Regardless of political affiliation, it is universally understood that this is one of those moments in our shared American history when we pause and reflect upon our core values and the actions we will take moving forward to ensure that investment in those values remains steadfast.
I am prepared to make a bold proclamation regarding the value of a college education: let us reinvigorate focus on college accessibility for all as a public good rather than merely as a means to an end.
In recent years, there has been outsized focus on college as a route to a single career goal. We must be cognizant, however, that the hard-line focus on career attainment alone undermines the full value of college. It creates an environment wherein high school and young college students feel pressured to choose one career path and picture themselves in that path for, well, forever. As adults, we know that this is not a realistic expectation — most adults change careers a number of times in a lifetime of work, and many of them do not enter the workforce with the same career vision with which they entered college. I would never suggest that we stop introducing students to careers and career pathways or stop investing in workforce development, but it is fundamentally important that we do this through a frame that encourages broad exploration and accounts for changes in career and overall interests. In short, we certainly should not eliminate career focus, but we should also reevaluate the assumption that going to college is fundamentally tied to a single-vision career goal or that the value of a college education lies in career attainment alone.
My proposition is not a “but” — it’s an “and.” The pendulum has swung too far towards a career-only value in college and must return to equilibrium. There are profound added benefits to a liberal education that encourages student exploration across disciplines and fosters maturity, authenticity, critical thinking, and leadership.
Career attainment remains a key benefit of college, and research leaves no doubt that people with a college degree benefit profoundly in this area over their non-college educated peers. However, we should never forget a fundamental value of a college education about which studies are also clear: people who are exposed to a variety of perspectives different from their own develop empathy for experiences they have not lived and hone the ability to form complex, critical insights rather than mere reactionary opinions.
Finally, and perhaps not of least importance, people who are college educated are the most civically engaged. If we wish to see a future where our political and community leaders represent diverse backgrounds and experiences and prize fact-based research, science, and critical thinking, we need to encourage vigorous exposure to a broad range of disciplines. The value of a Bachelor’s degree is further enhanced when our colleges are packed with students from communities that enrich campuses with a wide array of experiences but that are traditionally underrepresented at (even discouraged from attending) these institutions. A college education is, of course, a road to career success and financial security, but it also advances, fine-tunes, and challenges students’ understanding of the world in a context that requires them to engage a range of beliefs and assumptions. In short, the backbone of an interdisciplinary and exploratory education is in that it develops compassionate, knowledgeable, civically engaged, and thoughtful leaders, and these are traits that we can probably all agree are fundamentally important to our country moving forward.
-Mo Hyman, Executive Director