What is College For?

It is easy to take things for granted—to forget to question why we make the plans we do, or why we interact with the world in certain ways. Sometimes we are so busy chasing a goal (graduation, a job, a plan, etc.) that we forget to pause for a moment and ask ourselves very real and foundational questions. For example:

WHAT IS COLLEGE FOR?

Why college?

Your answer to this question matters. I also imagine it isn’t something you’ve given much serious thought. College is, for many of us, a qualification to achieve or a time of life to get through. For others, it is an unachievable or difficult-to-reach goal.

For those who attend college (four year universities or community colleges, or anything in between), it represents an incredible investment of time, money, effort, and focus. It transforms social groups and often has an enormous impact on aspirations and worldview. It can serve as a direct stepping-stone to a career, or it can leave a successful graduate without many clear job opportunities.

Give yourself a moment before reading on, and see if you can answer the question. In your life, what is college for? What purpose does it serve in your hometown? In your country? In the global context? What is college for?

I didn’t have a good answer when I graduated from high school and started my college career. I probably would have answered with some combination of continuing my education, having new experiences, and learning more about who I am as a person. What I probably wouldn’t have said (but was definitely true) is that college was an expectation for me, so the purpose was in living up to those expectations without ever giving them serious thought.

I have asked lots of people what college is for since then. There is no single right answer. Responses have varied between “getting a job;” “becoming a more educated person;” “being able to have intelligent dialogue about multiple topics;” “it’s important in this world to have a college degree;” and “to transition from being a kid to being an adult.”

All of those answers have merit, and I imagine that most people’s motivations are some combination of those reasons. After all, this is not a multiple-choice quiz, but rather a rhetorical exercise of asking yourself, “what is the point of college?”

It’s true that a college degree is necessary in many job sectors, and that for particular specializations it is a clear stepping-stone to a job post-graduation. It’s also true that many disillusioned students quit school because they don’t think they’re getting what they wanted from college. In either case, I still think it’s worthwhile to ask that basic question: what is college for, and what is the point for me?

What college is for (according to Katie)

  1. Learning how to learn.
  2. Learning how to articulate opinions, and to back these up with research.
  3. Gaining insight on topics, people, skills, and ideas that most inspire you.
  4. Gaining experience and connections.
  5. Transitioning from adolescence to adulthood.

Now, this is far from a complete list, and I’m sure that readers will be able to suggest other key college benefits that belong here. One that I can’t decide for sure whether it belongs on the list or not is the simple fact of the credential gained by graduation. In a statistical sense, a college degree sets you up for future earnings far better than only a high school diploma. It opens doors that may be more difficult or impossible to open without one. But somehow I don’t want to put it on the list. A diploma is something you get once you’ve completed (or at least made serious progress toward) these other goals.

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College is not about the grade you get in any particular class. It’s not about satisfying some external checklist of what must happen in four years’ time. College is a life phase of expansion, of personal development. It is a chance to get to know who you are and what you’re looking for from life. And if you tackle your college years well, you leave with a strong basis for future conversation and vocation, for knowing who you are, and for being more or less ready to operate in the “real world.”

College, in my opinion, is just as much about what happens outside the classroom as in it. Almost no matter what you hope to do after graduation, you will need to prove that you did more than simply sit in the library studying. This is because college is different than high school—the next step for you might have little or nothing to do with your GPA or your ability to take final exams.

Instead, life after college will likely have more to do with how you process information and communicate it to others. It will require that you have certain skills and know how to learn new ones. As Conor shared in a recent guest post, your career may have little or nothing to do with the major listed on your diploma—but can still be grounded on the skills and abilities you developed during your college career.

I think it’s safe to say that everyone leaves college feeling different about themselves and their futures than they did on the day of high school graduation. What feels possible will have shifted, and what you know yourself to be capable of will probably have expanded in some new directions while also moving away from others. Those changes happen in classrooms, but they also stem from all the other parts of student life: from studying abroad, friendships, volunteering, on-campus and off-campus activities, mentors, and the tiptoeing up to adult life in the form of grocery shopping, rent paying, etc.

So, what is college for?

It’s about becoming who you hope to be. That might sound cheesy, but I really think it’s true. You have four years to pursue what you feel most passionate about, and to live and work in the presence of people who are also in pursuit of mind-expanding experiences and knowledge.

Or maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe college is about your grade in that first semester lecture class, or about the essay you’ve been procrastinating for weeks now. Maybe it’s about the diploma and the career that comes right after it.

But I don’t think so. I think college is one way—one truly exciting and wonderful way—to grow up into the you you’ve been hoping you’ll be. 


Please leave a comment with your thoughts on what college is for, and what it means (or meant) to you. If you liked this post, please share it with friends and peers, and see if your ideas of college match the expectations and aspirations of other people in your life.