The recent college admissions scandal that erupted in the news has many people thinking about the true purpose of college.
What is the purpose of college? Of course, we all think of college as an important step in education. It’s part of the learning process, and it sets students up for success later in life.
But for some, it’s not just about the college experience; it’s about bragging rights. What’s the purpose of a college education? Is it about the prestige of getting a liberal arts degree from a big-name school, like some celebrity parents were willing to pay so dearly to obtain?
Or is the point of college to gain experience and education? If that’s the case, then is a state school as good as an elite university? What about a trade school? Is a college education really as critical as we may think?
If we analyze the recent college admissions scandal, where celebrity parents got in legal hot water overpaying to get their kids into elite schools, it becomes truly absurd. These parents were lying, paying tons of money, and doing all kinds of questionable tricks, telling themselves it was all for their children’s future in higher education. It cost many of them their jobs, fines, and a great deal of public embarrassment.
The recent scandals weren’t the only case of college admissions scams, either. It was only the latest, featuring high-profile celebrities that caught peoples’ attention. Many well-to-do parents have been buying their kids’ way into college, using their power and privilege to ensure access to higher education and guarantee a liberal arts degree.
But we can learn a lot by looking at the parents’ motives. Were the actions of these celebrity parents simply based on a desire to “help” their children? Is an elite or Ivy League college the real answer to a good life? And does it make such a difference that it’s worth lying, cheating, and bribing to secure a spot? Is that teaching kids any life lesson, preparing students for a career, or giving them skills and knowledge to achieve success in life?
It really comes down to a mistaken view of prestige versus what constitutes a truly remarkable life full of purpose. These parents were deluding themselves into believing that cheating their way into a special spot in line would give their kids a leg up in their future. Whereas, truly, it was doing precisely the opposite and sending their kids a dangerous message that they could cheat or buy their way into an authentic college experience.
One of the kids had even posted a video online saying she didn’t care about getting an education at all. She wanted to party. What benefit were her parents’ dishonest actions to her? Her parents seemed to want to help her get in because they wanted to hand over anything she demanded, including college admission.
Where is the more important lesson in all of college admission scandal business?
The truth is, we all assign a certain value to a Harvard education or a Ph.D. from Columbia. How many of us brag or boast about our friends who attended an elite school? How many of us look at where someone received their higher education? When we go into a business meeting, how many of us cite that education as proof of their expertise?
The chances are high that these parents wanted to secure a spot for their children at an elite school because they believed it would set their kids up for later success in life. They hoped they were putting their kids on a path toward the future they wanted. But buying their way into school does the opposite. Instead of setting them up for success, they took away their ability to adapt, learn, grow, and build grit.
What is grit? As researcher and psychologist Angela Duckworth explains in her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, it’s not talent, luck, or simply “wanting something bad enough.” Grit is having a goal that brings us meaning and working towards that goal, even when it’s slow or painful. Grit is being resilient and learning to get back up when you make a mistake, and for many kids, that skill is built during the college experience.
So, what is the purpose or the point of college anyway? If it’s to build experience or gain skills and knowledge, why do we all value elite degrees?
It’s not simply about fast-tracking your way to a career, learning a marketable skill, or even earning a great liberal arts degree. College is about gaining valuable life experience and building connections. It’s about learning how to learn—which is the most critical component of the college experience.
Establishing the skills to learn is one of the many reasons why liberal education matters so much. Students need to know history to understand where they fit within the thread of humankind. They need science. They need math, so they understand quantum mechanics and emerging physics. They need sociology, so they understand the movements happening in the world. They need psychology, so they begin to understand themselves and each other. Then they can dig deeper into the subjects that interest them, with dedicated professors to challenge and guide them further along the path.
It’s important we’re all learning throughout our lives. College is a meaningful way to build up our love of learning and teach young adults how to learn. It opens their eyes to the bigger picture and gives them many options to explore.
Does this mean college is the only path for learning and understanding? No, of course not. But it’s certainly a direct path that opens a world of possibilities.
We worked with a gentleman who invested in financial corporations, turning around institutions and flipping them for a lot of money. Eventually, he reached a stuck point in his career. He’d stopped pulling the trigger on sales. He was going into his fourth marriage. His kids weren’t speaking to him even though he’d given them everything money could provide. The time had come for him to do some self-examination.
During our work, he had a significant turnaround. He realized money and prestige were traps—a big distortion of the American dream. Many people want to live the American dream, but the reality is, it looks different for each of us. It doesn’t mean having the most money, a big house, or a fancy car. The true American dream is living a life of purpose and fulfillment.
We’re entering a time where kids are earning much more than their parents ever did. We have the opportunity to personalize our education and higher learning, choosing what we want to learn and from whom we want to learn it. The downside of this is many of us avoid encountering diverse attitudes or life lessons because it may upset our view. We prefer to exist in an echo chamber, but that’s not conducive to pushing ourselves toward new points of view and new lessons.
Living a great life doesn’t begin by getting into a top school or an expensive college. Living a great life is about understanding and following your yearnings. It’s about living a life of new explorations and assignments each day. It’s about taking on new endeavors and continuing to grow.
Education isn’t about getting our diploma. It’s not about following a formula or even completing a goal. Our education isn’t something prescribed. It’s a continuous journey we should follow throughout our lives every day. In many ways, the purpose of college is the experience.
The parents in the college admissions scandal didn’t realize that prestige isn’t what will make life great for their kids. Prestige has nothing to do with what really matters. Prestige isn’t the real point of a college education.
Yes, there are advantages to attending an elite school, but in many ways, the benefits are simply based on the fact these institutions are built for learning (and they’re well-funded to do so). When students attend, they’re encompassed in a total learning environment, which helps them learn how to become better students. But an elite college or ivy league school isn’t the only way to get that experience, and in many ways, it may be easier to get when it’s not as easily attained.
There are many schools out there. The essential part of education is having quality teachers and professors who are dedicated. It’s also important to be surrounded by bright, interested, and engaged peers who continue to push students to keep learning and exploring. The additional networking and community that comes as a college alumnus or alumna are valuable and nice, but it’s not the complete answer.
When people come out of an elite (or any) school, it doesn’t mean they’re imbued with creativity, originality, or an ability to interact with others. The quality of a person is much more important than prestige, wealth, or an elite education.
Students who haven’t faced adversity and struggle on their path to receiving an education may be ill-prepared to deal with the challenges of life once they emerge from the school doors and enter the real world. Growth is built from experience and, yes, even struggle. By eliminating the challenges from their kids’ paths to admission, these celebrity parents robbed them of the real purpose of college: an opportunity to grow.
For more on learning and growing throughout your life, please explore our courses on WrightNow. We offer many exciting ways to help you open new doors to a life filled with your greatest potential.
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The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Living performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.