Liberal Education

The Purpose of Higher Education and Its Future

In his compelling Forbes essay, “A Nobel Laureate’s Mind-Blowing Perspective on the Ultimate Outcome of an Education,” Brandon Busteed, president of Kaplan University Partners and former executive director of education and workforce development at Gallup, discusses the lasting impact on him of one Nobel laureate’s response to an interview question on the ultimate outcome of an education. Perhaps it was the absolute certitude, along with the distinctiveness, of Daniel Kahneman’s reply—“Well, I think that’s quite obvious. It’s to change what you believe”—that caught Busteed off guard in 2012.1 Yet, it is the enduring relevance of Kahneman’s insights into the power of education that has Busteed still thinking about the assertion seven years later. What makes a liberal education, in particular, transformative is that it engenders the capacity to imagine that one’s most fundamentally held beliefs might actually be mistaken. Such an education is critical for students to prepare for global citizenship, develop a sense of well-being, and foster personal and social responsibility.

Nevertheless, traditional claims around college as an essential component of the American dream are being challenged as the value of a college degree is being reduced to employability, and social mobility is significantly declining despite a substantial increase in the number of college graduates. A poll released by Gallup in December 2019 is both reflective of these trends and cause for concern. The latest in a series of national reports indicating a rapid decline in public confidence in higher education over the past six years, the findings showed that only 51 percent of US adults now consider a college education to be very important, down from 70 percent in 2013. However, the most jarring statistic was that younger adults between the ages of 18 and 29 were more likely than those from other age groups to question the value of a college degree. This is especially troubling for those of us who believe that higher education is critical to addressing our nation’s persistent social and economic inequities.

Leaders in higher education must be prepared for the fact that a majority of young adults now consider getting a job to be the primary purpose of earning a college degree. Moreover, in the future, educational credentialing will likely no longer be the exclusive purview of colleges and universities. Instead, business and industry will deliver curricula in the workplace, either in partnership with or independent from institutions of higher education. Thus, more than ever, leaders in the academy must demonstrate the ways in which we are preparing students for lifelong learning in the context of the workforce, not apart from it. All students must be engaged in high-impact practices that provide them with opportunities to apply their knowledge and skills in real-world settings from their first to final semesters. Finally, educators must adopt an equity-minded approach by being intentional about connecting curricula to careers, paying attention to reducing the costs for students, and positioning graduates for success in work, citizenship, and life by promoting student agency.

Understanding the intricacies of the higher education landscape of the future, the authors in this issue elucidate the transformative power of liberal education while addressing the economic realities of higher education’s unsustainable financial model. In the process, they reinforce Kahneman’s notion that the fundamental purpose of higher education is “to change what you believe.”


1. Brandon Busteed, “A Nobel Laureate’s Mind-Blowing Perspective on the Ultimate Outcome of an Education,” Forbes, December 23, 2019,


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