The purpose of higher education: Better citizens or better job prospects?

Movers & Makers asked the leaders of the largest local universities and colleges this fundamental question. Their thoughtful and nuanced responses are as diverse as one would expect from people, most with doctorates, whose journeys to leadership covered widely varied experiences. The answers offer insight into the state of higher education in our community and provide a glimpse at the institutions’ paths ahead.

Monica Posey, President, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College
Monica Posey

Monica Posey, President, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College

At Cincinnati State, the answer is both. Students come to Cincinnati State because they want to take the next step in their lives. Usually that is toward a well-paid job, and often, as well, toward additional higher education. 

We provide students with advanced technical skills in many disciplines, from health care to engineering to IT to business to culinary and many others. However, we live in a world of constant change. So equally important to us is empowering students in every discipline with a toolkit for lifelong learning. That includes helping them build skills in critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration and adaptability. We also provide an educational environment that values each individual while respecting differences and diversity. 

Over and over, employers say these are the skills they are looking for. They want employees who are future-oriented, who can adapt to new situations and who can work independently and in teams to find solutions. 

When it comes to creating better citizens, there are many ways to define what that means. Still, those same lifelong learning skills are essential to meaningful civic involvement – to be able to think critically when exposed to different opinions, to be interested in the future, to be willing to consider new ideas, to be able to collaborate with others toward a goal, and to respect the uniqueness and diversity of one’s fellow citizens.

Fernando Figueroa, President, Gateway Community & Technical College
Fernando Figueroa

Fernando Figueroa, President, Gateway Community & Technical College

For me, education, and especially what we call “higher education,” is an intensely personal journey. Regardless of how any educational experience is organized, the path is the same. We are asked to engage a challenge that exposes our limits and asks us to move beyond the uncertainty to a new level of understanding and awareness about our world and our abilities to act confidently in that world. 

After high school, our move into adulthood presses us even further. We must now engage “adulting” and do it with style and assertive thought and action. And, as life would have it, this transition creates the most turbulence in the first third of our lives. The questions that arise are usually daunting, and we find ourselves looking for mentors and practices to aid us in our ascent into the world of adult responsibility. A key evolution in this ascent is our discovery of our life’s work or career path. Notice, I did not say “job path.” For I do not believe we seek a job. We seek work that will uncover our talents and our awareness of the value we can bring to our communities, our families, and our lives. 

If what we call “higher education” is deserving of the term, it is when it provides the experiences and supportive environments where we can explore uncertainty, find our footing in that uncertainty and learn to become creative designers of our lives and communities. From my perspective, this growth in awareness of the value of our lives and gifts is what inspires us to be proactive stewards of community and guardrails of civility as we face up to the uncertain human future and its challenges to the human race as a whole.

Colleen Hanycz, President, Xavier University
Colleen Hanycz

Colleen Hanycz, President, Xavier University

This question creates a false dichotomy; the purpose – and promise – of higher education is both of these, and more. One of the core tenets of Xavier’s mission is “cura personalis,” a commitment to caring for the whole person. Done well, higher education should ensure the formation of students – intellectually, morally and spiritually – for lives of impact, purpose and success. 

Our graduates should be prepared as the next generation of leaders in their communities, their professions and their families. To achieve that, we need to create spaces that allow students to encounter new and challenging perspectives and ideas, prompting them to think critically about their own beliefs and values. Through this, we will form more engaged and informed citizens who are well-equipped to effect positive change within and across their communities. 

Surely, these are not the only purposes of higher education. As we navigate this period of extraordinary global volatility, institutions must press the boundaries of innovation and knowledge creation, always within a broader context of mission. At Xavier, we continue to evolve, forming our students to thrive amidst uncertainty as they discern a series of vocations – personal and professional – across their lifespans, always with an underlying commitment to justice and advancing the greater good.

H. James Williams, President, Mount St. Joseph University
H. James Williams

H. James Williams, President, Mount St. Joseph University

Higher education has multiple purposes and addresses multiple aspects of the human condition. It enhances lives on two fundamental levels: (1) it helps students develop the skills and knowledge that prepare them well for more and better employment opportunities; and (2) it prepares students to be more involved and engaged human beings, including helping them become better citizens and better persons. In short, higher education prepares students to be able to examine their environments and themselves in ways that position them to live more meaningful lives.

Ashish Vaidya, President, Northern Kentucky University
Ashish Vaidya (Photo: Gary Kessler)

Ashish Vaidya, President, Northern Kentucky University

The question is specific to what the institution is trying to do. And I will answer it now in the context of Northern Kentucky. We provide access and opportunity to an educational experience that will enable you not only to have a successful career but a meaningful life. Our expectation is that, once you get an NKU degree, you should be prepared for both those objectives and that you will be able to have a successful career. 

Now success varies in the minds of individuals. Some people will want success by “fame and fortune.” Others base it on the impact they have in the community. So, yes, we believe that a big role of higher education is to promote and sustain a thriving democracy. And you have that when you produce individuals that are able to think, that are able to critically analyze, that are able to discern truth from fiction. They are able to question. They are able to be part of a discussion that will provide better outcomes, better understanding, better policy for society as a whole.

Karen Schuster Webb, President, Union Institute  & University
Karen Schuster Webb

Karen Schuster Webb, President, Union Institute & University

The purpose of higher education is to create citizens that examine underlying assumptions, explore issues from multiple perspectives and to develop new ways of thinking through rigorous, relevant and results-oriented education that produce better citizens and citizens prepared for work. 

Madeline Iseli, Senior Vice President, advancement/regional  strategy, Sinclair Community College
Madeline Iseli

Madeline Iseli, Senior Vice President, advancement/regional strategy, Sinclair Community College

For generations of young people, “going to college” served as the developmental period for life exploration that would result in developing skills for a fulfilling career and self-realization. This is still true for many students who attend residential universities. 

For many community college students, however, “higher education” is more focused on skills development for quicker entry into in-demand jobs in fields such as IT, automation and robotics, and health care. Community colleges provide practical, skills-based applied learning – along with important grounding in communications and other topics – to develop well rounded, qualified, essential workers in manufacturing, health care and all of the region’s high-growth industries.

Joseph L. Chillo, President, Thomas More University
Joseph L. Chillo

Joseph L. Chillo, President, Thomas More University

We help students pursue the best version of themselves so they can give more to the world. Equipped with a sense of belonging, dynamic intellectual skills and a sense of purpose, our graduates are able to take their life and career as far as they want it to go. Our faculty and scholars invest significant time getting to know each student – encouraging, challenging and supporting them to develop their unique skills and talents. Our students are engaged in campus activities and academic research, leaving them well equipped to make an impact in the community. 

The tremendous support we have seen for our Second Century Campaign proves that Thomas More alumni and friends understand the value of the high-quality, Catholic liberal arts education that we offer. They know with certainty that current and future graduates of Thomas More will emerge as civic leaders and responsible stewards, well equipped to effect positive change in the community.

Neville G. Pinto, President, University of Cincinnati
Neville G. Pinto

Neville G. Pinto, President, University of Cincinnati

We believe that the next citizen leader, the next idea, the next discovery or the next creation that will mold the future of our society lives here on our campus today. And we as faculty and staff have a high responsibility to drive an agenda and instill a culture that nurtures this “Next,” so that it will flourish in the future and ensure our society’s continuing progress and well-being. 

As a public university, we have a special obligation to be truly inclusive – opening our doors wide and allowing more to be educated in the tradition of excellence at UC. Increasing our diversity strengthens the quality of the experience on our campus for all, and is a strategic focus that we must have to fully deliver on our mission.

By aligning programs and services to ensure readiness, create access and foster success, we can achieve educational transformation and positively impact the future of our university, our city and beyond.

We have created a supportive, connected pathway where students co-design their education plan with excellent advisors. It is a path along which they develop professional habits, gain valuable experiences and zero in on longer-term career goals. 

As the global founder of cooperative education – established 116 years ago – UC provides thousands of students valuable real-world education through co-op experiences where students alternate semesters on-the-job and in the classroom. We operate one of the nation’s largest co-op programs, consistently ranked in the top five nationwide. We continue to expand the co-op model to all students with the goal of providing experience-based learning opportunities to all students who desire them.

Greg Crawford, President, Miami University
Greg Crawford

Greg Crawford, President, Miami University

Creating better citizens and preparing citizens for work are inextricable from high education’s mission to serve students and society. Higher education has a vital role to create better citizens and empower them to elevate their community, region and beyond. First-year students, adult learners and professional students all benefit from the knowledge, connections and skills cultivated by a rich higher education experience in an inclusive and creative environment of learners and creators of knowledge. 

Higher education is the gateway to adulthood for the traditional student who attends college soon after high school. These are formative years for professional, emotional, and social growth and development. College life offers myriad opportunities to engage intelligent, curious, creative people from diverse backgrounds and identities, races, cultures, socioeconomics, religions and political views. These encounters may inspire them to question, confirm or amend their values, beliefs and understanding of themselves and their place in the world. In the process, support networks and new friendships develop that require accountability, self-awareness and emotional intelligence to maintain. 

Traditional students discover new passions and pathways previously unknown or unavailable and practice personal and social skills that can make them influential team members and citizens throughout life. Higher education offers nontraditional and professional students further clarity and discovery of who they are or desire to become. It builds upon their already-acquired skills and life experiences and opens broader perspectives, new pathways and the opportunity to make adjustments to previous life decisions. Earning a degree or additional degrees can also improve the socioeconomic status of these students and their families, potentially improving their overall quality of life and increasing their ability to serve others.

More from the August 2022 issue of Movers & Makers and our FOCUS ON: Higher Education:

Ashish Vaidya flips core education question: Is NKU student-ready?

Notables: 25 leaders in Greater Cincinnati higher education

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