THE BLOG
01/04/2017 01:15 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2018

What Is College Really For?

Prasit photo via Getty Images

It's freshmen orientation week at the university where I teach. I'm meeting a group of new students for the very first time to welcome them to the school and introduce them to the freshman orientation seminar they have joined. We are currently answering the question, "Why did you go to college?" A young woman in the front row raises her hand to contribute her answer to the group's discussion.

"I want to be a first grade teacher," she proclaims. "But, my dad said he won't pay for college unless I major in business or computers. Dad says teachers don't make any money."

My heart tightens. There's so much I want to say in this very moment, so much I want to unload. My first private thought is we could possibly have the next brilliant educator sitting right here, but instead we may crank out a mediocre business student. Then my mind dashes to the assertion that college only exists so students can get a diploma, get a job, work for the man, and die. Other thoughts creep in about classism and finances -- like major thoughts about classism: Do we [colleges] just stop creating teachers; we pay them hourly, because after all they should stop going to college for a four-year, one-hundred thousand dollar education? Other people's kids can be teachers, but not mine! The last thought is the discussion of passion I always want to have on this subject, the trope that if you are a passionate anything you will be more successful and well-off than a mediocre someone who is not very good at his or her job. I keep that one to myself too.

Instead I settle on a question: Did you and your dad explore alternative ways teachers make extra money, like coaching a sport, advising a club, working in the summer, or traveling with students? The young woman said, "No." I continue: if more time at the school isn't for you there is the opportunity to try new things in your summers. You could run a YMCA program, a summer daycare, teach dance/art/languages; work at the pool, or be a private tutor all while enjoying your salaried teacher benefits. She hadn't heard of this either. I finish with: and if you're interested there are two other routes; one is administration where you could be a curricular specialist or principal and two, you could earn your master's degree or doctorate and teach college courses in elementary education part-time or even full-time with a career change. My young student had never heard any of these options and her father had never explored them with her--probably because he had not thought of them either.

I get it. This is no one's fault, really. Can you blame the father? He's looking at a pretty hefty college bill depending on his situation; and he's not unlike family support systems and college payers across the nation. We have done a very good job telling the story about students who study the humanities and social sciences drowning in debt only to work at, gasp--Starbucks. This story is out there.

The story that seems to be lost, and not surprisingly, is the one about the original purpose of college. Entire books and courses tell this story so it's a bit long for this article. In short, college once for the elite, existed for students to work with an "academic star" in an attempt to find knowledge and wisdom. Depending on the specific culture often the student wanted to be his own academic star creating music, works of art, and philosophical thought. The U.S. model, European by nature, has existed for hundreds of years and started in the U.S. with Harvard. The modern idea that students will go away to college, become an academic "star," and obtain a job working in a cube for an accounting firm is a fairly new construct on the timeline of college existence. In fact, collegiate study within the business discipline is much newer when compared to philosophy, medicine, and the humanities. So, to me it seems odd that a family pays public or private college handsomely to educate their student so she can work for a private company adding to its private profits in a hope she benefits her own life and the company contributes to the society in which it operates. While a tangential discussion point, this is not the main idea of this article.

The main idea of this article is three fold. The first point lies above: what is the point of college? The second two ideas relate to shifting mindsets. The first, we need to help students realize that money (to live on and contribute to a life well-lived and our culture) can be earned in ALL disciplines, but it needs exploration to learn these things. It takes risks, breaking molds, and not falling into stereotypes: teachers don't make money, lawyers get rich quick, policemen and women don't need degrees, and on and on. In fact, we all know some teachers who do "OK" and some lawyers who still pay their loans. We have to recognize and accept the idea that if we are doing college "right" we are educating many students for jobs that don't yet exist. Well-meaning support systems have not caught up to this just yet. Many students' allies are still repeating the same script, "English majors become teachers, finance guys become rich, and psychology majors fold jeans...at the Gap." This could be true for an average student in each of these disciplines; but haven't we beaten to death the paradigm that Millennials aren't average?

The final idea is that a bachelor's degree is not the end (of the world, of the line, of an education). Just as we should shift our mindset about the point of college, and how money can be earned in all disciplines, we have to focus our mindset about how knowledge is learned--reexamine college. I still have young students fraught over selecting a major because they "Don't know what they want to do for the rest of their lives." Of course we know now that Millennials will change jobs/careers numerous times in a life span. With this knowledge we need to be espousing that a bachelor's degree, too, is just a stop on the ride. My suggestion is to open young students' minds to the world of graduate studies. There are still many college students whose parents and support systems aren't fully aware of how graduate school works. In short, one can attend a master's program in almost any field despite his or her undergraduate studies. One need not hold a business degree to earn an MBA. A student can major in business and then attend law school. Bottom line: do what you love and be the best you can at it in undergrad and if you have the means/teeth possibly attend a graduate program. Graduate programs may look more fondly on a 4.0 GPA education major seeking entry into a MBA program with a good story; than a 2.0 finance major who barely passed business calculus. Of course this is just one simplified example. The point: bachelor's work isn't the end so encourage students to be the best student they can be because it isn't the end of the world.

So, as I work with my young want-to-be first grade teacher student and tell her about other options, I don't evangelize. My job is to educate not convert. My job, however, does not stop with simply teaching college freshmen. I, me, we have to educate our fellow community members and parents that mindsets have to evolve with the rest of the culture as related to college. It should begin with 1) What is the purpose of college both in the culture and in the lives of our students; 2) Money can be made in all disciplines--but we have to recognize this and research it. 3) Bachelor's degrees can and should broadly educate a student for many careers--not just one. Discussing graduate work with young students (and our friends and family) can open options to some previously never considered. In short--none of this is permanent. Education is fluid and so is the job market--which means this is everybody's first time in these uncharted waters. Let's listen to each other, let's help each other, and let's innovate for a future as unique and exciting as the students sitting before us in freshmen seminar.