What, Exactly, Is Higher Education?

The definition of higher education continues to evolve rapidly, but certain characteristics of the American system persist.

Published February 17, 2022

Edited by Brenna Swanston
What, Exactly, Is Higher Education?
Opinion & Analysis
Photo by Paul Barnett / 500Px Plus / Getty Images

  • American higher education has expanded to include alternative providers and new delivery methods.
  • Students are older, increasingly attend part time and online, and earn a variety of credentials.
  • The primary, but not only, goal among students is to prepare for the job market.
  • Students aim to gain knowledge, sharpen critical thinking skills, and develop soft skills.

What is higher education? This may seem like an odd question. Ask 10 people, and at least nine will reply, "It means going to college."

Yet, it's not quite that simple. Yes, the traditional definition of higher education means spending four years — typically from ages 18 to 22 — amid classrooms, dorms, and leafy quads. But the concept of postsecondary education has evolved considerably in recent years. There's a lot more packed into the term.

So, whatis higher education? And what is its purpose?

American Higher Education by the Numbers

By any measure, American higher education is a vast enterprise.

In fall 2019, U.S. colleges and universities enrolled 19.6 million students. Some 16.6 million of them attended undergraduate programs.

These students were spread across roughly 4,000 degree-granting institutions — four-year and two-year, public and private, nonprofit and for-profit. Among the four-year colleges, 1,700 are private and more than 600 are public. Add another 936 public community colleges to that mix.

But now let's expand our definition of higher education to include all postsecondary options. These encompass vocational and trade schools, apprenticeship programs, adult education centers, massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other online providers, and bootcamps — all of which offer credentials other than degrees.

It's difficult to ascertain the exact number of all these options, but one estimate suggests there are over 5,000 non-degree-granting educational institutions. Given the rapid growth of nontraditional providers, that figure is likely even higher.

All together, that adds up to roughly 9,000 postsecondary institutions, organizations, and programs from which high school graduates can choose.

If you think that's an overwhelming number, consider this: According to a report from a group called Credential Engine, there are a whopping 967,734 unique educational credentials in the United States. These credentials break down as follows:

  • 359,713 degrees and certificates
  • 9,390 course completion certificates, micro-credentials, and online degrees from MOOCs
  • 549,712 badges, course completion certificates, licenses, certifications, and apprenticeships from non-academic providers
  • 48,919 diplomas from secondary schools

Imagine how difficult it must be for hiring managers to keep up with the rapidly changing landscape of educational credentials. It's no wonder many cling to conventional preferences toward traditional education, as limiting and shortsighted as that may be.

Today's definition of higher education extends far beyond hallowed halls, ivory towers, and the notion of young adults aged 18 to 22 spending four years on campus. In fact, 10% of college students are 40 or older. Nearly 74% are over 25 years old.

These students do take classes on campus, but also online, at work, and at community facilities. And they earn not only degrees but advanced credentials of various sorts after studying anywhere from several years to just a few days.

What Is the Purpose of Higher Education?

Given this variety, we might assume people have different reasons for pursuing education credentials and different expectations of outcomes. While that's generally true, one common thread weaves through this vast expanse of options: economic mobility.

People want jobs. Or better ones.

A 2018 Strada-Gallup poll revealed that 58% of college students named gainful employment as their main motivation for attending. Among graduate students, that figure was 72%.

An earlier Gallup poll, completed in 2014 in concert with the Lumina Foundation, concluded that 95% of American students believe the purpose of higher education is to "get a good job."

And it's not just an American phenomenon. A 2020 study of undergraduates from Denmark, England, Germany, Ireland, Poland, and Spain found that students most commonly pursue higher education to prepare for the labor market.

Of course, this is not new or surprising information. Harvard College was founded in part to train clergy, meaning even the earliest forms of higher education in America had some vocational aims in mind.

But the focus on employment has become more pronounced over the past two generations. According to data from UCLA's freshman survey, in 1967 only 42% of public university students and 44% of private university students said money was essential. By 2013, those figures were 82% and 80%, respectively. During that period, the number of students who said the purpose of higher education was to help them become "very well-off financially" grew by 40%.

Those figures parallel a shift in popular majors, away from the humanities and toward more professionally oriented pursuits such as business and STEM fields. In 1967, 17.2% of college students majored in a humanities discipline. By the 1990s, that figure had dropped to 9%, and by 2018 it was 4.4%.

A shift toward pre-professionalism has resulted in greater expectations for economic returns on investments in higher education. Or perhaps it's the other way around. The two are inextricably linked.

Training the Mind, Imparting Knowledge, and Honing Social Skills

Traditionally, the higher education curriculum has had two overarching goals: to train students to think critically, and to impart knowledge. The Yale Report of 1828, a classic defense of liberal education, claimed, "The two great points to be gained in intellectual culture are the discipline and the furniture of the mind; expanding its powers, and storing it with knowledge."

Defending that tradition in 1976, Oxford scholar Cardinal Newman wrote that higher education's purpose was not vocational training but to cultivate knowledge. College students, Newman said, should study classics and philosophy so as to "strengthen, refine, and enrich the intellectual powers."

Over time, critical thinking skills have remained a key focus of higher education's curricular goals. However, the content of knowledge — the furniture — has slowly been replaced with interpretations that are more modern and arguably more practical.

Tertiary areas of curricular focus also have developed over time: citizenship, socialization, and soft skills. Critical thinking involves challenging assumptions and rejecting dogma. We become better citizens by engaging in the political process and supporting our communities.

What's more, going to college has always been associated with both personal and intellectual growth. For many students, being away from home for the first time promotes maturity and independence. Learning alongside others from diverse backgrounds broadens perspectives and introduces new levels of social and cultural appreciation.

Soft skills developed through socialization include interpersonal communication, teamwork, time management, and work ethic. Soft skills are critical to landing most jobs in today's economy, and they are certainly key to performing well.

In essence, developing social and soft skills is a form of pre-professional training, perhaps equal in value to gaining knowledge.

In his 2016 paper "Understanding the Purpose of Higher Education: An Analysis of the Economics and Social Benefits of Completing a College Degree," Roy Y. Chan argues that college students have both extrinsic goals (e.g., career preparation) and intrinsic ones (e.g., self-growth).

The college curriculum is thus designed to give students "the ability to think logically, the capacity to challenge the status quo, and the desire to develop sophisticated values for entry into the highly competitive global labor market."

So What Is Higher Education?

For many, higher education is simply the pursuit of knowledge and credentials beyond high school. This means something different for each student. For example, a learner pursuing a four-year bachelor's degree and a coding bootcamp student may want and experience very different things.

As educational options have expanded, the concept of "going to college" has broadened to include nontraditional online, part-time, and adult learners. These students explore traditional subjects like arts and humanities, social sciences, and hard sciences, along with vocational subjects such as hospitality, plumbing, and machining. They earn degrees, certificates, and digital badges.

The "why" of higher education has matured over time but remained relatively constant. It's the "what" and "how" that require colleges, universities, and nontraditional education providers to continually reinvent themselves at a dizzying pace. At this rate, the question "What is higher education?" will soon have answers we cannot currently fathom.