In 2009, Simon Sinek ushered in a new wave of thought. He asked us to start with why.
In his now famous video (1:30-4:45), Sinek outlines that most organizations position themselves to their audience by explaining “what” they do, then they might talk about “how” they do it, and sometimes “why” they do it gets addressed last, if at all.
He notes, however, the most memorable organizations and leaders actually “start with why.” What does this mean exactly? Sinek goes on to explain, “By why, I mean what’s your purpose, what’s your cause, what’s your belief? Why does your organization exist?”
Today, higher education is being asked this question more than ever before. Furthermore, those in higher education are being reflective of their industry, are willing to challenge the status quo, and are looking for ways to adapt to the new needs of both an evolving workforce and a new generation of students.
The “why” behind getting an education is something that higher education institutions must continue to consider as they orient themselves to serve today’s students. One possible “why” of higher education is preparation. Specifically, the purpose of higher education is to prepare students for learning, life, and career. Let’s look at these three ideas in more depth.
Preparation for Learning
Higher education seeks not only to provide knowledge, but to also teach students how to learn. Post K-12 education is a new territory that challenges students to learn new concepts in the classroom and strengthen critical thinking skills. These critical thinking skills include analysis, communication, creativity, problem-solving, and open-mindedness. The experience of being exposed to new ways of thinking exercises a student’s ability to approach learning as a lifelong habit. Another way to put it, according to Andrés Fortino, Partner at Paradigm Research International, is that the purpose of higher education is to create a prepared mind.
Education creates an opportunity for holistic, overall development of a person. Indeed, when maximized for what it offers, time on a university campus earning a degree can be a whole-being experience. The mind and the spirit undergo a transformation that prepares students for success. This is why family and friends beam with pride on college graduation day— not just for the degree earned, but for everything a student has learned about themself, others, and the world around them, and for who they have become. In his piece “What is the Purpose and Future of Higher Education?” sociologist Jonathan Wai Ph.D. refers to this as “human capital development (in other words, improving the cognitive and non-cognitive skills of students).”
Lastly, education prepares students for learning through experiences and conversations, not just grades. The limitation of grades alone is that they can be transactional— a student learns in order to perform and then moves on once a grade is received. However, one’s preparation to learn in life comes also in an ability to engage in reflection, debrief in discussion, and receive feedback, which should be emphasized in relation to grades according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Preparation for Life
Much in the public conversation right now is about the value of higher education in preparing students for life. While Generation Z is career-focused earlier in college and values that which is practical to those goals, experiences like getting along with a roommate, meeting new people from all walks of life, trying new things, or being involved on campus can all serve to help students prepare for “the real world” as they prepare for their future career.
There is also more emphasis in higher education on the development of soft skills and the value of emotional intelligence. Institutions have focused on developing co-curricular engagement and opportunities to show students how soft skills connect to their learning and to show employers they are preparing students for success. Take, for example, Mason Core: Engagement Series (ENCORE) from George Mason University, which is focused on creating meaning of the institution’s core educational offerings, connections to the university community, and the development of marketable skills desired by employers. Program completion earns a student a Mason Core completion certificate as well as recognition on an academic transcript and at graduation.
For the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AACU), Bethany Zecher Sutton shares that there is a “liberation” in thinking about how college can prepare students for their careers as well as their lives. She invites a focus beyond receiving a degree and getting a job to also include a focus “on the more humane and capacious goals of a better life, better communities, and a better society.” Speaking to soft skills and the co-curricular, she believes part of the “why” behind education is “connecting students with real-world problems and getting them engaged in creative and collaborative problem-solving.”
Preparation for Career
Naturally, a universal belief about the “why” of higher education is to prepare students for a career. Choosing an academic major and pursuing that knowledge through coursework, internships, research, and other academic involvement is the crux of education for many, especially Generation Z. Speaking on this topic in Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, Dr. Dhanfu E. Elston notes that career information and support are crucial to this process, especially for low-income, first-generation or underrepresented students, because it helps create an “intersection of their interests, academic major and career goals.”
This renewed focus on career preparation challenges institutions to show how everything they offer ties into the ability to obtain a job and have a successful career. For example, there is an increased commitment to career services taking place. Illinois universities have implemented a “multi-year strategy” that begins in a student’s freshman year to connect them to career services and the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities’ College of Liberal Arts doubled their career services staff. NACE, a guidepost for institutions, also leads the way by defining career readiness and identifying key competencies. These tools give colleges and universities a framework around which to create their programs and measure outcomes.
Perhaps the best summary regarding preparation being the “why” behind education are the thoughts shared by Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University. In “What’s the purpose of college: A job or an education?” by Jeff Selingo for The Washington Post, Roth argues that “it doesn’t matter what you take in college, it matters what you do. You should be able to show your teachers, and then anyone else, how what you’ve made in a class, what you created, demonstrates your capacity to do other things and what you’re going to do next.”
Institutions must expand their utilization of peer-led support programs in their strategy to prepare students for learning, for life, and for career. Peer helpers are free from the curse of knowledge, so they can easily lead peers to success based on their recent experiences.
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