General Question

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

Ultimately, what is the purpose of a university education?

Asked by Hawaii_Jake (25804 points ) December 18th, 2013

I have a daughter who is a senior in high school. She’s applying to a number of universities and has already been accepted to three. She has not been accepted to her top-tier choices. Those are more prestigious schools with more rigorous admissions standards.

I want to help her make a decision about which university to attend, and I want her to understand what it’s for.

I’ve come to understand that a university education is about maturing, learning a lot about how the world came to work the way it does, gaining knowledge in a field of expertise, and finally getting a job.

Personally, I have two degrees. I have a BA in history and a MA in liberal arts. I am a strong believer in high quality education that gives each individual a firm foundation of general knowledge as well as specialized instruction. I am also wary of the exorbitant cost of private universities in the US now. Some students are leaving their undergraduate schools with $300K in financial aid debt. It’s outrageous.

I want to sit with my daughter and tell her what a university education does. What should I tell her? and what questions will she likely ask? She’s very bright.

All participation is welcome. I would like to hear from those with university degrees, those without, those currently enrolled, and those as yet too young.

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28 Answers

funkdaddy's avatar

When I was that age I wish people would have quit telling me it was about the education I got in my classes. It really wasn’t and it became really obvious once I got there. Freshman classes had so little to do with what I thought I was there to learn.

College is about learning how to handle all aspects of life and proving you can do it all at a high level. It’s training to balance studying with social obligations, paying bills on time, handling group projects, and proving to yourself and others that you can handle it when things go wrong. It’s finding out what works for you in terms of getting things done. The “things” don’t matter nearly as much as learning how you personally can deal with them best.

It’s also about proving you can get enough done to finish a degree to potential employers, but that comes much later. There’s great networking and resources available through most colleges, but again, that’s a lot later.

And yes, you learn a lot of wonderful things that you probably couldn’t pick up on your own. But unfortunately, that comes later as well.

Tell her it’s a lot of fun, it’s hard, and she can do it. Then tell her the truth about what she’s there to do and the alternatives. Show her job listings if you want and see how many require a college degree to be considered. Explain that the people that handle the resumes first for those positions usually don’t even understand what the person they’re hiring does, they just have to hand in x resumes to the next level that meet the requirements.

Tell her she’ll always have that advantage, those experiences, those friends, and there’s no time like where she’s at in her life to get them.

ragingloli's avatar

Many things.
It could be a good opportunity to find out what exactly it is that you want to do in life, what really interests you, fires up your passion (depending on either your financial resources or how well the state supports you financially). Then you double down on that.
A lot of people at that age do not know what they really want. They either drift, settle for a job that makes them miserable, or do something their parents want them to do, which also makes them miserable.
Give a man a job he loves, and he will never work a day in his life.

Then of course degrees are a requirement in certain fields to get a job in the first place.
You do not get to become a doctor without it.
Also, in a market filled with people that have degrees, a degree becomes a requirement to establish a baseline to be even be able to compete with the others.
Which brings me to the point of lamentation, because university, especially because of the high cost, is being turned from being a place of higher learning, to being just another training camp for industry.
You should dread the day that a bakery requires a baking degree because the baking industry no longer trains its own bakers.

glacial's avatar

“I’ve come to understand that a university education is about maturing, learning a lot about how the world came to work the way it does, gaining knowledge in a field of expertise, and finally getting a job.”

This is more or less what I think it is. I don’t think it necessarily has to be for the ultimate purpose of getting a job – that is, I think there is a huge value in obtaining a university education even if it never leads to a job. And I think that everyone who goes to university needs to understand that this education process is not a ticket with which one can purchase a job.

I also think it’s an invaluable opportunity to meet people who share your goals, and also to see the broad spectrum of what others think and feel and believe. It broadens your mind, if you let it.

As for choosing a university, I think that much depends on the relative strengths of the departments she would be in and on the location of the university. A big part of this decision is going to be where she wants to live for the next four years.

stanleybmanly's avatar

With a degree in History, you already know the answers to your question. There’s the cynical truth that the degree will be required if your daughter wishes a job peddling vacuum cleaners door to door. Then there is the undeniable truth that even those attending for the wrong reasons or without a prayer of completion, benefit enormously from the experience. As years go by, I am astonished to hear from those whom I had thought snoozed through the academic process that the experience and the knowledge acquired through it was crucial and more relevant with the passage of time.

Seek's avatar

@ragingloli – We’ve pretty much hit it. Most places in America – at least in my area – require one attend bartending school because they don’t want to train someone to pour a shot. Restaurants want a short-order cook to have an AS in culinary arts because they don’t want to teach someone how to use a knife.

JLeslie's avatar

I think going to a university gives people an opportunity to learn about courses of studies they didn’t even know existed. I still learn about new degrees I have never heard of and new ones keep evolving. A large university can pull people from all over the country and even the world. An opportunity to meet people from many different backgrounds and during those years people usually feel free to debate. I moved to a different section of the country for college and I think it was great since I had lived in the fairly ethnocentric northeast for lack of a better word. I went to the midwest and I loved it and still do when I visit that section of the country. Many universities have very good exchange programs with other countries, which I think is a great opportunity.

Then of course there is preparing for a career. I encourage students to try many different elective courses, I wish I had done this more. I wanted to get done with school, I worried about the money it was costing my parents, and I mostly studied what I was already interested in, instead of also trying new things. My parents would have paid for another class here and there, I was too conservative and unfortunately too lazy.

Also, we know now that the brain doesn’t really fully develop until around the age of 25 and so tertiary education provides a buffer of sorts between childhood and adulthood where adolescents are in a relatively save environment where they can explore their interests. I probably wuldn’t mention that last part to your daughter, but as an adult I can see the usefulness of those years spent in a learning environment rather than thrust into full adult responsibilities.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

Thank you, all. Please, keep the great answers coming.

I am sorry I didn’t mention she knows she’s studying technical theatre. She has been raised in the theatre and loves it. She hopes to specialize in lighting design. She recently got to direct a one act play, and she liked that. She may study directing, too, as a result. She is not an actor. She loves the backstage craft.

The best schools for this are in New England, and that is where she is looking. I have my sights set on one particular state school that will give her a top-notch technical theatre degree and is right outside NYC. Also, even though she will have to pay out-of-state tuition, it will not burden her with exorbitant debt. I estimate about 30% the cost of a private university.

livelaughlove21's avatar

I just graduated from college and I don’t feel as if I necessarily matured any more than I would have without it. Then again, I was always more mature than my peers. I didn’t go to college to socialize – I went to get a degree. I majored in psychology, so I wasn’t driven by the desire to make a lot of money. I studied what I was interested in, worked my butt off, and hoped it would pay off.

It took me 5 years to get a 4-year degree because I switched my major, so I did learn something about myself and what I wanted to do with my life after school. I think my most valuable lesson is that if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.

I did very well in high school and got a scholarship or two along with a grant because my parents are low-income, but I ended up with $25,000 in loan debt. My monthly payments will be $263/month (yikes). My rule about loans is to never exceed in loans what you’ll be making per year right out of college. $100K in debt for a degree in philosophy is ridiculous, but it’s about right if it’s a medical degree. I just got my first “real” job and I’ll be making $36K per year, so I followed my own rule quite nicely I think.

It’s important to think realistically about college. If you have no drive and no clue what you want to do with your life, don’t go to college until you get your head on straight – otherwise, you’re just wasting money. Think about your field of study, do research on possible careers, and work your ass off instead of partying your college years away. I got my new job with no relevant experience only because my GPA was high and they could sense my ambition and enthusiasm about the job. They’re paying me $8000 more per year than the entry-level jobs I was applying for. If they sensed that I just skated through college, I wouldn’t have gotten the offer.

I’ve always been a good student, and I didn’t have to put as much effort into it was most do. School comes naturally to me. I’ve never pulled an all-nighter studying or finishing a project. I’ve never approached a professor for extra help. I knew my strengths and I made them work for me. Now it’s time to reap the benefits.

I think that your daughter probably knows the value of a degree. I’m not sure she needs you to tell her what you think it means. If she’s as bright as you say, she knows what she’s doing and it’s time for her to find her own way.

JLeslie's avatar

@Hawaii_Jake I think it is wonderful she knows what she wants to pursue. My cousin majored in lighting in some sort associated with theatre and filming. In the end I don’t thing she works in that field now. So, I still encourage her to explore other areas of interest. Not that I think there is anything wrong with her major, I think it is great and can be used in many ways. My BIL and his husband have an event planning business and a floral service. They put together amazing parties, weddings, charity events, etc, and part of the decor is the lighting. Their “sets” are fantastic. I think if they had had some business background some things would have been easier for them regarding handeling money and understanding taxes, etc. just a thought. I would guess her school will require some variety in coursework.

Blackberry's avatar

How are young adults supposed to just decide what they want to do for the rest of their life while they are so young?

The purpose of college is to learn how to learn while getting the piece of paper you need to get hired so you can feed yourself and building a social circle to network.

There are ways to feed yourself without going to college, though.

It’s all about money, in the end. Wasn’t legislation passed that prevents people from adding student loan debt to bankruptcy claims?

El_Cadejo's avatar

IME it’s to get a stupid piece of paper that says I know what I’ve known for years. It’s also a nice way to push me horribly into debt and make me an indentured servant for the next 20 years.

@Blackberry “Wasn’t legislation passed that prevents people from adding student loan debt to bankruptcy claims?” Yup.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

For the most part unless you are going into a profession that is highly select or leads you to private practice, a university education is only good enough to train you to slave away in a job (Just Over Broke) situation.

dabbler's avatar

I think university education was an opportunity to develop new skills some of them mental, some of the social, and to really get the process of self-discovery in gear without your parents around (assuming she does Not live with parents while going to university!).

ARE_you_kidding_me's avatar

A university education will make you more of who you already are and may help you find yourself a bit faster. If you are one of the lucky ones you’ll get some training that is useful to employers along with your education. It will not help you mature faster though, if anything it will delay that. Don’t go into debt for college more than what a car you think you can afford would cost. Try not to take “student” loans out, it’s predatory lending.

pleiades's avatar

I’m really liking all these answers as well. GA’s and very very GQ!

If I may add my two cents. You are from Hawaii correct? Which means your daughter will be entering into a “western university” most likely? Although there are many studies to be had, most materials taught are published by western publications and have very western ideologies attached to them, no matter how liberal they are.

I remember my U.S. History professor telling us about the origins of Universities in Europe and their purposes. It’s quite an adventure I suggest anyone look it up for themselves! Investigate!

LostInParadise's avatar

The cost of going to a university has skyrocketed since the time that I went. If I were to go now, I think I would spend the first two years at a community college. It is a little risky, because you are not sure if you will be able to transfer to a four year college, but is is so much less expensive.

The main reason for going to a university, as others have said, is a practical one. You may not be guaranteed being able to get a decent job, but the prospects of getting a good job without a degree are not very good.

There are other reasons, of course. Being educated is valuable in and of itself. I majored in math and, although I do not make any practical use of it, I pursue math as a hobby and get a great deal of enjoyment from it.

Unless something happens to make college more affordable, the high costs are one more factor in widening the gap between the rich and the poor. It looks like online courses may become a game changer. As much as I enjoyed my learning experience, universities seem like archaic institutions. They get their reputations from the number of papers published by their professors who, incidentally, teach courses and are not necessarily very enthusiastic or very good at it. There is no reason why you could not design an undergraduate curriculum around the taped lectures of these professors. Additionally, there are a growing number of interactive computer learning programs, which are getting increasingly sophisticated. You can always have teaching assistants who may not have published anything, but who are knowledgeable about certain subjects and who enjoy and are good at teaching.

hearkat's avatar

For me, a college education was a means to an end – a necessary step to earn the required credentials in order to enter a particular career. However, at the outset, a good proportion of students don’t have the specific career goal in mind, or those that do have a goal might find that their choice isn’t quite as suited to them as they imagined (which is what happened to me). Thus, many college students use their education as a tool for soul-searching… trying different classes and subjects that sound interesting and seeing if they ‘click’ with their own personalities and might lead to a fulfilling career. Of course there are also networking opportunities, with esteemed contributors to one’s chosen major – whether they are professors or guest lecturers.

The purpose of the college experience (as opposed to the education), is to have the opportunity to stretch one’s wings as a young adult, and to create an identity removed from the influence of your childhood home and friends. Social networking also is important in the college years, through classmates, clubs and other extra-curricular activities, and of course through fraternities/sororities. Again, a lot of soul-searching happens during these years.

rojo's avatar

First let me say that I disagree, respectfully, with @funkdaddy on the following comment: “College is about learning how to handle all aspects of life and proving you can do it all at a high level. It’s training to balance studying with social obligations, paying bills on time, handling group projects, and proving to yourself and others that you can handle it when things go wrong. It’s finding out what works for you in terms of getting things done. The “things” don’t matter nearly as much as learning how you personally can deal with them best.” THAT is what high school should be for. If you are still needing an additional four or five years to get that down then the American Education System is not doing its job.

As to what the actual purpose of a University Education is, I find myself wondering the same thing. What it SHOULD be for is providing a solid foundation in a particular field of study so you can hit the ground running when you go into your chosen field.
But, unfortunately, at this point in time, it is mostly about babysitting subadults until they join the workforce and, because the college is too busy doing what the high schools should have done, most of them are woefully unprepared to actually do whatever career they have chosen to pursue.

funkdaddy's avatar

@rojo – that seems like a really negative view of a generally exceptional group of young adults.

Most people are living on their own for the first time when they go to college. It’s the first time doing all those things without someone else being the primary decision maker in their lives. That’s huge and something they can’t learn in high school typically because they still live with their parents. It’s a function of age I guess more than college. But balancing the reality of life’s basics and a demanding workload is tough for anyone at first.

Have you visited a college campus or talked to some college students studying in your area of expertise? Were you really not impressed with people about to graduate?

They couldn’t get there without first learning the ropes.

JLeslie's avatar

I’m with @rojo that college is not about paying bills and social obligations as @funkdaddy suggested. I also think high school and parents should be teaching this regualr life stuff, and I also feel it is a function of being out of the house that really gets new, young, adults doing these things onntheir own. There are plenty of college students who live at home who don’t pay bills, and plenty of studentsliving on campus who have their parents paying all the bills. The university does not teach basic things like paying a bill from what I remember.

However, I also think college is not just about learning a career. 4 year education in America usually involves exploring new subjects to some extent, exploring interests, and graduating with some “roundness.” We don’t really specialize until the last two years of school, although we do take some prep courses in the first two years depending on the major. Some majors and some coursework are very specific all the way through, and some majors you walk out as a professional in your field and the actual real life work is very much like classwork. Accountants for instance, the get their CPA and then a balance sheet is a balance sheet and a tax for is a tax form. Of course accounting is more than that, but there are very specific things taught and what you are qualified for. Other majors are more abstract, and as you get into the real world of jobs and careers it is a little more ambiguous. But, the degree shows you can perservere, stay committed, and learn. Universities that pull people from all over the country privide opportunity to know people from all over the country and discuss many different topics, even outside of the classroom. Another type of rounding.

livelaughlove21's avatar

Some do learn what it means to be a real bill-paying self-sustaining adult in college. Sure, some still have parents paying their way, but many don’t. And I don’t care what high school and parents teach their kids about the real world – you don’t really learn it until you do it. And for those that are on their own for the first time in college, that’s when they really learn it. Some don’t learn until after college when mommy and daddy stop paying for everything. I don’t know anyone in high school that truly knows how to be on their own, be responsible for themselves, pay their own bills, etc. They may think they know, but they don’t. I was very bright in high school, but until I moved out of my parents’ house, I had no clue.

I also think saying college is just babysitting is ridiculous. Most of those kids are there to learn and grow and develop new skills that will help them in their future careers, regardless of what their major is. There are the party animals that only care about getting wasted and having a social life, but they’re certainly not the majority.

JLeslie's avatar

@livelaughlove21 Bill paying happens when there are bills; college or otherwise. I don’t see how college specifically helps learn about paying bills? Being on your own you pay bills, college or not. What college can do is buffer the transition from living in a parent’s home to being out on your own. It isn’t always a buffer though. A lot depends on the family.

livelaughlove21's avatar

@JLeslie I never says learning to pay bills was the purpose of college. I said that, for some, that’s where it takes place. It almost never takes place in high school.

JLeslie's avatar

@livelaughlove21 I see what you mean now. I guess I am talking about a class teaching it. I think there should be a class in high school that helps teach budgeting, how to write a check, etc. I hope kids know the basics before they are actually out on their own.

livelaughlove21's avatar

@JLeslie Ah, yes, absolutely. I meant actually using the knowledge, not just being exposed to it.

Bill1939's avatar

Having seen how the state’s mental health system worked, I quit in 1972, only using my BA in Psychology for three years. My high school experiences excluded people of color and, with the exception of those of the Jewish faith (who were all but invisible), non-Christians. What my college experience gave me was an understanding of the interconnectedness of the social and physical sciences, an expanded perspective of history and human endeavors, and the pleasure of communing with diverse people and their cultures.

mattbrowne's avatar

It’s about learning how to manage yourself and pull through.

It’s about learning how to deal with tough material and not give up too early.

It’s about using the 10% of all the subject content, if you are lucky to find a job in the same field.

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