Searching for Purpose in Higher Education

This week’s special edition of the Exponent is focused on asking and exploring one fundamental question: What is the purpose of higher education? More simply: Why are you here?

Higher education is, after all, the one thing that connects everyone on our campus. It is the one constant that unites administrators, students, faculty, staff and visitors by bringing them together on a campus dedicated to pursuing it in various ways since 1893.

However, if you were to ask every individual on campus why they are here, I’d imagine that you wouldn’t get two answers that are exactly the same.

They might have the same themes, of course. Some of us are here to get a degree; some are here to ski Bridger Bowl. Some are here as a career stepping stone; some are here for a regular paycheck. Some will be here only a short while; some will be here for decades. But the details of these stories, the parts that matter and make up individual experience, are not and cannot be the same.

While these distinctions seem small on an individual level, they represent bigger issues that surround us on this and on every campus. The purpose of college draws attention and speculation from the media, the public and politicians alike. In 1983 then-governor Ronald Reagan said that taxpayers shouldn’t be “subsidizing intellectual curiosity” at public universities. Similarly, President Obama drew criticism last year when he said that people in trade and skilled manufacturing might eventually end up making more than those “with an art history degree.”

In a world that puts more and more emphasis on college degrees and has a higher number of people achieving them than ever before, there is a remarkable lack of consensus about why people should be doing so. This edition aims to explore those divides.

There are many who believe the primary purpose of higher education is to prepare graduates for a job and the job market. Even locally, after all, MSU’s slogan before “mountains and minds” was “education for efficiency”(see pgs. 4-6).

But some fight back against that idea, saying higher education can be about the the love of learning, pursuing passions and becoming a better person. They say that higher education is meant to expose you to new people, ideas and concepts, and that value can’t be measured by just ultimate compensation and skills (see pgs. 10-11).

There is more to the story of higher education than just purpose, however. MSU students choose higher education in the face of massive student debt burdens (see pgs. 24-25). The university must focus on raising enrollment as well as addressing retention rates in order to secure funding, constantly evaluating what drives students to and from the institution (see pgs. 18-20). Faculty face growing student numbers and limited resources while navigating the complicated process of tenure (pgs. 13-15).

Between these ideas (and between feature stories in this edition) are profiles of MSU community members — faculty, students, alumni and graduates — each with their own story and interaction with higher education. Each has their own meaning and purpose to take away from their time at MSU, as do we all.

As for my own, I cannot say.

At MSU I have been twisted, challenged, and rewarded in ways I didn’t think possible. I can write papers, run a business, quote Shakespeare, ski a slope, and shotgun a beer, but not necessarily in that order.

All the plans I had coming into MSU have been shattered and distorted. When I started I thought I would graduate in three years, get a job in a big city and spend the rest of my life pursuing my dream job of working as a diplomat. Now, facing graduation without a job lined up or a concrete plan, I’m not sure where the next year will take me, let alone my entire career.

Surely not all has been for naught, though.

I would like to think I’ve become a bit better of a person for my time spent here, and am certainly more knowledgeable about many subjects. I feel prepared to face the job market and the “real world,” but I know there are many who would say I’ve wasted my time chasing ideas — political science and writing — which are largely unemployable passions. I’ve spent the past two years learning how to run a newspaper, and have been successful doing so, but acknowledge that it is a job that might not exist in five years, and certainly will look different if it does. I’ve developed mentorships, friendships and other meaningful relationships, but am prepared to walk away and leave MSU and Montana.

In the end, I’m not sure what I’ll be able to say I got out of my MSU education.

Maybe that isn’t a bad thing. Despite being on the verge of graduation, despite reading through the stories and features in this edition, I’m more confused about the purpose and place of higher education than I ever have been before. Yet I don’t think I’m alone in that. Maybe it’s only by constantly trying to define ourselves and our place that we as individuals (and MSU as an institution) can stay relevant and meaningful.

I understand that as individuals we need more than that from our degrees, however. People don’t spend thousands of dollars a semester for uncertainty and perceptual existential crises. But I think if they ever had a place, this is it. As we cross the stage on Saturday, or even just as another semester comes to a close, we have the opportunity to reflect in new ways. We have the ability to make our degree and time at MSU mean something.

Perhaps that’s all it takes. Perhaps the most basic desire of higher education is that the degree we earn is worth something. Whether it’s a job, distinction, or pride is up to the individual and their own circumstances, but we want to know our time at MSU has left a mark on us that matters now and will matter forever.

And maybe, just maybe, we’ve left our mark on MSU.