The Purpose of College: Widely Agreed Upon, Rarely Backed Up

The Purpose of College: Widely Agreed Upon, Rarely Backed Up

Join our guest blogger Mitchell Pauly for a serious topic with some hilarious twists: The Purpose of College.

“There is a time and place for everything…and it’s called college.” -Chef (South Park)

The purpose of college is to prepare students for life beyond college. It’s that simple. Although many students will implicitly agree (as evidenced by the fact that the number one reason given by college students for attending is to prepare for a career later in life), many are simultaneously sold on a college based on lavish campuses and recreational facilities, or worse: the social scene. Many students choose colleges like their parents choose vacation spots – to maximize their comfort and enjoyment. In other words, precisely the features that do nothing to prepare them for life beyond college.

Parents Can Be Just as Bad: Fuzzy Memories and Protectionism

Parents too will agree that the purpose of college is to prepare students for life beyond college. And like students, parents too are often swayed by pristine architecture and comfortable dorm facilities. Parents however carry with them two aspects that make them even more prone to hypocrisy: fuzzy memories and protectionism.

Fuzzy Memories

Salience is a cognitive process based on stimuli and not fact, and it inhibits our ability to use our memories to properly inform our present. In other words, salience is the over-reliance on our own experiences to predict the future. I call these fuzzy memories; they are to statistics what Pauly Shore is to acting. A parent’s recollection of college is often not a technically based one but rather one based on anecdotal experiences blended into an overarching opinion. This is exactly the same as a Toyota owner informing a friend to avoid the brand because their Corolla broke down shortly after purchase – even though this is a statistical rarity. Many parents use their fuzzy memories as key inputs in formulating their opinions on their child’s college choices and rare is it that these fuzzy memories are rooted in academic rigor (we tend to remember best positive experiences and suppress negative experiences). These fuzzy memories are often at odds with the true purpose of college.


Protectionism stems from a parent’s desire to protect their child from adverse circumstances (teasing, violence or general social discomfort). When parents tell me that their child has found the perfect school, many times it’s because they will “fit right in.” No parent wants to get a late night phone call from a child crying about how miserable they are at school. While this is understandable, developing the skills to adapt to various environments is essential in a modern-day workforce where workers change jobs an average of 11 times, or more times than Jennifer Lopez changes husbands. In essence, “fit” has little to do with helping student prepare for life post-college, and although a certain level of “fit” is important, if taken too far it can possibly be detrimental. Parental protectionism, while admirable, is often at odds with the true purpose of college.

Recognizing how little action backs up the implicit agreement most people have with the stated purpose of college is the first step towards evaluating various schools based on what matters. Colleges are in the business of attracting students; they understand that students are easily swayed by all non-academic offerings and that parents are often swayed based on their fuzzy memories and their natural paternal protectionism. If you know what they know and you’re aware of your own tendencies to be swayed by these sales tactics, you can act to resist them. The result will be a list of potential colleges based upon how well their students are prepared for life after college. After all, that is what you’re paying for.

Mitchell Pauly is a Financial Professional with experience working for Fortune 500 companies and small businesses. He enjoys investing and personal finance, comedy and sports. In his spare time he writes for various publications about personal finance, with a mind towards young adults and parents of young adults.

Photo Source

The Kids-and-Finances Guide for Parents | MomVesting's picture

The Kids-and-Finances Guide for Parents | MomVesting wrote:

Thu, 01/19/2012 - 21:45 Comment #: 1

[...] What is college good for? Here's an interesting take on the subject. [...]