John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

This Summer: What Are We Orienting them For?

John Gardner
President

How I wish what passes for college and university orientation during the summer before the new fall term actually begins were really an introduction to the purposes of college. How I wish we seriously engaged our students immediately in dialogue and presentation on the purposes of college. But, usually we don’t. Instead,  we get them “oriented” which primarily means placement testing, academic advising, registration, socialization, familiarization, “processing”—admittedly all important. But very rarely do we get into the nitty gritty of what are the purposes of our enterprise? What differences do we or can we make for our students? Just what are we trying to do for them besides help them find a career, get a job.


I am not a fool. I fully understand the imperative for college to be a vocational preparation exercise. I understand the huge financial sacrifices our governments, our families, our students, and our institutions are making to make college possible for our students. So I am not proposing that we say to students, hey forget it, there are far more important outcomes of college than getting a job. But to be honest, I really do believe that—that there are far  more important outcomes.

I am resigning myself to the reality that the American economy is not going to fully recover for many years. This means I am resigned to the fact that many of our college graduates are going to be underemployed and dealing with very high levels of frustrated aspirations.  We of the intelligentsia know this. We know the American economy is not going to be able to absorb all these graduates at the employment levels they have dreamed of. We know that the Great Recession will have produced a whole next generation of students who will not be as well off as their parents.

So, I think it is time we started stressing at the very outset what college can do and must do to make the meaning of life more rewarding, even if our students are not employed at the level they aspire to. More than everI think it is morally incumbent upon us to demonstrate the values of  a college education for how we live outside the world of vocation.

So for those of you,  my readers, involved in any kind of orientation of new students this summer, what are you introducing students to in terms of the purposes of college? Are you offering them anything to think about in terms of how they may use college to plan a life of meaning and rewards outside their vocations? I hope so. It does matter how you start. This is the period when we shape expectations and show them how college may be different from high school, and, thank goodness, different in some important ways from the rest of the culture.

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