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The Purpose of College: Utilitarian or Idealistic?

February 12, 2015

President Obama’s recent decision to rate colleges based primarily on earnings attained after graduation has provoked anguish among liberal arts colleges and among columnists and educational bloggers, this one included. “The Day the Purpose of College Changed“, Dan Berrett’s recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education elicited a response from NYTimes columnist Frank Bruni in the form of his op ed piece titled “College’s Priceless Value“.

Dan Berrett sets February 28, 1967 as the day the purpose of college changed. Why that date?

High taxes threatened “economic ruin,” said the newly elected Ronald Reagan. Welfare stood to be curbed, the highway patrol had fat to trim. Everything would be pared down; he’d start with his own office.

California still boasted a system of public higher education that was the envy of the world. And on February 28, 1967, a month into his term, the Republican governor assured people that he wouldn’t do anything to harm it. “But,” he added, “we do believe that there are certain intellectual luxuries that perhaps we could do without, for a little while at least.

Unfortunately, what constitutes an “intellectual luxury” is in the eye of the beholder. When the question was posed to Governor Reagan, he used a four-credit course in “organizing demonstrations” as an example, adding this phrase to elaborate:

Taxpayers, he said, shouldn’t be “subsidizing intellectual curiosity.

In 1967 that phrase drew scorn from editorial pages across the state and ridicule across the nation, but as Berrett describes in his article, over the succeeding years the purpose of college moved away from learning for the sake of learning to learning for the sake of earning.

In the early 1970s, nearly three-quarters of freshmen said it was essential to them to develop a meaningful philosophy of life. About a third felt the same about being very well off financially. Now those fractions have flipped.

Not only have the fractions flipped, in 2014 when Barack Obama announced his intention to use post-graduate job placement rates and earnings as a metric for determining the quality of colleges few politicians questioned that position and the public effectively supported the idea. Education has been monetized… and the notion of college as a marketplace of training programs has replace the notion of college as a marketplace of ideas.

Frank Bruni, who has been on the wrong side of many K-12 arguments about education, sees a flaw in thinking that education is only about earnings:

…it’s impossible to put a dollar value on a nimble, adaptable intellect, which isn’t the fruit of any specific course of study and may be the best tool for an economy and a job market that change unpredictably.

And it’s dangerous to forget that in a democracy, college isn’t just about making better engineers but about making better citizens, ones whose eyes have been opened to the sweep of history and the spectrum of civilizations.

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