What Is the Purpose and Future of Higher Education?

What Is the Purpose and Future of Higher Education?

Education February 01, 2021 / By Dr. Jonathan Wai
What Is the Purpose and Future of Higher Education?

A sociologist explores the history and future of higher education.

A recent story asked, “Can small liberal arts colleges survive the next decade?” This question is important as we see the closure of some small schools, mostly in areas away from big cities. Yet, as University of California Riverside sociology and public policy distinguished professor Steven G. Brint notes based on his new book Two Cheers for Higher Education, “There’s always been a small number of colleges that close every year—usually fewer than a dozen—and more are opened for the first time than closed.” This illustrates, among other things, why it is important to consider a historical perspective on higher education to place recent individual news stories in context. That’s exactly what his latest book does: It explores the rich history of higher education, leading him to argue that overall higher education appears to be doing quite well, but also that there remain important concerns for higher education on the horizon.

I asked Steven questions about the purpose of higher education, why he argues higher education is doing quite well, and what his concerns are for its future. Anyone interested in the rich history of higher education and how that informs the future of higher education should read this book. Going to college or university is increasingly a fixture and perhaps even an obsession for parents and students, and understanding the history of that industry is useful to help us think about why we encourage students to go to college in the first place.

What, in your view, is the purpose of higher education?

The aims of higher education change over time. In the United States, the original purposes were to prepare students for a few “learned professions,” especially the clergy, and to provide a strong, religiously tinged moral education. Many of the activities that we now associate with higher education—extra-curricular clubs, majoring in a defined specialization, faculty research, access for socioeconomically disadvantaged students—came later.

Today, we would have to start by recognizing the fundamental fact that the purposes of higher education are highly differentiated by the stratum in the system institutions occupy. The aims of community colleges are very different from those of research universities. I do not talk about community colleges in the book, though I did write a book on community colleges early in my career. The great majority of the 3,000 or so four-year colleges and universities are primarily devoted to teaching students, mainly in occupational fields that in theory equip graduates to obtain jobs. Students will receive a smattering of general education in lower-division and will have opportunities to participate in extra-curricular activities. The latter are more important for many students than classroom studies. Students hone interpersonal skills on campus, make contacts that can be useful for instrumental purposes as well as ends in themselves. For those who finish, their diplomas do provide a boost in the labor market, more for quantitative fields than for other fields.

Research universities are of course the most complex environments and the range of their activities is difficult to catalog in a short answer. In addition to providing instruction in hundreds of programs, they run hundreds of student clubs and organizations, contribute to the selection of high achieving students for graduate degrees, train and mentor graduate and professional students, produce thousands or tens of thousands of research papers annually, reach out to industrial partners, field semi-professional athletic teams, solve community problems, run tertiary care hospitals, patent new discoveries and attempt to create environments conducive to learning for a very wide variety of students. One could say that these activities, taken together, constitute the enacted purposes of research universities.

However, when you look at their activities from the perspective of public policy, the focus will tend to be on three main purposes: (1) human capital development (in other words, improving the cognitive and non-cognitive skills of students), (2) basic research and research in the national interest, and (3) the provision of access for students from lower-income and under-represented minority backgrounds. Implicitly, Two Cheers for Higher Education focuses more on these primary aims of public policy than on some of the ancillary activities of universities. Of course, some of the activities that could be considered ancillary—such as student clubs and the patenting of new discoveries—are clearly related to these public policy aims. For that reason, I do also discuss them at some length in the book.

At a time when we see stories of colleges closing, why is it that you argue that higher education is doing quite well?

We do see some colleges closing and more colleges merging. There’s always been a small number of colleges that close every year—usually, fewer than a dozen—and more are opened for the first time than closed.
We do hear a lot of talk about mergers in recent years, and some of the regional public universities in rural areas are definitely struggling.
Where population is declining steadily, it becomes harder to make the case for the local college. But population is not declining in urban areas or in suburban areas around big cities. Here we see new colleges rising or existing colleges growing larger. Higher education is doing quite well in the parts of the country that are seeing growth in population and wealth. Sometimes higher education has been an important influence in attracting employers, new jobs, and new wealth. The state of Georgia is an interesting example. It now has the 10th largest economy of the 50 states, and the investments that state leaders and donors have made in Georgia Tech, Emory, the University of Georgia, and Georgia State University have played an important role in the state’s impressive development.

Though your book is largely positive about higher education, you note some concerns about the future of higher education. What are those?

According to public opinion surveys, the major concerns of Americans have to do with cost, the quality of undergraduate education, and liberal bias in the classroom. I address each of these issues in the book. One hopes that criminal justice reform may allow most of the 50 states to invest more heavily in higher education, reducing family’s burdens. I also advocate a universal, income-contingent loan repayment policy similar to the ones that already exist in England, Australia, and several other countries. My research has led me to agree with the critics that the quality of undergraduate education is too low for too many. I show in the book how the lessons of the sciences of learning can be embedded without much more than forethought in even large lecture classes. The evidence on liberal bias is mixed. Clearly, minorities remain subject to many discriminatory and wounding acts on college campuses. At the same time, where we find a liberal orthodoxy there’s a risk that assumptions and commitments will substitute for evidence and reasoning. We do need more spaces on campus where contemporary social and political issues can be discussed and debated.

I also discuss what academic and political leaders can do about the threat to the physical campus represented by online competition, by the tremendous growth of campus administrative staff (compared to the slow growth of faculty), and the deplorable increase in poorly-paid and sometimes poorly-prepared adjunct instructors.

I hope that the evidence and recommendations that I provide will stimulate new thinking and action in each of these areas of concern. The U.S. is fortunate to have the strongest system of higher education in the world, but many problems arose during the period I cover. It will be important to address these problems before they undermine public support for institutions that are now central to the country’s future well-being.


Brint, S. G. (2018). Two cheers for higher education: Why American universities are stronger than ever--and how to meet the challenges they face. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

This article first appeared on Psychology Today.

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