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Higher Education's Public Purpose

By Bethany Zecher Sutton

I recently had the privilege of listening to twenty-five college and university presidents—all members of the LEAP Presidents’ Trust—talk about reclaiming higher education as a public good. Those present represented almost the full spectrum of the academy: community colleges, liberal arts colleges (both public and private), comprehensive and research universities (again, both public and private). The larger purpose of higher education, beyond preparation for employment, is one that we talk about extensively in LEAP – even as we have commissioned research on employer views about important liberal education outcomes. Indeed, that larger public purpose is what the LEAP Challenge is all about—connecting students with real-world problems and getting them engaged in creative and collaborative problem-solving. Coincidentally, those signature work projects also help prepare students for the world of work.

The good news is that the skills—what many in the academy refer to as learning outcomes—valued by employers and critical for employment are the same as those needed for civic engagement. Critical thinking, problem solving, working in diverse teams, ethical reasoning, communicating—these make both good employees and good citizens.

And yet the policy environment and public perceptions about higher education do not place the same value on preparation for citizenship, civic engagement, contributions to society, and community leadership as on employability. For many, the value is to the individual, not to society. And, frankly, the cost of college is so prohibitive that many families—and policy makers—are looking for a tangible “return on investment.”

In this context, I would suggest that there might actually be something liberating to the idea that getting a college education serves a purpose far beyond getting a job. What families and students themselves are paying for is much more than an accumulation of credits and a degree. It is more than knowledge of a particular field, training in a discipline, or even achievement of certain learning outcomes and critical skills. Many argue that the high cost of college necessitates a purely pragmatic outlook. And—no question—we need to engage in intentional and proactive ways to address the issue of affordability. But we can, at the same time, join in conversation with parents and students about the larger purpose and more expansive set of outcomes that students can achieve through a college education. Together, we can liberate mindsets by focusing not on the strictly defined goal of employment, but on the more humane and capacious goals of a better life, better communities, and a better society.

Higher education has a responsibility to get this right, and to ensure that the students who come to our institutions actually do have an educational experience that prepares them for more than a job—in fact, for more than a career.

One particularly interesting thread of the conversation among the presidents earlier this month addressed civil discourse, and the lack of models for students—and even campus communities more broadly—that demonstrate how to positively and productively engage in difficult conversations. Here is an area where the broader purpose of a college education may come to fruition. Campus communities can meaningfully commit themselves to understanding and practicing how to engage in civil discourse around topics important to their students. Faculty members, student affairs professionals, and administrative leaders can help students understand the value of informed debate that takes into account not just evidence or facts and figures, but an understanding of different outlooks and the concerns of different constituencies affected by the choices we make—in our communities and our civic lives, at the polls, in our places of worship and schools.


Members of the LEAP Presidents’ Trust have committed to advocating for liberal education and providing transparent leadership for the kinds of programs and practices that provide students with a civic-minded liberal education that serves them both in their careers and in their lives. Indeed, all institutions that engage in activities that advance the public purposes of higher education should publicize their efforts, so that key constituencies—parents, students, community members, policy leaders—are aware of the ways in which the institution is providing a public-spirited education and can begin to recapture the sense of the full value of a higher education.

Membership in the Presidents’ Trust is open to the chief executive officers of all AAC&U member institutions; for information about how to join, contact Bethany Zecher Sutton, chief of staff and coordinating director for the LEAP initiative at AAC&U.