education is to be used as a social mobility tool. In doing so, higher education’s most basic intrinsic purpose of learning has been replaced with its extrinsic value of a credential.
It is the level of analysis in education literature that leads to its own undoing. Books on issues in higher education will breakdown problems to the finest of details and point their fingers at the most general of culprits (e.g. the market). We dissect education to the point where we are no longer looking at education with a macro view but through a microscope. We end up taking something simple and making it complex. In doing so, we create paralysis by analysis. We get lost in the details. By taking apart educational problems and looking at them as pieces rather than as a whole, we fail to see the big picture and move forward in dealing with these issues. Because everyone seems to have an idea about the right way to go about higher education, we end up clogging the conversation with limitless facts and figures (and citations). We end up producing an amazingly large amount of literature that looks at micro problems in education. While these are legitimate issues, dealing with them appears to be increasingly difficult. This is specifically do to the detail of the literature and the mass amount of sources out there that cover it. Because of all this research it makes it seem as if education is in an unmanageable mess, one that is far too complex to be dealt with in the immediate future. However, if we broaden our perspective, we can see the big picture. This seems counterintuitive considering this is the opposite of what is expected of you as a participant in higher education, but it will lead us to the solution we are seeking.
What is the big picture? In order to find a solution to the many problems in higher education (e.g. access, affordability, quality, and accountability)[7] we need to look at what the literature does not talk about, at least exclusively and that is purpose. Few, if any, of the books ask the most important and fundamental question of all, what is the purpose of higher education? If they do ask and attempt to supply an answer, it is often one that is likely to appease everyone. For example, the quote that opens up this paper by Lucas continues as, “The real and most meaningful choices, possibly, have to do not with including certain activities at expense of other involvements, but instead working out and negotiating the terms under which competing but legitimate interests may all be honored in appropriate measure.” Said otherwise, all are welcome. However, similar statements are echoed by numerous others from outside and inside education. A look at any current university mission statement will show an equally accepting and diverse purpose. For example, Princeton University seeks, “to nurture a humane and collaborative environment that serves the educational mission of the University by encouraging, supporting and celebrating intellectual curiosity, active citizenship, ethical leadership and respect for our diverse community.”[8] This, the generality of higher education’s purpose, is the problem as it opens itself up for others to define it.
Everyone who walks onto a college campus does so with a purpose. Each person goes in with a unique reason or goal they wish to accomplish in their time as a student. This means that higher education, in its present state, is tailored towards the individual. This is allowable because higher education’s ill-conceived purpose accommodates whatever the student wants. This, coupled with higher education’s numerous purposes is a recipe for disaster. If anyone can enroll in higher education for a list of multiple reasons and the university allows for this based on their laxly defined purpose, then what exactly is the purpose of higher education? Simply put, higher education is trying to do and be everything at once. As noted by university mission statements, higher education’s lack of a focused and concise purpose is also its biggest threat. When higher education itself does not specifically say what it is for, others outside of the colleges will create their own purposes. This is where the endless micro level issues in higher education begin to incubate. To put things into concrete terms we can look at the most common usage of higher education today and the consequences attached to it.
In the year 2000, there were over 100 million students enrolled in higher education worldwide or about 20% of the college age population.[9] In that same year, there were over 15 million students enrolled in higher education in the United States alone[10] or about 39% of the college age population.[A] As of 2005, that number had risen to over 17 million students, which amounts to a 14% increase in attendance since the year 2000.[B] Why are so many people looking to attend higher education? As mentioned earlier there are numerous options as to why someone would attend higher education. However, there is one that is commonly cited as the reason for enrollment, to get a job.
Since 1966, the Cooperative Institutional Research Program’s (CIRP) Freshman Survey has been administered at over 1,200 institutions of higher education to an estimated weighted population of over 43.5 million students. The CIRP survey is the longest and largest continuing study of higher education in the United States. Among the data collected are reasons for why students decide to attend college (available in 1971, 1976-1984, 1989-2006). Longitudinal data shows that on average, 73.5% of students say that being “able to get a better job” is a “very important” reason in deciding to go to college.[11] This response has ranked as either the highest or second highest reason for deciding to go to college over this time period (the other being “to learn more about things that interest me”). This response represents an actual population of over 6 million students and an estimated weighted population of just fewer than 31.5 million students.[12] While this survey answers the question of why most students enroll in higher education, it does not necessarily answer the question of what the students want out of higher education. In other words, what is needed to bridge the gap between education and employment? That instrument is an educational degree or credential.
The results of the CIRP survey and other research relating to students motivations were synthesized by Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini in their book, How College Affects Students: Findings and Insights from Twenty Years of Research. This text, which covers over twenty years of research and reviews over 2,600 studies, is the most comprehensive and authoritative analysis on the impact of college on students. One of their conclusions is that, “… the evidence we reviewed is consistent in indicating that a bachelor’s degree remains a major, if not themajor, prerequisite for entrée into relatively high status and high paying technical, managerial, and professional jobs.”[13] If most students say that their primary reason for enrolling in higher education is for a better job, then an educational credential is needed in order to fulfill this career goal. However, there is a serious problem with this relationship.
An educational credential is supposed to represent a given level of knowledge, competence, and/or authority within a certain area of study. However, rarely does an employer look past the face value of a credential to see if a perspective employee has actually acquired these qualities. It is assumed that they have attained these skills by successfully completing a given program of study. However, if students enter higher education knowing they want to use education for career enhancement and by association obtaining a degree/credential, then this assumption is questionable. If this goal is set, then completing this goal becomes the main focus of the student. This means that earning a credential becomes the primary focus of the student’s attention and all other factors (e.g. learning) become secondary. We can all supply anecdotal evidence to support this theory. We have all either actively done or witnessed others taking less challenging course loads, skimming through reading assignments, asking what will be on a test to study the minimum amount, and cheat on assignments. These are just some of the examples that support the idea that students are in school for other reasons than educations fundamental purpose of learning. When education is used as a tool for social mobility, then educations most basic principal of learning is undermined because what goes on inside the walls of the classroom is less important than the future outside of them. To put it bluntly, whatever the professor is saying is irrelevant to most students as they are not there to learn. The conveniently titled book How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education[14], outlines this phenomenon to perfection.
Higher education is not the only one with a problem however. Students not participating to their fullest are not unique to higher education. Whatever higher education’s purpose is generally dictates the purpose for all forms of education below it. The competition in elementary and secondary schooling is directly related to higher education’s current purpose of social mobility (and prestige in many instances). Parents want their children to end up going to the best university they can, so they start their children’s future early. They send them to the best preschool possible and enroll them in extracurricular activities to pad their future résumés. This behavior persists all the way through high school with the goal of being admitted to the best college. Once inside the college, the goal shifts from preparation to completion of an educational credential. It is a trickledown effect, higher education’s lack of a purpose does not exist in a vacuum, it affects all levels of education.
This paper opened up discussing the vastness and detail of higher education literature. Hopefully, by now we can see that in fact while higher education may seem like it is in a state of crisis, that in actuality it is not that dire. It comes down to a simple question of what do you want the purpose of higher education to be? Coming to a consensus on this answer is the real crisis in higher education. This lack of a defined purpose can be masked in the immediate future by instating some form of a liberal or interdisciplinary education in higher education (although a liberal/interdisciplinary education is an overall improvement over the current rigid discipline structure). This solution is one you will commonly find in the literature. For example, in a book hot off the presses, entitled The Still Divided Academy[15], the authors recommend such a course of action. When discussing the idea of a book chapter titled “The Goals of the University,” the authors insist on doing otherwise as people may not “willingly read a book chapter” with such content. They go onto say, “we attempt to avoid hollow pronouncements about what higher education is or ought to be. Instead, we set our goals on a more modest but attainable target. Using a variety of sources, we demonstrate that there is wide support among administrators, professors, and students for the basic idea of ‘liberal education.’”[16] However, this is merely nothing more than a patch on a tattered jacket. It is a surface level fix (first-order change). You can cover up the surface of the structure but the foundation is still in crumbles. The root of the problem, higher education’s lack of a purpose, is still ever present and undefined.
Whatever and whenever the purpose of higher education is defined, it will dissolve the many micro problems in education at all levels, because these can be traced back to higher education’s purpose. If we elect to maintain its current purpose of social mobility, then you will know what to expect as a student or consumer in this case. Not going to school to learn seems paradoxical, but in this case and from what it appears in the present, schools are no longer about learning. However, there are other options, but these require coming down on a common purpose (second-order change). For example, some have laid out possible paradigmatic foundations for education.[17] However, these wide reaching aims make them nearly impossible to put into policy form for immediate change. These broad swaths of educations purpose can be and need to be more practically defined.
I would argue that higher education for the most part is unconnected with society (i.e. it is lost in its purpose). To paraphrase the Las Vegas motto, “what happens in higher education, stays in higher education.” On the rare occasions when information trickles out to the general public, it does so because there is some relevance to broader society. The production of relevant information produced that is applicable to society, needs to be the primary purpose of higher education. More specifically, the purpose should be to focus on social issues/problems. The reasoning for this is because higher education is a public good, its purpose should be relevant to all, not just to those who are inside of it (private good – its current predominate usage). Some tweaks in the curriculum can make higher education beneficial for both those who are in it and to those who are not.
If the purpose of higher education is to make it more relevant to society, then how is it currently irrelevant? Most information produced in higher education is irrelevant to the general public because they are not the target audience. The information produced in higher education for the most part is aimed at others in higher education. The estimated 24, 000 scientific journals in existence are not available at your local newsstand.[18] Access to the information behind these pages is only available to those affiliated with an institution or to those willing/able to pay steep fees. Additionally, the majority of the content in academic work is largely absent of potentially useful information for the general public. For example, the idea of “professional sociology” aims at producing knowledge for other professional sociologists. This practice produces a lot of research that is either trivial or completely devoid of public usage (e.g. postmodernism). In all disciplines, giants in their fields and the “important” work they produce are treated as celebrities within the walls of academia, outside; their names draw the question of “who?” This is due to the fact that the work in higher education is often unengaged with public issues or problems.
This is a startling facet of the role that higher education plays because it is considered a public good. While a fraction of the population attends higher education (6.8% of the total US population)[19], everyone pays for it (via taxes). These taxes then go towards subsidizing the operational costs of education and tuition. This makes higher education a fundamentally public good. Thus, it should focus on public issues. In order to make higher education more useful to society (and a public good), its focus needs to shift towards producing socially relevant information/knowledge. “Public sociology,” a contrast to professional sociology, seeks to do just this. The aim of public sociology is to take strictly academic knowledge and broaden its aims and scopes towards producing socially relevant information to a larger crowd. This perspective looks at social issues and problems that can affect anyone. For example, as a taxpayer, where would you rather have your dollar go, towards the individual student’s project on the symbolic interactionism[C] between man, automobile, and the road or towards the project that looks at reducing fatalities on the local highway? The first one uses the group’s public money to fund an individual’s private venture. The second one involves an individual looking at a solution to a public problem. Which one seems to be more useful? All disciplines within higher education have potential “public branches.” Almost any field in the social and natural sciences has room to expand its goals towards incorporating projects that benefit society at large. The question now is how does one go about doing this? This involves getting out of the classroom to learn (literally and figuratively).
Configuring the learning/teaching style in higher education is necessary to achieve the goal of making it more of a public good. One way of going about this is to incorporate experiential learning into the program. Experiential learning is the idea of learning through experience. For example, rather than reading and writing about social research methods, why not just have students actually do a research project? Not only does this make for an enjoyable experience in which the students actually learn the concepts and apply them, but they also get exposed to problems of real world concern (you also learn things using this method that cannot be taught, such as the intricacies/struggles of actually doing research). Another method of harnessing higher education’s role as a public good is through service-learning. Service-learning combines experiential learning with community service, to focus on issues relevant to the general public (e.g. the highway project scenario). Inside the classroom, students can focus papers on socially pertinent issues or problems. In all these cases, students learn applicable knowledge/skills, apply them to socially useful projects, and benefit society as a whole. Thus, these experience centered learning styles are an excellent way to recoup higher education’s role of being a public good.
[A] Census data shows that there were 18,964,001 20-24 year olds and 20,219,890 people in the 15-19 age brackets. Since 15-17 year olds are not considered university age and that there are people older than 24 in universities, the two were combined to come up with the 39% average based on a total population of 281,421,906. While this is a rough estimate, it safe to say that most university students are between the 18-24 year old age range. With an increasing number of “older” students, the overall percentage may be higher. See U.S. Census Bureau.
[B] See footnote A.
[C] A major perspective in sociology that focuses on the micro-scale social interaction of how people create meaning between people, things, and themselves.
                                                  Shorthand Citations
[1] Lucas, pg. 88
[2] Schrecker, 2010
[3] Rojstaczer, 1999
[4] Taylor, 2010
[5] Readings, 1996
[6] Sykes, 1988
[7] Spellings, 2006
[8] Mission Statement, 2010
[9] Meyer & Schofer, 2005, p. 898
[10] National Center for Education Statistics, 2005
[11] Pryor et al., 2007, p. 62-63
[12] Pryor et al., 2007, p. 209
[13] Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991, p. 575
[14] Labaree, 1997
[15] Rothman, Kelly-Woessner, & Woessner, 2011
[16] Rothman, et al., p. 16
[17] Bertrand and Valois, 1980
[18] Larsen and von Ins, 2010, p. 594
[19] U.S. Census Bureau
Bertrand, Y., & Valois, P. (1980). Les options en éducation. Québec: Ministère de l'Éducation.
Labaree, D. (1997). How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Larsen, P. O., & von Ins, M. (2010). The rate of growth in scientific publication and the decline in coverage provided by Science Citation Index. Scientometrics84(3), 575-603.
Lucas, C. J. (1996). Crisis in the Academy: Rethinking Higher Education in America. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Meyer, J., & Schofer, E. (2005). The Worldwide Expansion of Higher Education in the Twentieth Century. American Sociological Review70(6), 898-920.
Mission Statement. (2010, October 27). Princeton University. From, http://www.princeton.edu/campuslife/mission/
National Center for Education Statistics. Total fall enrollment in degree-granting institutions, by attendance status, sex of student, and control of institution: Selected years, 1947 through 2005 [Data file]. Retrieved from
Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (1991). How College Affects Students: Findings and Insights from Twenty Years of Research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Pryor, J.H., Hurtado, S., Saenz, V.B., Santos, J.L., Korn, W.S. (2007). The American Freshman: Forty Year Trends. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.
Readings, B. (1996). The University in Ruins. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Rojstaczer, S. (1999). Gone for Good: Tales of University Life after the Golden Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rothman, S., Kelly-Woessner, A., & Woessner, M. (2011). The Still Divided Academy: How Competing Visions of Power, Politics, and Diversity Complicate the Mission of Higher Education. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Schrecker, E. (2010). The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University. New York: New Press.
Spence, M. (1973). Job Market Signaling. The Quarterly Journal of Economics,87(3), 355-374.
Spellings, M. (2006). A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Education.
Sykes, C. J. (1988). ProfScam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education. New York: St. Martin's Griffin.
Taylor, M. C. (2010). Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
U.S. Census Bureau. Profile of General Demographic Characteristics: 2000 [Data file]. Retrieved from 
U.S. Census Bureau. Table 1. Enrollment Status of the Population 3 Years Old and Over, by Sex, Age, Race, Hispanic Origin, Foreign Born, and Foreign-Born Parentage: October 2009 [Data file]. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/school/cps2009.html



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