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The Dialogue


Is the purpose of college to make students employable?


as college instructors, our mission is to increase our students’ life opportunities.

Karen Baehler
First of all, the question of whether to attend college is not the issue. Rephrased, the question is: What effect will gaining a college education have on a student’s employability?

We have all seen the data on the breakdown of degrees obtained and the salaries that are expected.  I would like to put a different spin on this subject and share the statistics concerning unemployment rates. These statistics paint a clear picture of the value of a college education.

Students 25 years and older without a high school diploma have a 15.6 percent unemployment rate.  If the student received a high school diploma, the rate drops to 9.7 percent. A student with some college would be looking at an unemployment rate of 9.2 percent. The unemployment rate for those who complete an associate’s degree is 7.3 percent. When the student completes a bachelor’s degree and additional graduate courses, the magic number is 4.7 percent. (All data has been taken from the August 2009 Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

As an educator for 25 years and a mother of two daughters, my mission is to ensure that my students and my daughters are prepared for the world beyond school. The free ride eventually ends. Being ready for life means getting a good solid education whether it is at a trade school, community college, or university. 

Solving life’s puzzles requires understanding that goes beyond employment skills. Dr. Dan Bernstein, Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Kansas, said it best: “Preparing students for employment is a purpose of a college
education but not the purpose.”

Karen Baehler is an economics instructor at Hutchinson Community College in Hutchinson, Kansas, currently on sabbatical pursuing her Ph.D in education at the University of Kansas. She has spent 15 years serving as a middle and high school history teacher in Kansas.


higher education must have more of a purpose than  making students employable.

Daniel Rieger
Perhaps this question is subject to a variety of interpretations. But I interpret this question to be: Is the primary function of higher education to prepare higher education students for the workforce?  

Granting this interpretation and acknowledging higher education’s instrumental worth—as preparation both for work and for leisure—I will argue that the answer to the question at hand is “no.”

Making workforce preparation the primary mission of higher education perpetuates a persistent attitude among a significant percentage of students and many policy makers that higher education has value because it can prepare students for the workforce. This attitude seems particularly evident during times of job shortages, and reflects a view of life that reduces higher education to a mere means to earning a living, if not to self-indulgent affluence and the  pursuit of wealth, power, or mastery over others.

This is contrary to what I consider higher education’s primary vocation, namely, to educate the whole person. By nature, human persons possess capacities suited not just for work, but also for inquiry, discovery, reflection, understanding, integration, constructive criticism, and creative expression. 

Since we possess these capacities for a lifetime, the primary purpose of higher education must be to provide a foundation for educating the whole person; it must be geared to develop as fully as possible the whole of a student’s human potential. Developing workforce skills does not necessarily entail fostering inquiry, reflection, understanding, integration, or creative expression. Consequently, higher education must have more of a purpose than simply making students employable.

Daniel Rieger, professor of philosophy and religion at Broward College (Florida), is an NEA Higher Education Emerging Leaders Academy graduate. He now serves as first vice-president of the United Faculty of Florida (UFF) and chief negotiator for the UFF chapter at Broward College.


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