The importance of what we care about

Prospective students and their families have a lot of factors to consider when looking at colleges. Campus facilities, program offerings, financial aid packages, location, and that amorphous element referred to as “fit” — these are often what drive decision-making when it comes to the college search.

It’s an important decision, indeed it’s a crucial moment in one’s much larger vocational journey. And it’s a decision that is made under the specter of a kind of skepticism about whether the price-tag is even worth it. “What is the value of a college education these days, anyway?”

In a recent piece in the Washington Post, Jim Troha, the President of Juniata College in Pennsylvania, advised students and families to consider value in an altogether different way, by asking, instead, what are the values of a particular college?

Troha argues that they need to think about

value in terms of ideas, aspirations, the kind of person you want to become, the kind of experiences and environments that will bring out the best in you. The kind of place where you will be surprised by uncovering your potential. That is neither a financial argument nor a (direct) results argument.

He goes on to suggest how this way of thinking is likely to prompt better questions during campus visits, as prospective students and their family members try to sort out what distinguishes one school from another.

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The “garden crew” of Monmouth College, as featured recently on the college’s webpage

Troha’s reflections got me thinking about the values of the colleges with which I have been connected, either as a student or as a professor. Some of those institutions have prized creativity and independent thinking while others have tended to encourage cooperation, or still others “well-rounded” studies. Some schools have pretty distinct personalities, and tend to attract like-minded souls (one only has to survey the flyers on the notice boards around campus!). With others, it can be a little more difficult to figure out what they are about and whether it is the “right place.”

Educational institutions form us into certain kinds of people, in many different and subtle ways. We talk a lot (well, maybe not enough!) about mission, and, as David Cunningham reminded us in his essay in Vocation Across the Academy, colleges have callings, too. But it would be worthwhile, I think, to have a spirited conversation about what kinds of human beings we form through our educational and co-educational programs and campus cultures. What kinds of people are we producing? What kinds of people do we want to be producing? That’s a conversation that needs to take place and should take place apart from considerations of “niche markets” and how we advertise ourselves. In the absence of outside consultants or deadlines for a new pamphlet, such a conversation could actually be a fun exercise, one that could go a long way towards helping a campus community ascertain its own values. And, in so doing, we would be more likely to do a better job of communicating that set of values to prospective students.

Hannah Schell is a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois. She is the author of “Commitment and Community: The Virtue of Loyalty and Vocational Discernment” in At this Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2015). 

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