Zach’s Blog

How College Kills Purpose, and How to Get It Back

Indecisive liberal arts majors may be our future’s best hope.

(Okay, I was one of those so maybe I am a bit biased.)

But I can still hear the job-obsessed parents of eager, prospective college students choking on their morning coffee and feel the Engineering majors snickering.

After a decade working in public higher education on the very front line, I am here to report back: This new “job factory” role American universities have awkwardly stuffed themselves into may be killing the modern college student’s spirit and search for meaning – and employers should be ready for the upcoming workforce’s meaning deficit (and the potentially high turnover it may cause).

In an attempt to respond to knee-jerk, recession-induced societal cynicism of the cost of higher education, colleges have contorted themselves to become measured less by the thinking, global citizens they produce, but by the 4-year graduation rates, job placement statistics, and average starting salaries they can advertise in admissions brochures.

When you live by statistics, you are defined by them, and the new definition of colleges and universities as job preparatory schools may be at the expense of nurturing the quintessential, uniting trait of our species – the search for meaning.

Colleges need to cultivate the search for meaning and the search for jobs

The human search for meaning doesn’t flux with economic conditions or arbitrary government college rating systems and researchers have repeatedly found that people live for more than a 9-to-5 cubicle job with a paycheck.

Parents, you can swallow your coffee now.

Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, referenced an early 1900’s Johns Hopkins University study that asked 7,948 students at 48 different colleges around the world what they considered “very important to them” when considering a career.

Just 16% of respondents indicated that “making a lot of money” was important whereas 78% of respondents said that “finding purpose and meaning in life” was most important.

Fast-forward to 2001. In a similar study, researchers asked over 10,000 recent college graduates in the workforce to indicate what was critical in a “good” job. Respondents said that “interesting work,” a “sense of accomplishment,” and “adding something to people’s lives” were far more important than “pay” and “job security.”

And, as recently as 2012, psychologists Bryan Dik and Ryan Duffy found that 68% of college students surveyed considered a spiritual calling and sense of higher purpose critical to them when considering a career.

There is a wide and disturbing disconnect, however, with how colleges are cultivating the spiritual search for meaning and purpose among their students.

Asking “why?”

I recently spoke at a conference designed to support first-year college students in the transition to the second year. I offered two sessions, entitled “Finding Your Authentic Purpose,” and almost every student at both sessions was undeclared (meaning they had not chosen a major) and they all had one trait in common: They were all in anguish. Two, in fact, were near tears. Yes, tears.


They didn’t know “what” they wanted to do with their lives. One of these students was a young woman sitting in the front row of a session.

To her, I asked a simple question, “Why are you in college?”

Her initial response troubled me: She said absolutely nothing.

I asked again, “Why are you here?”

She started turning red and fidgeting a bit.


Then, I asked, gently, “Why is this such a tough question?”

She said, “No one has ever asked me that before.”

Over 6 months into her college career and not one person, not one educator, had asked her why she was there.

Colleges and universities must ask a tough question of themselves: Are they in the business of developing people or jobs?

If institutions want the answer to be people, they must pay close attention to developing students’ sense of meaning and purpose in this complex world, and providing them the space and freedom to do so.

One of the answers from the modern institution is that “we need to prepare students for what the workforce needs.”

What about preparing students for what they need?

Before students even see a lecture hall or lab for the first time, they are inundated with placement exams, prescribed four-year plans, given incessant advice and direction, and told to start preparing for job fairs.

The glaring problem? No one knows them yet – their stories, goals, dreams, desires, and reasons for even being there. How can colleges know what a student needs without first knowing why they are there?

Passion and practicality are not mutually exclusive

Faculty and staff are pressured more than ever not on how well someone can think about problems but on how fast they can expedite students from inputs to outputs in the system.

All of these tactics focus exclusively on the “what.”

When students have to answer “why” questions, responsibility ensues. The brain and heart are activated, and students actually have to consider their situation, the multiple variables involved in their potential future, and decide a specific and immediate course of action based upon their assessment of these variables – independent of someone else’s plan.

We used to call that “critical thinking” – and that may be what the workforce needs and why over 75 years of research on the meaning and meaningfulness of work has found that when people have meaning, purpose, and a sense of a calling in their work they are more committed, engaged, and satisfied.

Purpose is needed

With Gallup finding that 7 in ten American workers are disengaged in their jobs, maybe a more passionate, purposeful workforce wouldn’t hurt.

But there is hope. There are students who refuse to believe that a course catalog holds all of life’s possible paths.

It is easy to follow a parent’s, advisor’s, or instructor’s plan for your life – to check off neat boxes on a curriculum sheet – and not have to decide for yourself. In the job factories we now call college, students have become excellent at it. Or, as author William Deresiewicz termed them, excellent sheep.

These students who choose to opt out are labeled by colleges as “undeclared” or the “liberal arts majors” bashed so frequently in the popular media

These students, however, by actively choosing for themselves not to try and fit into what society has prescribed for them, may indeed be at the forefront of our species’ advancement. They may be the thinkers, innovators, and trailblazers.

For they have asked “why.”

It’s time for colleges to do the same.

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