The Purposes of College

Josh Stephens
4 min readJul 26, 2023

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College applicants have many directions to choose from — but they’re not limited to just one.

Earlier this year, a student asked me what I think the purpose of college is.

That’s not a question I consider very often. I deal with college all the time. The whole point of my profession is to usher people into college (or, more specifically, selective four-year colleges) and, ideally, help them make the most of it. To me, justifying the purpose of college would be like a chef justifying the purpose of food.

And yet, it’s a totally reasonable question. Especially these days, a young person can spend four years doing almost anything: join the circus, invent an app, do #vanlife, fight climate change, wash dishes, found a multibillion-dollar social media empire. Stuff like that.

And yet, I’d wager that many applicants to selective colleges attend them largely, if not primarily, because it seems like the right thing to do.

Thinking about the purpose of college, and seeing it as a deliberate decision rather than a fait accomplit, can accomplish a lot. It can help students choose the right colleges, plan for the right courses of study, approach applications with confidence, and succeed once they’re in college.

My short answer is, it’s impossible to anticipate the value of college ex ante — or even while it’s in progress. We all spend our entire lives discovering the full value and purpose of our major life experiences, and high school and college are both, of course, major experiences. For some people, the purpose — or, at least, the benefits — of education are not realized until long after their formal education is over.

Whether an applicant has a purpose in mind or discovers it long after graduation, the purpose is sure to be different for everyone. Everyone approaches education with different goals and expectations. Ideally, those goals and expectations should evolve along the way. But, even so, everyone is entitled to their own experiences and to the ability to define their own purposes. These differences are part of what makes school, and life, so interesting and dynamic.

Generally, the purpose of college (and high school, for that matter) can include any of the following:

  • Satisfying intellectual interests and heeding raw curiosity
  • Preparing for a career
  • Learning how to navigate the world
  • Developing practical or professional skills
  • Gaining a specific body of knowledge
  • Making friends, developing social skills, and meeting romantic partners
  • Meeting potential career colleagues
  • Having fun
  • Developing general thinking skills
  • Developing tastes and preferences
  • Encountering new, unexpected ideas
  • Playing competitive sports
  • Developing a sense of citizenship or political convictions
  • Gaining independence
  • Reinventing oneself
  • Completing a rite of passage
  • Achieving social status
  • Developing physical health and athletic skills
  • Satisfying creative interests
  • Conducting research and contributing new knowledge to the world
  • Solving practical problems
  • Fulfilling family obligations
  • Avoiding family obligations
  • Developing personal values and attributes

The list is endless.

The great thing is, while everyone probably focuses on a different combination of the above goals — with different emphases — none of these goals is mutually exclusive. Someone can pursue literally all of these goals at the same time.

All of the above refers to an individual’s perspective. A related, but completely different question, would center on the purpose of college in society. That question would yield a whole other set of responses, touching on economic productivity, technological advancement, interpersonal and intercultural understanding, moral and cultural evolution, and plenty more.

Nobody is going to come up with a definitive answer to any of these questions. But, contemplating them — and asking other people for their answers — can help students choose colleges and majors, and make them stronger, more focused, more confident applicants.

Postscript: Other Types of Education

The preceding discussion refers most directly to four-year, selective colleges, on which I focus. Those colleges offer wonderful opportunities to their students. But, they are far from the only version of college that high school students might want to consider. More importantly, they are just one version of education that high school students might want to pursue.

The other options are numerous: community college, trade school, apprenticeships, internships, extension schools, entry-level jobs, personal projects, and entrepreneurial ventures — to name just a few. All of these options depend, in part, on a student’s purpose, context, background, personality, and skills.

Even for students who are determined to apply to selective four-years, the consideration of other options can help them clarify the reasons why they value a liberal education.

About Josh: Veteran educator Josh Stephens has advised students on college applications for over a decade. His students regularly gain admission to the most selective colleges in the United States. Admissions in the 2020 and 2021 application seasons include, for different students, Caltech, the University of Chicago, Stanford University, all campuses of the University of California, and Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and all five other colleges of the Ivy League.

For more insight into college application essays, please enjoy the following blogs.

College Essays and the Misuse of ‘Voice’

How College Applicants Can Go Beyond ‘Show Don’t Tell’

Ask, Memory: Interrogation and the College Essay

What Engineers Can Learn from Authors

To inquire about application essay guidance, please email josh@joshrstephens.net.

Image courtesy of Colin Zhu via Flikr.

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Josh Stephens

Josh Stephens is a veteran teacher and college counselor based in Los Angeles. Josh can be reached at josh@joshrstephens.net.