What is the Point of a University?

What is the point of a university?

For a senior who is (hopefully) graduating this May, it might be too late to be asking this question: Why am I here? Why did I enroll at Boston College, and why was it imperative that I attend a full-time, in-residence, four-year university program? My existential musings aside, this question seems imperative as college costs continue to rise and more and more people call for a reorganization of the education system. In many ways, this politically charged moment speaks to the failings of the modern university in providing a coherent, necessary service and how it might be too late to revive its relevance.

For many young people today, the main reason to attend a university is to attain a respectable job. Traditionally, the university was aptly positioned to do this, as a college degree delivered success in the technocratic world. A university education was able to carry people up the socioeconomic ladder, acting as the meritocratic equalizer that strengthened America’s middle class. Today, a university education is just as necessary for maintaining a standard of living in the economy, but not because college students can enter quickly into successful career paths. Rather, a bachelor’s degree often provides students with a position for which they are overqualified, as the lower-skilled portion of the economy shrinks and employers increasingly shift job-training to graduate programs. Thus, college-educated students are now working jobs that wouldn’t have required a degree, and the debt that goes with it, in previous years.

The foremost goal of the university is to provide an education. The university is meant to act as a meeting place between the world’s most skilled educators and most driven students to transmit knowledge and expose them to new ideas. This service not only benefits the individual, but also provides society with educated leaders and intellectuals. For hundreds of years, the university was the only place where this could occur because the expense of accessing scholarly material made universities imperative. Today, the Internet has made access to information nearly free in comparison to its former costs. Students entering college today are better-educated than any previous generation, and they have the tools to access information about nearly anything. Many educational institutions are starting online college classes meant to match the level of their campus programs.

The counterargument to this technological education is that one cannot possibly be exposed to a diversity of ideas through the Internet, which cannot provoke challenges or provide questions to preexisting ideas. But it is not so clear that the university plays this role either. The university and it students are increasingly acting in the “academic modus operandi.” This means they are narrowly focusing on standardized criteria of success: grade point averages and well-developed resumes. With this competitive academic atmosphere, creativity and passion are sidelined and only appreciated as supplements to academic success. Students applying to university feel increasing pressure to meet intense marks for these criteria, and the time and effort that they spend on these measures of success come at the expense of their social development, creative capacities, and mental health. Educators also feel the pressures of this narrow academic mindset, as the tenuous positions they hold at universities in the pursuit of tenure— and increasingly, many try to make a living without even the option of it—mean they are pressured to meet higher academic standards. This places a systematic preference for research and publication over the importance of teaching.

The university also serves to provide an arena to experiment with new freedoms. For many students, university serves as the first opportunity to live outside the shelter and control of their families. It is a time to learn the powerful possibilities and responsibilities of independent action. The life of a modern college student, however, greatly restricts freedom in a strange mix of oppression and false privilege. On the one hand, students today are given everything they need to be happy and successful during their time at university: food, shelter, security, support, technology. This lifestyle seems ideal, but payment plans mask its consequences by pushing debt down the road. In exchange for the provision of these goods, universities feel entitled to place restrictive conditions on campus political rights. Student-athletes are not allowed to organize to receive compensation for the money they bring to universities. Students are not allowed to have their voices heard in endowment investments. Students are not allowed to promote ideas or events without their first being approved by administrators. Ultimately, university governance structures are completely isolated from the students who provide the majority of their funds, in an oppressive way akin to “taxation without representation.”

The last goal of the university is to expose students not only to a wide range of ideas, but also to a diverse set of people who will foster community and deep relationships across society. In this, universities have had some success in the last half-century, acting to diversify their student bodies through active admissions programs. In the measures of diversity that are a bit more challenging and require sacrifice on the part of the university, such as changes to governance structures or the training of underrepresented peoples to improve faculties, it has been much slower to change. Another issue that hinders diversity on campuses is the social stratification that occurs between populations of students during their time at university. Discussions about these differences remain tightly controlled, and many members of marginalized communities feel unsafe or unappreciated at university because their political voices are sharply curtailed and policies do not accurately assess the issues important to them.

Ultimately, these failures of the American university arise from the hollowing out of its purpose to provide a public good, replaced by the idea that it is maintaining a consumer product. Rather than serving as a space to transmit knowledge and foster humanistic community, the university has become a place to create employees. In the process, the university has been forced to take on new forms, as corporate entity and autocratic state, to perpetuate itself and hide the increasingly transparent emptiness of its mission. The university will be able to regain its relevance in modern society only if it can grow the individual person and create an educated and humanistic citizenry.

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