Higher education continues to be hounded by a public insisting that our nation’s colleges and universities take the stand to give a compelling and cogent explanation as to why their services are not only worth the sticker price, but even all that relevant and necessary for success in the modern workplace. Such an expectation on the public’s part is reasonable, of course, and there remains a serious responsibility heaped on any institution of higher learning in being able to prove that their product leads to career success—or at least makes it substantially more likely. I’m quite familiar with this challenge as a Content Strategy Manager for a small Christian liberal arts university. Essentially, convincing prospective students (and their benefactor parents) to spend thousands of dollars on our educational offering constitutes the whole of my job.
A study put out by the global communications marketing firm Edelman titled “University Reputations and the Public” has played a significant role in our current marketing communication strategies. Most of the report doesn’t offer anything all that revelatory, simply reiterating what many in higher education are already well aware of: prospective students demand proof of real-world experience that results in tangible ROI (return on investment). However, what is interesting about the report is the apparent disconnect between those inside higher education, namely academics, and the general public. Academics, for instance, place significantly more weight on “academic prestige” or “reputation” than the public does. To academics, it seems an obvious implication that a school with a good reputation and all that entails—world-class facilities, stellar faculty, competitive peers, and impressive rankings—will wrest good job prospects for its graduates. Yet, the public isn’t as impressed anymore with world-renowned faculty and state-of-the-art facilities (which university today doesn’t boast of such things on its website?). What the public wants, according to the report, is near certainty of a good job that will pay back their college debt and then a hundredfold. The problem, therefore, is that universities and colleges are not doing a good enough job of clearly articulating the positive correlation of academic prestige and job opportunities. Edelman emphasizes the need for universities to make clear the correlation through shrewd marketing campaigns and strategic storytelling.
Although no one denies the importance and appeal of developing the reputation as a prestigious school, the process of classifying the “haves,” “kind of haves,” and “have nots” in terms of academic reputation has garnered controversy in recent years. Malcolm Gladwell has written about the inherent biases (ones that can never altogether be done away with) of our current college rankings, where variables are given seemingly random weight depending on subjective tastes and preferences. Of course, it would be dishonest and foolish to look at the top twenty-five schools in the nation and assume there is no difference between those and any other batch of twenty-five schools. These “prestigious” universities wield exceptional faculty, resources, and students, creating a fertile ground for intellectual stimulation and progress.
Still, what do we mean when we use terms like “prestige” and “academic reputation,” which, in our modern understanding, tend to leave dormant the deeper and metaphysical benefits of a liberal arts education? Edelman’s proposed solution may help increase applicant pools and tuition dollars, but is that enough? What of the immaterial, though deeply meaningful, benefits of higher education, and specifically Christian higher education?
Andrew Delbanco’s book “College: What It Was, Is, And Should Be” surveys with a critical but ultimately loving eye the current state of higher education. Though Delbanco, a humanities professor at Columbia University, acknowledges reasons for lament—the largely myopic view of higher education’s role in society and a culture of cheating, binge drinking, chronic anxiety and depression, and reckless sexual activity that can stem from high-pressured environments mixed with post-adolescent freedom—he remains hopeful. He writes that the prevailing answers to the major question facing higher education—what is college for?—devolve mostly toward the economic: providing people with an education is “good for the economic health of the nation,” and going to college is “good for the economic competitiveness of the individuals who constitute the nation.” Both of these answers assert productivity as the ultimate benefit: higher education is good for our country because we’ll be more equipped to meet the demands of an unknown and dynamic future, and because individual citizens will be able to contribute more fully to their area of human industry, thereby increasing their lifelong earning potential.
The economic reasons for sustained investment and protection of higher education surely warrant attention, but Delbanco reminds us to consider the initial role of the university or college campus: “an aid to reflection, a place and process whereby young people take stock of their talents and passions and begin to sort out their lives in a way that is true to themselves and responsible to others.” This nostalgic and noble opinion is reflected in a document released by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, “The Heart of the Matter,” which serves as a clarion call for liberal arts: “[Education is not based on] instruction in the specific jobs of today but in the developing of long-term qualities of mind: inquisitiveness, perceptiveness, the ability to put a received idea to a new purpose, and the ability to share and build ideas with a diverse world of others.”
These statements remain both realized and aspirant, but they welcome the Christian understanding of higher education. Though speaking specifically of Catholic institutions of higher learning, John Paul II wrote in the Apostolic Constitution for Catholic Universities of the importance of integrating “human and professional education with religious values in the light of Catholic doctrine, in order to unite intellectual learning with the religious dimension of life.” Thomas Merton voiced his own urgent opinion of higher education, writing that “the function of a university is, then, first of all, to help the student discover himself: to recognize himself, and to identify who it is that chooses.” To Merton, the university is a critical means of grace: “[It should] help men and women save their souls and, in so doing, to save their society: from what? From the hell of meaninglessness, of obsession, of complex artifice, of systematic lying, of criminal evasions and neglects, of self-destructive futilities.”
Let’s not forget the founders of Harvard, the beaming acme of academia, had a similar understanding of higher education’s role, believing that their institution was to “advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity,” in order to avoid leaving an “illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.”
These declarations regarding the role and nature of institutions of higher learning—places committed to fostering the spiritual and moral health of its students—marks the substantial distinction between secular and Christian institutions. In our nation’s premier secular universities, many students are graduating without an expanded sense of moral responsibility and self-awareness. David Brooks, the well-known political and cultural commentator for The New York Times, opens up about the current state of many of our students from our country’s best universities in an interview from Moment Magazine titled “The Evolution of David Brooks.” In the interview, he mentions the hunger he witnesses within the college-educated youth of our nation. He feels that by inculcating students to assume a posture of non-commitment—one emptied of any moral convictions—schools are undermining the moral fabric of its students: “Universities and a lot of institutions became very amoral because they didn’t know what to say….That’s led to a belief that everyone should come up with their own values and no one should judge each other. That destroys moral conversation and becomes just a question of feelings.”
G.K. Chesterton said that the “object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” If colleges and universities are effectively prying open the mouths of millions of our students, which it seems they are, then it’s also their responsibility to help them bite back down on something solid and transformative by the time they graduate.
On a personal level, I resonate with Brooks’ assessment. I went to UCLA, a massive public school redolent of a small city. And while the resources are certainly there for those who know how to take advantage of them, I was far too immature and undisciplined to do so. As far as I knew, college allowed me to fill space on a resume and tuck away memories of fatuous revelry and sophomoric fun. Sadly, no one—including myself—directed this critical question at me: How are you going to live a meaningful life based on what you now know about the world? It’s a question that requires not only that we make a choice, but also realize it’s ours to make. In my case, by doing a serious and honest inventory of my talents, skills, shortcomings, and limitations with the help of mentors, professors, and peers, I would hopefully have been able to at least venture an answer that would unfurl over the course of my life. I take responsibility for my own decisions (or lack thereof) during my undergraduate experience—one that proved a mixture of meaningful development and missed opportunities. But now that I work at a university on the other end of the spectrum—a small, Christian private school with its own inimitable shortcomings—I’ve learned to appreciate the distinct advantage of a school that takes seriously the mission of forming students academically, professionally, emotionally, and yes, even spiritually. Unsurprisingly, the moral and spiritual aspect of a well-rounded education just isn’t being addressed in many of our schools today.
That’s why if we merely connect “academic prestige” with career opportunities, as the Edelman report and many like it propose, we are only addressing a problem of demand. Universities and colleges certainly need to make a case for their product—no matter how noble or esteemed—and ensure their graduates are continuing on toward meaningful careers that contribute to the wellbeing of their lives, families, and society at large. But much more is needed, something that all institutions once resolutely understood, but now only Christian and Catholic schools do. Delbanco admits that despite the flaws of the Christian universities of old, they at least “tried to honor their cardinal belief that God in his omnipresence, not man in his presumption, determines the fate of every human being.” These institutions understood that God wills to use such places to make manifest his love and saving grace.
This is why Christian and Catholic colleges and universities specifically still matter for reasons beyond high salaries and alumni networks. They matter because, at their very best, they are vehicles of grace that form, sustain, and save human souls. This is the type of “prestige” that a Christian liberal arts education should embrace and promote: the integration of faith and reason, the metaphysical and material, for the good of the human mind and soul. To simply cater to the demands of the general public—a public influenced by an increasing secularism that continues to shade the very values a liberal arts education fosters and promotes—would be to fail both the public and those in higher education charged with serving them. The answer to the public’s question, “What is college for?” cannot only result in more alumni stories and higher graduate school acceptance rates, but also in the asking of another more relevant and critical question: How are we going to live meaningful lives based on what we now know about the world?