There are three major ways to think about the traditional purpose of university education: (1) preparation for skilled employment; (2) preparation to contribute to fundamental research; and (3) formation of character and capacity for participation in public life. In short, historically the university’s mission could be stated as follows: Prepare individuals for fulfilling and sustaining employment while forming and informing their capacity for ethical, contributing participation in society. Currently, the university as an institution is at the center of major cultural changes that affect its capacity to serve each of these functions.
The university as a crucible for vocational preparation is being pulled in opposite directions. On the one hand, certain skilled professions demand highly specific, disciplinary training. As technology advances at lightning speed, much of this disciplinary training requires familiarity with the latest advances in technologies being developed mostly by the private sector. However, the university’s tenure system rewards slow research conducted over the course of decades of academic professional life. This means that by the time an individual is in an instructional role within the university, they may be years behind relevant developments in their field. The proliferation of independent “boot camps” designed to teach immediately employable technology skills is a testimony to where the structure of university pedagogy may have trouble keeping up.
On the other hand, those students who train in subjects that are not tailored toward specific professions upon graduation – frequently subjects focusing upon preparation for social and civic life – often find themselves with lifelong, burdensome debt only to discover that their most likely professional options offer annual compensation that makes debt servicing their primary monthly expense. With few exceptions, decades of financial struggle lie ahead, with some individuals never discharging their student debt.
Finally, those students who train at university to perform fundamental research find themselves competing for a small number of research positions either within universities themselves or within public and private sectors. The scarcity of these positions means that they are reserved as top prizes for individuals who, in addition to being highly skilled, must also be very lucky.
These realities indicate three things about the direction of cultural change:
1) Market requirements for skilled jobs are evolving at an ever-accelerating pace as technology becomes an integral part of most professions. 96 Pedagogies designed to prepare people for direct employment are hyper-specialized and quickly become obsolete.
2) Preparing individuals for responsible citizenship has no direct connection with their future employability or income, but is often priced as though it does.
3) As the number of individuals who achieve a college education has grown dramatically in recent decades, so has the amount of research and the competition for increasingly scarce research positions.
At the same time, as college education has become a standard rite of passage for the middle and upper classes, employers increasingly use the prestige of the university an applicant has attended as an index of skill. For this reason, universities in the top 100 of global rankings have seen demand spike for Millennials and Generation Z, while many universities that are not in the top 100 have been seeing enrollment declines since 1990. However, because the prestige index is vague and unreliable, employers also increasingly complain that universities aren’t graduating students who are prepared to do the jobs for which they are hired.
What we are seeing is a marketplace confused about what value the university offers. In response, universities often try to be all things to all people: a forum for fundamental research; a prestigious club; a training boot camp for specific professions; and the crucible of character formation. There is ample historical precedent for this. The university derives its name from the Latin “Universitas”, which meant both “the whole” and “a guild.” The purpose of the university was to ensure that society’s leaders were thinkers with a basic grasp of ethics, not merely warlords and prestige-mongers. But while some of these purposes can be clearly tied to the exigencies of the job market, others are more diffuse and have little to do with market outcomes.
Two trends are emerging in light of this. On the one hand, some politicians are calling for universities to in effect become job factories, advocating or announcing funding cuts to disciplines like philosophy, sociology, and other humanities and social sciences. On the other hand, some contend that this would destroy the university, whose essential purpose is character formation and the production of thinking citizens. In the coming decades, we could see a splintering in the function of universities, with some taking the former route and others the latter. If that happens, the character-formation mission of the university risks again becoming the privilege of the elite, who can afford to pursue educational outcomes not tied to direct employment outcomes.
“We have a decision to make as a civilization. Will we underwrite basic preparation for thinking and ethical life – for all classes – as a benefit of citizenship and social personhood?”
If we choose to engage in this project of generational uplift, it will necessitate rethinking how higher education is funded in the United States. If we choose not to go this route, however, we will end up creating a society in which most are funneled into vocational life without the tools to think critically about their circumstances and imagine social and political alternatives. It is this purpose of the university – being a seedbed of new ideas and alternative futures – which is both the most controversial and arguably the most important. Whether and how we choose to keep this purpose alive will determine the character of who we become as a society.
Natalie Smolenski is an anthropologist who leads business development for Learning Machine, a blockchain technology firm. As an author and public speaker, she focuses on the intersections of identity, technology, and government. By bringing a scientific perspective to distributed digital technologies and social transformation, she helps audiences from all backgrounds understand how individuals connect to form communities and build the infrastructures of the future.