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The Purpose of Higher Education: What Is It?

Malek 10.2023
Before being able to successfully help learners find and articulate their purpose, institutions of higher education must find and articulate their own. 

Many of us are familiar with Simon Sinek and his “Start with Why” concept, which emphasizes that the why or purpose is the driving force behind everything we do. I’ve been captivated by this concept since I first encountered it in his original TED talk, particularly by how it relates to higher education. Why aren’t we structuring our curricula to help students discover their why in their first semester or year? Doing so could lead to increased recruitment, retention and loyalty, which in turn fosters positive word-of-mouth, trust, improved graduation rates and greater motivation among learners. Often overlooked, it’s important to specify that this concept applies not only to learners but also to faculty, staff and administrators.

As an 18-year-old pushed by my parents to go to college, I applied to those nearby that offered loans or scholarships. My perception of college was simple: It was the pathway to a great career and financial stability. The only problem was that I had no idea what I wanted to do or who I really was as an individual human. Perhaps it was just my generation, but I was unaware that different colleges had distinct missions; some focused on critical thinking, others on specific career preparation, some on trade education and some on dual missions. These concepts were not even on my radar as a high school student.

It’s admittedly challenging to say publicly, but it took me more than five years of working in higher education as a full-time employee to realize that higher education institutions have multiple missions. By that time, I had successfully attended four higher education institutions—two for my undergraduate studies and two others for my master’s and PhD. It wasn’t until I got off the coasts and into the Midwest that I had even heard of the concept of a land-grant institution or what that meant.

Missions and visions are often established by the founders, the board and tweaked by future executives; they are supposed to serve as an organization’s North. Any change management professional will tell you that equally important is identifying the starting point, where you are now, to reach that mission. Often overlooked but absolutely critical is establishing a shared foundation of values and purpose. My expertise lies in experience design, specifically in behavior and mindset change. I always start by asking, “What’s the purpose of this?” then immediately adding, “Where is each of these individuals at currently in their mentality?” Over the past year, I had the opportunity to investigate this very issue and the findings were fascinating.

Most faculty and staff struggled to articulate their own purpose. And when asked about the purpose of higher education in general, their perceptions varied widely. How can we usher in meaningful institutional change when everyone is advancing in diverse directions, compounded by a general lack of individual clarity regarding where their roles fit into the broader picture they envision? Even within the same departments, there were disagreements from philosophy to logistics. Some believed the purpose of higher education is skill-focused workforce development, some view it as an incubator for self-exploration and others see it primarily as a credentialing entity. Opinions diverged on enrollment policies, with some favoring stricter admissions criteria and specialization, while others advocated for open access. Opinions on cost varied as well, ranging from advocating for free education to supporting higher costs. While none of these perspectives are inherently right or wrong, the discrepancies among individuals within the same units and institutions create challenges when trying to institute meaningful change.

When presented with the statement, “In 2030, it would be absolutely ridiculous if higher education ________,” the responses were eye-opening. Take a moment to think about how you would complete that sentence. One response that stood out to me was: “In 2030, it would be absolutely ridiculous if higher education was still an elitist, residential, credit-hour-based, inflexible system solely focused on workforce credentialing.” What’s more intriguing is how faculty and staff responses differed significantly from those of current learners. When compared side by side, it becomes evident why there might be retention issues.

Institutions of higher education are facing scrutiny regarding their value, public trust, significant funding cuts and the challenge of doing more with less. In many ways, we’ve become our own form of triage. It’s challenging to plan for future health and wellness when you’re dealing with open wounds and bleeding out. When budgets run dry and you can no longer afford treatments and visits, the solution becomes amputation—first a finger, then a toe and so on until you can no longer walk. Eventually, you can’t even crawl on your own.

If higher education aims to help learners, at whatever age, discover their purpose and design pathways to achieve it, institutions must first find their own purpose and assist their employees in doing the same.


Check out Kristin's recent podcast episode of Illumination by Modern Campus