Bringing Purpose to Higher Education

The higher education crisis isn’t about price. It’s about value. The issue lies in the fact that undergraduates arrive on campus unprepared. Sure, they may have great grades and test scores, but that only indicates that students are proficient in achieving great grades and test scores. Higher education offers exceptional learning opportunities, but without a sense of purpose for their learning beyond simply getting good grades, students cannot access the unparalleled value colleges offer. This is a major cause of the higher ed crisis and should be the focus of our solutions.

This blog series explores freshman study abroad as a means of addressing this value crisis. Students often return from traditional study abroad programs claiming a greater sense of purpose for their learning. They dive into their studies, majors, and co-curricular activities with greater commitment and clearer intent. If purpose is a key to student success, and it can be successfully developed through study abroad, then sending freshmen abroad in intentionally designed programs that develop purpose could dramatically improve student learning on campus and increase the value of higher education.

How Children Succeed

How Children Succeed and Purpose in Higher Education

Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed is the hot new education vision. Through his research into neurology, pedagogy, and psychology, he identifies a key set of skills and dispositions shared by successful students — those who persevere in school and graduate with good grades. The book intends to identify universal truths about students, regardless of their backgrounds.

But, something is missing in his analysis. While he identifies cognitive skills and noncognitive traits, which he classifies as “character,” as being key to success, his argument is based around the assumption that students should be intrinsically motivated to learn for the sake of learning and achieving. I disagree with this assumption. I suspect Tough does, too.

He starts the last chapter of the book by sharing the story of why he dropped out of college — twice. On page 178 he states:

Even in high school, while I was being such a responsible student, I had grave doubts about my relationship with formal education. I had a rebellious streak — I was a teenage Kerouac reader — and like millions of high-school rebels before me, I was convinced that what I was learning in the classroom didn’t really matter, man… [he quotes a letter he wrote explaining his decision to leave Columbia University] ”Going to school is all I know. Education is a game, and let’s face it: I’m good at it. I know the rules; I know how to perform all the required tasks. I even know how to win. But I’m sick of the game. I want to cash in my chips.”

Reading this passage, it’s clear that he dropped out despite having all of the traits he identifies as key to student success. He didn’t struggle with past trauma, he had the grit, curiosity, and perseverance needed to get through challenges, and he clearly had strong cognitive skills as he was enrolled at Columbia University. What he didn’t have was a clear sense of purpose. He had no vision for who he was in the “real world” outside of the daily “game” he’d been playing for 13 years in the classroom. It was a game to him because learning was not rooted in exploring issues that have clear social value. Nor was it rooted in a pursuit of understanding and actualizing his values. He was motivated to win, not to learn. Thus, he dropped out of an Ivy League school, jumped on his bike, and found himself engaged in a dynamic environment that offered learning opportunities authentically rooted in society.

Purpose in Higher EducationUnderstanding “purpose” isn’t easy. Learning for the sake of learning or achievement defined by grades assumes a narrowly defined sense of self-worth. Humans are inherently social beings. While receiving accolades from others is gratifying, humans tend to benefit far more from deeper relationships. We crave interaction, exchange, and kinship. We find these relationships not only in our friends and family, but also in our work, contributing efforts and expertise for the benefit of a cause greater than ourselves. When the purpose of our learning is rooted in a cause with clear social value, we have a drive to learn far stronger and more resilient than accolades for good grades can inspire.

Tough then points to learning driven by grades as risking any chance of having a fulfilling career. On page 184, he quotes James Kwak, a Harvard alum who went into investment banking and management consulting, as saying that undergrads take these sorts of jobs because they are “driven more by fear of not being a success than by a concrete desire to do anything in particular.” For Ivy League grads, being a success is undoubtedly core to their identity and self-worth. Their career motivation is rooted not in a desire to create value along with others. They are motivated to achieve for the sake of achieving. The quote suggests that this drive will result in work and pursuits that are ultimately unfulfilling as they are devoid of social value, even if they are “successful.”

If we expect students to arrive on their campus ready to access the educational value offered by their college, they will need to have a sense of purpose rooted in a cause with clear social value. Colleges are mountains of incredible learning opportunities. But, unlike high school, accessing this educational value requires more than showing up to assigned classes. Students have to choose a course of study. And, some of the best and most important learning opportunities lie outside of the classroom. Students need to arrive on campus with a sense of what they want to learn and how they will use that knowledge in their professions and citizenship. This doesn’t necessarily require students to start college with an unwavering commitment to a major, but they should start with a commitment to their own learning and growth as tools that will serve them well in the society they want to be part of and contribute to.

Intentionally designed study abroad is a highly effective tool for helping students develop this sense of purpose. By shaping freshman study abroad programs around their particular developmental needs and the educational transition as they begin college, study abroad can serve as an exceptional tool for ensuring students are prepared to take advantage of the value colleges offer. This theme will be explored in coming posts. Stay tuned…

Want more on purpose in higher ed? Check out this post by TBB Founder & CEO Robin Pendoley on Forbes.com. Also, take a minute to learn more about TBB’s gap year programs.

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