What Is the Point of College?

… [A]s higher education expands its reach, it’s increasingly hard to say what college is like and what college is for. In the United States, where I now teach, more than 17 million undergraduates will be enrolling in classes this fall. They will be passing through institutions small and large, public and private, two-year and four-year, online and on campus. Some of them will be doing vocational courses — in accounting or nursing or web design — at for-profit institutions like DeVry University and the University of Phoenix. Many will be entering community colleges hoping to gain a useful qualification or to prepare themselves for a transfer to a four-year college. Others will be entering liberal-arts colleges without plans for a major, let alone a profession. On whatever track, quite a few will encounter Descartes as part of their undergraduate requirements. Why should that be? You’ll be hard-pressed to find a consensus on such things. That’s because two distinct visions of higher education contend throughout our classrooms and campuses.

One vision focuses on how college can be useful — to its graduates, to employers and to a globally competitive America. When presidential candidates talk about making college more affordable, they often mention those benefits, and they measure them largely in dollars and cents. How is it helping postgraduate earnings, or increasing G.D.P.? As college grows more expensive, plenty of people want to know whether they’re getting a good return on their investment. They believe in Utility U.

Another vision of college centers on what John Stuart Mill called ‘‘experiments in living,’’ aimed at getting students ready for life as free men and women. (This was not an entirely new thought: the ‘‘liberal’’ in ‘‘liberal education’’ comes from the Latin liberalis, which means ‘‘befitting a free person.’’) Here, college is about building your soul as much as your skills. Students want to think critically about the values that guide them, and they will inevitably want to test out their ideas and ideals in the campus community. [Read more.]

Via Kwame Anthony Appiah, The New York Times.