What is University For?

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There are three things that a student should get from their time in university:

1)      Career Jumpstart: Careers are about solving problems and university should prepare students to do just that. Through the acquisition of knowledge, a better understanding of the world around them or by learning the fundamentals of a specific discipline, students should be better equipped to identify problems and potential solutions. This should jumpstart their careers and prepare them for opportunities in the world of work. In addition to this, university should also be an opportunity for students to improve their ability to learn effectively (learning how to learn), as a useful skill they will need to leverage in their first job and throughout their careers.

2)      Foundation for Citizenship: Students need to be immersed in the intellectual culture required to contribute to a democracy where citizens participate in public life. In order to become good citizens, students need to learn the fundamentals of oral and written communication, language, history, culture, arts, human rights, research methodology and statistics, philosophy, etc. In this way, university is more than building a path to what students want, but rather an immersive, reflective experience where they choose what is worth wanting. Through this approach, the university experience can help plant the seed of who they want to become, which ultimately can better prepare them for a purposeful future where they make meaningful contribution to the world.

3)      Developmental Experiences: To enhance preparation for their careers and good citizenship, students need strong developmental experiences. Though these, students will get a chance to build skills working collaboratively with others to achieve goals. This is where the optimism of youth meets the reality of getting things done. Through the wins and failures of these experiences, students will start to learn about their strengths and opportunities for development. They will also start to build the resilience required to succeed in the workplace. Examples of developmental experiences include internships, leadership roles in student clubs or sports teams, long-term class projects, a part time job or semester abroad.

Many educators and members of the public are torn between prioritizing a focus on careers or citizenship. From my point of view, our students and society need both. Any point of view that emphasizes one of these at the expense of the other could create a gap in our youth’s education.

For more on this topic, see the Pew Research Center survey results or College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be by Andrew Delbanco.


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