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Three Buckets of College

There are 4,500 colleges and universities in the United States. With the changing face of higher education the college selection process is more confusing than ever. Consequently, many parents and students lack an adequate roadmap for how to think clearly about college selection. My name is John Seel. I have spent many years helping students navigate the college selection process. At present, I serve as the director of college placement at St. Andrew’s Academy and chairman of the Advisory Board of Gutenberg College. Today parents are resetting their expectations of a four-year residential college experience. Colleges are doing the same. Weekly there are articles written that are critiquing higher education. My favorite is “Higher Education Is Drowning in BS.” This article was written by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith in the prestigious Chronicle of Higher Education. He calls out the failing assumptions of the typical college experience. He writes, “BS is the expectation that a good education can be provided by institutions modeled on factories, state bureaucracies, and shopping malls.” He laments that “countless millions of students are receiving compromised and sometimes worthless college education.” All too often, the perceived value of a college is based not on the actual quality of the education, but on noneducational reputational factors—luxurious dorms, winning sports teams, celebrity faculty, and the like. These marketing tools have little—if anything—to do with the quality of the education that students pay top dollar for. The fear of a worthless college degree and the number of choices before parents can paralyze decision-makers. The selection process can seem overwhelming. Many parents believe “Unless my kid goes to the right college and gets the right degree, they will fail at life.” However, if you know the right questions to ask, the process can become a lot clearer. Here are a few key questions to ask: 1. What is the purpose of education? 2. What makes one college better than another? 3. Given where my child is right now, what is the best way forward for him or her?

Actually colleges can be placed in three distinct buckets—one is not necessarily better than the other. But they do represent decidedly different educational experiences, with decidedly different outcomes. The three buckets are “certification” (how), “credentialing” (what), and “wisdom” (why). The most appropriate kind of college for your child will depend on his or her aspirations and abilities. My own education has benefited from all three. In the first bucket are colleges that provide certifications for particular skills. These programs are usually shorter and cheaper. Such certification programs are usually offered by junior colleges or specialized institutes. The outcomes are that within a year or two of focused training, a student becomes certified and licensed to bring a particular skill to the demands of the job market. In my own case, I was certified to become an EMT. There are other programs for culinary, beauty, automotive repairs, plumbing, welding, driving and the like. Many of these skills are in demand today and one can find a job without taking on heavy college debt. In the certification college, one learns how to do a particular something. In the second bucket are colleges that provide credentialing for particular careers. Like the first certification bucket, credentialing colleges are also involved with job training but for specific career tracks that require a wider knowledge base than, say, just for a particular skill. These are colleges that prepare one for careers in education, medicine, law, technology, ministry, science, and criminal justice. Sometimes they are preparatory for professional graduate programs. The expectation is that one can reasonably start a career in one of these fields after a four-year credentialing program. The job prospects for graduates of credentialing colleges are broader than those who have been trained in one skill, but they are equally dependent on marketplace supply and demand. In a credentialing school, one learns what a career field demands. In the third bucket are colleges that turn away from job training and instead focus on preparing students to live a good life. Their aim is to prepare the student to face life’s biggest questions. The student of this sort of program graduates with wisdom, rather than a specialized skill or a particular career path, and develops the ability to navigate life’s inevitable intellectual, emotional, and spiritual challenges. In such a college, a student may get perspective afforded by history, critical thinking afforded by philosophy, and communication abilities afforded by writing and discussion. The goal of these programs is to holistically transform the person for the better. The focus here is less about what you can do out in the marketplace, and more about who you will become in here. Few families are aware of this third option because it offers no immediate onramp to a particular job or career. For those who see the purpose of education in a particular light, this is actually the most practical and transferable approach to a college education since it prepares one to flourish in a world where the only constant is change. Since this kind of education is more impervious to the unpredictable forces of the marketplace than the other two models, it represents a solid and stable long-term investment. As many anticipate that the changing economy will inevitably eliminate many current jobs in the coming years, advocates of this third approach to college counter that it may in fact be the most sustainable of all three of these educational buckets. In a wisdom college, one learns why one does what one does.

Which kind of college is best suited for your child? Certification, credentialing, or wisdom; schools that focus on how to do something, what a career demands, or on the larger why questions of life. These are three pathways to your child’s future. This is a good opportunity to reset your educational expectations and selection according to this simple map. I wish you the best as you consider the issues and questions raised on your own educational pilgrimage.

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