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Posted at 11:05 AM ET, 01/17/2011

The purpose of college in 2011

By Daniel de Vise

Today's guest blogger is Christopher Howard, president of Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. Hampden-Sydney is a prestigious liberal arts school known for academic rigor, a strong core curriculum and a distinctly preppy culture. Howard, 41, is something of a rising star in Mid-Atlantic academia.

The Purpose of College in 2011

There exists a familiar crescendo during the holiday season that achieves its apex as the New Year begins. If your family is like mine, it began with great anticipation about gifts, both receiving them and choosing just the right one.


But after the presents were opened and the last bit of leftover turkey devoured, we turned our attention to contemplating the purpose of the holidays and our ambitions for the upcoming New Year. As the president of one of America's oldest institutions of higher learning, Hampden-Sydney College, I thought it appropriate to offer my comments on the purpose of a college, for higher education is, or should be, central to the ambitions of all our young men and women.

A bit of history is illustrative.

Universities, when they were established more than a thousand years ago, focused on educating clergy and instilling religious piety. Over the years, religious education was supplement and then supplanted by the notion of civic virtue and, eventually, by secular humanism which became the core purpose of institutions of higher learning. The 1800s gave rise to the German university with its graduate students and deliberate focus on research. The American concept of a liberal arts education, which included emphasis on teaching and, usually, the shaping of moral character, was shaken to its core as research universities attracted talented professors, eager students, and government and foundation dollars. But undergraduate students still needed some degree of moral formation or at least some growing up. Colleges and universities still have to address this need -- particularly for the Millennials -- our wonderfully over-programmed, over-achieving and, at times, over-confident young people born after 1979.

I think David Brooks has it right when he states, "Over the past century or so, people have built various systems to help them understand human behavior ... useful in many circumstances [but they do not] completely explain behavior because deep down people have passions and drives that don't lend themselves to systemic modeling. [But] there have been rare and strange people who possessed the skill of taking the upheavals of thought that emanate from The Big Shaggy and representing them in the form of story, music, myth, painting, liturgy, architecture, sculpture, landscape and speech ... that help us understand these yearnings and also educate and mold them." Some may cringe at Brooks's squishy argument. However, we must never forget how foundational to the growth, development and success of our young people is understanding the world around us and our place in it.

Professor Richard Light from Harvard's Graduate School of Education has demonstrated that students who connect one thing they are doing inside the classroom with at least one thing outside substantially increase their chances of graduating. Engagement -- another popular buzz word in academia -- is important. Many students today are simply not engaged with the academic program. Instead, they cling to social media and forgo some of the deeper relationships previously forged face to face. To engage them we need to be in their spaces but not in their faces. We need to be deliberate in our programs so that the central tenants of engagement -- purpose, passion and calling -- are always front and center, while still maintaining our dedication to providing an exposure to the liberal arts, in their entire rigor.

The central task of an educator is to ensure that students are learning how to make sense of the world and to understand their place in it. They must do so in order to adapt to change. My friend Robert McDonald, chairman and CEO of Proctor & Gamble, warned Hampden-Sydney graduates at our commencement ceremony last May that they were entering a "VUCA" world -- a world that is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. I have since added "R" for Real-time for the pressure that exists to be instantly aware of events that occur around the world.

I can think of no better way to assure the Millennials are prepared to adapt and ultimately to lead tomorrow's world than to ensure they understand -- first themselves, then their world. In fact, my New Year's resolution is to do just that.

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By Daniel de Vise  | January 17, 2011; 11:05 AM ET
Categories:  Administration, Pedagogy  | Tags:  Christopher B. Howard, HSC Christopher Howard, Hampden-Sydney College, Hampden-Sydney president, Millennials in college, purpose of college 2011  
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As a college professor, I couldn't agree more. Students today want to connect their lives to the bigger world around them -- and they do if their college makes it a priority. They are passionate and bright, and it's a privilege to be able to help them. My life was dramatically transformed by a liberal arts college - St. Mary's College of Maryland - and I hope that Hampden Sydney realizes the role they play in helping their students create a better world.

Posted by: msw13 | January 17, 2011 9:54 PM | Report abuse

Sounds great, but why is a liberal arts education so expensive and rising faster than even the cost of health care ? Why is it so inefficient, with long, ponderous vacation periods in the summer, usually a month at Christmas, and spring break as well ? If it's such an important and critical part of a young person's development, why not do it full-time and year-round ? If so many can benefit from it, why not create an online liberal arts college sponsored by the government for a few hundred million dollars, instead of the nearly $100 billion spent annually to subsidize student loans ? Why not allow everybody to benefit, not just those with the time and money to go away to college for four years ?

Posted by: dan1138 | January 17, 2011 11:40 PM | Report abuse

Dr. Howard has raised an important issue: what is the purpose of a liberal arts education? If it is to develop intellectual skills as traditionally defined, then institutions of higher education are doing an admirable job. However, if it is to develop the whole person so he or she is better prepared for a VUCAR world, then there is much more that institutions could be doing. And if the focus is on developing moral character, most institutions are barely scratching the surface of their potential to impact the lives of youth and young adults.

The key to impacting moral character is through involvement in activities that connect the individuals to something larger than themselves. Service learning projects, normally small, volunteer, and underfunded at most universities could become an essential component of any institution. Requiring involvement in some sort of activity that involves students in developing personal and social capital for others on a local level could provide the learning experience that is missing when simply sitting in class. Providing opportunities for connecting with students at other institutions engaged in similar activities could give students the experience of learning with people from different backgrounds, cultures, etc.

Engagement in activities that connect people to concepts, principles, values, ideals, etc. than are larger than the individual is the key to moral character development. If institutions are really concerned about that issue they will insist that all students engage in some sort of service learning activity.

Posted by: BillHuitt | January 18, 2011 7:36 AM | Report abuse

Who do these people thnk they are kidding? The sole reason to go to college in 2011 is the same as it has been for the last 25 years. It's to get your "smart reciept" and get a decent job so you don't have to live in a closet eating tuna and Alpo. The line between the "haves" and "have nots" gets thicker every day and the defining characteristic that separates the two is a college education.

Posted by: pezbb | January 18, 2011 8:20 AM | Report abuse

Sorry pezbb, i've got to argue with you on your point that a college education is what separates the haves from the have-nots. Slowly, slowly even those "haves" with college educations are slipping over the line to the "have-nots". And it doesn't take much.

And funny thing, I went back to school in my late 30's to finish an undergraduate degree, and I now make half of what I did before I went to school. A college degree does not immediately mean more money.

Posted by: bikinibottom | January 18, 2011 9:24 AM | Report abuse

I never said it was a gaurantee, far from it but it is a LOT harder to suceed financially without one. The point I was trying to make is that kids don't go to college to "find themselves" they go to make money.

Posted by: pezbb | January 18, 2011 9:29 AM | Report abuse

Sorry pezbb, i've got to argue with you on your point that a college education is what separates the haves from the have-nots. Slowly, slowly even those "haves" with college educations are slipping over the line to the "have-nots". And it doesn't take much.

And funny thing, I went back to school in my late 30's to finish an undergraduate degree, and I now make half of what I did before I went to school. A college degree does not immediately mean more money.

Posted by: bikinibottom | January 18, 2011 9:47 AM | Report abuse

well i think the point of the article was to question what *should* college be for? The point isn't to make more money (although as you mention, generally college-educated people do make more money). College is particularly important in a world where people are becoming more and more disconnected from one another, despite the illusion that we are "linked" because we know from someone's facebook status that they had yogurt and blueberries for breakfast. We know far more surface things about each other today, but don't make the deeper connections that happen only face to face.

Posted by: bikinibottom | January 18, 2011 9:57 AM | Report abuse

I keep seeing a "debate" over the purpose of a college education. Either it is to truly educate students, teach them how to think, and challenge them intellectually, in a completely protected, ivory tower bubble unsullied by commerce; or it is to provide narrowly focused technical job training. Why can't liberal arts colleges do both?

I have a liberal arts degree and value the genuine education I received. At the same time, I struggled enormously after graduation because I had no immediately employable SPECIFIC skills (yes, yes, employers value "soft skills" like good writing eventually but in order to get a foot in the door these days and even demonstrate those skills, you need vocational specialization first.)

If my liberal arts college had required students to identify a realistic career path so that we could pay the bills after graduation and provided even one semester's worth of practical training along with the theory, I and my classmates would have been a lot better off.

Posted by: wrybread | January 18, 2011 7:10 PM | Report abuse

I would argue (just slightly tongue in cheek) that the two principle purposes of college today are 1) reduce the number of people searching for jobs; and 2) pump tons of dollars into the "education machine".

The education industry has for some time existed for its own benefit. Have you seen some of the recent articles about law school graduates (can't get jobs, and they paid 35K to 70K per year for law school).

Or, how about the liberal arts graduates who've been out of school for several years and have jobs as a host or hostess at a restaurant, or perhaps as a clerk in the retail sector. When I was in a PhD program in chemistry at a big name school lots of years ago, it was appalling to realize that the reason many new PhDs went through several post docs was they couldn't get jobs. And that was almost forty years ago.

The educational industrial complex tries to get us to buy into the belief that we should get an education just to be educated. Who do they think will pay the rent and put food on the table?

Furthermore, for the large majority of jobs, automation has replaced education. One of my career responsibilities was recommending what brand and model of PCs my organization should buy. Initially it took six to twelve weeks to gather data and run tests. The Internet cut that to less than a week, often even just hours and sure I loved it.

The question is, what are all these educated folk to do... create restaurant menus in multiple languages? Oops, I forgot, even that is readily automated now.

Posted by: billsecure | January 18, 2011 8:34 PM | Report abuse

This article gets to the point of the matter much more directly. College is doing nothing for many students.

45 percent of students "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" during the first two years of college.

36 percent of students "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" over four years of college.

Those students who do show improvements tend to show only modest improvements. Students improved on average only 0.18 standard deviations over the first two years of college and 0.47 over four years. What this means is that a student who entered college in the 50th percentile of students in his or her cohort would move up to the 68th percentile four years later -- but that's the 68th percentile of a new group of freshmen who haven't experienced any college learning.

Posted by: staticvars | January 19, 2011 12:21 AM | Report abuse

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