The school year is fast approaching and as incoming freshmen prepare to make major decisions this summer about their upcoming college career, they will simultaneously be forced to ask themselves some important questions about the purpose of the next four years. In partnership with the Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE), Barna asked American adults about their beliefs on the primary purpose of a college education. Is it about vocational training or making a difference in the world? Do they hope to develop moral character or simply gain a competitive edge in the job market? Do Christians hold different aspirations and hopes for college compared to the general population? The answers may surprise you.
College Primarily Seen as Career Prep
Just what, exactly, is college for? Researchers asked a representative sample of the U.S. adult population about the purpose of college. From a list of options, respondents could select as many as they believed apply. Americans overwhelmingly see higher education as a path to gainful employment and financial security. It’s a view shared across religious demographics: by Christians, by adherents to non-Christian faiths and by those who profess no faith at all. In some cases, Christians most fervent about their faith—including practicing Christians and evangelicals—are even more pragmatic and career-focused than non-Christians. Moral and spiritual development are seen as important but not the best reason to pursue a college education.
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Seven in 10 adults 18 and older believe the primary purpose of a college education is to “prepare for a specific job or career,” and just over half say it is to “increase financial opportunities.” About half think it’s to “stay competitive in today’s job market.”
Now compare the top choices with the bottom three options: “learn how to make a difference in the world,” “develop moral character” and “encourage spiritual growth.” In the prevailing views of Americans today, ethical, moral and spiritual goals get much shorter shrift than career objectives when it comes to college.
Falling somewhere between job-focused highs and spiritual lows are personal growth and practical skills: “strengthen critical thinking and writing skills,” “grow in leadership skills,” “discover who you are” and “learn about academic interests.” These mid-list items could be understood as the “soft skills” that support a career-driven focus or as personal goals oriented toward self-improvement.
After seeing the general population data, one might expect Christians to have a different set of priorities—but that’s not the case. In fact, self-identified Christians are just as likely, and in some cases more likely, to hold the “college-is-about-career” perspective.
Percentages are virtually identical between U.S. adults overall and self-identified Christians. Christians agree with the general population that college is primarily about preparing for a specific job or career, increasing financial opportunities and staying competitive in today’s job market. Perhaps the most unsettling finding, however, is Christians’ overall disassociation of higher education with spiritual and moral development. In lockstep with all U.S. adults, only 7 percent of self-identified Christians say college is for encouraging spiritual growth, and just 14 percent say it’s for developing moral character. Unexpectedly, those with no faith—a category that includes atheists, agnostics and “nones”—are statistically tied with self-identified Christians in saying that spiritual growth is the purpose of college.
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Differences between the general population and evangelicals are also less significant than might be expected. The two most notable differences are “increase financial opportunities” (69% evangelicals vs. 55% all adults) and “learn how to make a difference in the world” (32% vs. 22%). Analysts were most surprised that evangelicals express a strong preference for greater financial opportunities—especially compared to those with no faith (49%)—given their generally high biblical literacy and the Bible’s warnings about seeking after wealth. It would be difficult to overstate the noteworthiness of these findings. While other factors—theological beliefs, church attendance, frequency of Bible reading, perspectives on sexuality and marriage and so on—consistently distinguish evangelicals from the general population, the differences when it comes to the purpose of college are negligible, nonexistent or counterintuitive.
Those invested in biblical higher education should pay close attention, because student recruitment efforts must take into account the college-to-career assumption—not necessarily to share or capitulate to the assumption, but certainly to bear it in mind as a factor that strongly influences prospective students’ college choice.
About the Research
The general population survey of U.S. adults 18 and older was conducted October 21–30, 2015. The total sample size for this study was 1,011. Data was collected by an online market research vendor, then minimally weighted according to known demographic factors to provide nationally representative samples.
Evangelicals met nine specific theological criteria. They say they have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today,” that their faith is very important in their life today; believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior; strongly believe they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; firmly believe that Satan exists; strongly believe that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; strong agree that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; strong assert that the Bible is accurate in all the principles it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent on church attendance, the denominational affiliation of the church attended or self-identification. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.” They represent 6% of the adult population.
Practicing Christian: Those who attend a religious service at least once a month, who say their faith is very important in their lives and self-identify as a Christian.
The Other faith segment refers to individuals who associate with a faith other than Christianity. Among the most common of those faith groups included within that segment were Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.
No faith: individuals who describe themselves as atheist or agnostic, or who indicate that they do not believe in the existence of God or have no faith-related ties or interests.
Barna research is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2017
Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.
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