What Good Is College?

By JIM NICHOLS

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau recently made a point worth noting. In 2011, 14.3 percent of adults 25 and up had a bachelor’s degree. In 2021, 23.5 percent did. There were parallels of increase in graduate degrees past the bachelor’s degree. As a person with an academic background, I consider this good news. For better or worse, America is growing more educated. I say that even as I admit that there are diverse types of bachelor’s degrees both in quality and content.

Mixed with that positive news was a long-term study of what was occurring in the minds and hearts of college students as they worked toward those degrees. Over ten years, researchers conducted 2,000 in-depth interviews with undergraduates and concluded that students have increased in their tendency to see education as “transactional” rather than “transformative.” I do not consider that good news. 

By “transactional” the authors proposed that many students (and parents) consistently see a college degree as a ticket to a job. Overall, that is the goal, and it manifests itself in the practical details of the college career from choice of major, specific class choices, involvement in extra-curricular activities, and willingness to venture academically into non-job-related activities during the college time. The research authors noted that all ten schools considered showed that students were focused primarily on themselves. For example, in their interviews the word “I” was used 11 times more than “we.”

Understandably, finishing a degree has a desirable end of leading to employment. One senses, however, that an overemphasis on procuring a job strongly dilutes the possibilities afforded by a college experience. Those of us who have become different people during our college years recognize what a unique experience that can and should be. One could suggest that the learning environment offered by college is often the last formal opportunity to grow with the rich resources available.

If we add that it is also a pivotal time in the spiritual growth of students, our interest in making it as expansive and deep as possible becomes even more pertinent. The opportunities for individual growth in self-awareness as God’s person and one’s fit into the creation of all are critical. 

A colleague of mine once identified that parents, in the act of sending their children off to college, are sending to us (as professors) their most cherished possessions. What parents have been trying to do for 18 years now becomes our responsibility; this is a trusted role.

As I think back over my own college years, two specific individuals appear. Both were professors, but neither of them led me in exclusively academic ways. Both opened books and thoughts that were rich and sometimes troubling, but always produced growth in me. I suspect you can think of a small number of instructors who played that role for you.

Frequently I have had students sit in my office and talk about schedules and other plans. It has become apparent to me that they were trying to pack a maximum number of classes into an abbreviated time so that they could “get on to the next step.” By that they usually meant graduate school or a job. They have taken college courses even before they came to college so that they would not have to be a college student any longer than necessary. 

My response to them consistently has been, “Why are you in such a hurry? These college years have characteristics that will never be repeated in your life. These student friends are as much fun as you will ever have again. These classes are more exciting and stimulating than most other activities in your future. This is not a time to speed through as quickly as possible. Treasure these days.”

Howard Gardner has suggested that the main purpose of college is “. . . to get the mind to work better.” To add a spiritual component is an important plus.

Transactional and transformative are not mutually exclusive. It is reasonable to suggest that some students view college as transactional to get jobs they could not get without a degree. In this case, transactional becomes “aspirational.” 

“Transactional” is not a bad word. I do regret that so many of our interactions have become limited to that. Relationships, learning, taking chances, and risking failure transform us in ways that transactions may miss.

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain

One comment

  • Beautifully written, Jim. College was transformative for me, but I was a non-traditional student–married at eighteen and pushing through college to catch up with my husband so we could “go on to the next step.” My dad represented the transactional side: when I got my master’s degree, he asked how much more money I would make. I told him it would be minimal, and his response was, “Why did you waste your time?” On the other hand, I had many students over the years who were better suited to skilled professions than academic professions.

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