Why go to college?

Why do young people go to college? In a short piece in Inside HigherEd this week entitled “A Not-So-Tidy Narrative,” Michael Horn and Bob Moesta share some of their findings, which were published this past fall in Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life (Jossey-Bass, 2019). The book explores the constellation (and complexity) of reasons that prospective students choose the college they do, and serves as a good reminder that it is about much more than “getting a job.”

Rather than relying upon surveys, which can be unreliable and overly simplistic, they tracked hundreds of young people as they went through their decision-making process. Their analysis reveals five major reasons, which are briefly mentioned in the Inside HigherEd piece but get a little bit more elaboration in this article in Forbes from last October.

A prospective college student is driven by the following types of reasons:

Help me get into my best school: the classic experience relying on traditional rankings;

Help me do what’s expected of me: fulfilling parent and teacher expectations (a terrible and often expensive reason to go to school);

Help me get away: a move away from an unpleasant situation, but not necessarily toward something positive;

Help me step it up: with anticipated events, a decision to be better; and 

Help me extend myself: the personal decision to invest in self-improvement.

From Tom Vander Ark’s “Don’t Go To College Without Being Clear Why You’re Going” (Forbes, 2019).

Aimed at high school seniors and their families, the book purports to help them navigate the confusing array of “rankings, metrics, analytics, college visits, and advice” (See the book’s website). In suggesting how to approach the decision-making process, the authors frame the situation as prospective students “hiring” an institution to complete certain “jobs” for them. Presumably, this follows Bob Moesta’s “jobs to be done” theorizing about customer motivation, and it’s a bit off-putting.

{Looking for more on this project? Click here for Tom Vander Ark’s interview with Michael Horn.}

But they also see the leadership at college and universities as their target audience. In the Inside HigherEd piece, they write:

Higher education institutions must help these students develop and deepen their understanding of who they are by supporting them in broadening their horizons, building passions and finding their current purpose. That sounds pretty close to what traditional colleges and universities have historically been offering and have viewed as their purpose.

Michael Horn and Bob Moesta, “A Not-So-Tidy Narrative” (January 2020).

Indeed, this does sound an awful lot like what goes on at NetVUE schools! Perhaps we should print a glossy bookmark that can be bundled with new copies of the book, directing prospective students toward our great colleges and universities (over 250 schools at this point).

{Click here for a map of NetVUE schools – from AdventHealth in Orlando, FL to Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.}

But we should also pay attention to the complexity of reasons why students arrive on our doorsteps every fall. Engaging them in conversation about why they are here could serve as a constructive first step in the much-longer trajectory of discerning their life’s calling.


Hannah Schell was a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Monmouth College in Illinois from 2001-2018. 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). Currently the Online Community Coordinator, she is also a campus consultant for NetVUE. 

Leave a Comment (moderated)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s