The LEAP Challenge Blog

Donald Harward
AAC&U Distinguished Fellow

The Conversation All College Students Deserve to Have

The beginning of the school year prompts many conversations—among new students; among students and their parents; among students, parents, faculty members, student affairs professionals, and administrators. From the student perspective, these conversations could be about many things: moving to a new place; the need to apply (and how to pay) for student loans; the excitement of new experiences; the anxiety of being away from one’s family and friends; the process of determining what to focus one’s studies on; what one’s job prospects will look like; or what kind of money one might make with those jobs. Rarely, if ever, are students asked: "How will going to college help you make meaning of your life? How will it help you become an engaged citizen in your own community, and the world? How will it help you become the best version of yourself?"

Likewise, the university is concerned with realistic and pressing challenges: how to increase student retention; how to find funding for a new dorm or academic building; how to keep up with technology and social media; how to respond to its board and trustees; how to balance faculty duties, expectations, and needs; and how to balance the use of trigger warnings and the need to pursue open dialogue. Rarely does the university community have the opportunity to sit down and ask itself: "What are, or ought to be, the greater purposes of higher education—and if we are to pursue them, what does that mean for our institution?"

At Bringing Theory to Practice, we argue that there are inextricably related greater purposes of higher education—and that the unity of those purposes makes the higher education enterprise unique and allows students to connect their learning and discovery to the complex dynamic of the personal as well as to the public good.

Higher education demands engagement in learning and discovery, not just acquaintance with information or practice at skills. It requires moving beyond levels of expertise in one field to seeing connections to other fields and questions. It even points to inquiry and issues that are transdisciplinary—the most challenging issues that we as a society haven’t resolved, but must—such as addressing racial, cultural, or identity intolerance; balancing national with international interests and needs; confronting environmental challenges; resolving scarcity. These are real issues that we will be called upon to understand and address in our lifetimes.

There is a civic purpose to higher education in our democracy. Higher education not only should teach students to appreciate the mechanics and practices of governance, but also should help students understand the difference between a collection and a community; why the other, and the public good, are at least as important as the self; and how to strike a just balance among equity, fairness, and freedom in any complexity of members—be it a family, a community, or a nation.

And there is a well-being purpose to higher education. How does learning anything connect to the learner’s emerging sense of purposefulness, resilience, and self-identity? Whether students are the first in their families to go to college or legacy admits, how does the institution understand and value their experiences as assets? How will they gain persistence from risk-taking, from the challenge of stretching beyond the conventional, even from experiencing failure? How will college help them balance immediate experiences of financial, social, or personal well-being with developing longer-term objectives of the life well-lived—the meaningful life?

Answers, or elements of answers, to questions regarding purpose should emerge in the opportunities students will have to be wholly engaged—be they in the examination of popular culture or history, the art gallery, the science or tech lab, the athletic field, the Facebook or Twitter feed challenging long-held perspectives or socialized values; or from the internship, the service experience, the job interview.

Higher education can and should be the space where these greater purposes can be understood as connected—as unified. The institution is promising the opportunities and experiences that will allow students to choose to make connections among what and how they learn, with what and who they want to become … and with what and how they make meaning of the choices they face.

In order to break the cycle of the prevailing focus on job prospects, money, and utility, we must change the narrative. The voices for change should (and will) be as unique as all potential students are—and yet, together, could be harmonious. In your next communication about college—whatever your role in higher education, whether as student, parent, or professional—ask those deeper and more meaningful questions. If students are to leave college ready to be not just employees, but whole people—contributing members of a democratic society, individuals who work together to create a better world—then this is the conversation they deserve to have.

The author is President Emeritus of Bates College and has directed the BTtoP Project since its founding with S. Engelhard Pingree in 2003.The Project has, over its history, been generously supported by the Engelhard Foundation, the Endeavor Foundation, and the Teagle, Spencer, Lumina, and Greve Foundations.