Why Our Colleges Exist?

The Great Misalignment

A recent report from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce starkly highlights the growing misalignment between the demands of the current job market and the degrees being offered by higher education institutions (Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, 2024). This discrepancy is not limited to the realm of certificates and associate degrees; it extends to fields requiring a four-year degree, such as engineering, health sciences, and education.

Historically, many – if not most – colleges and universities were conceived with the primary intent of meeting the economic needs of their communities. Land-grant institutions, for instance, were established by Congress to produce agricultural experts and engineers, vital for a rapidly expanding nation (National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, 2002). Similarly, the creation of Normale schools and teachers’ colleges was a response to the growing demand for teachers in a burgeoning public-school system (Urban, 1990).

Harvard University was founded with a religious orientation, preparing men for the ministry (Harvard University, 2024). The industrial revolution led to the establishment of “commercial” schools, the precursors to business schools, to fulfill the growing need for mid-level company employees (Khurana, 2007). Technical colleges, created by states and local governments, catered to the demand for a skilled industrial workforce. HBCUs were established by Congress to provide education for teachers and skilled craftsmen within a segregated community (Williams, 2001). The mining industry leaders supported the creation of mining schools to meet the need for mining engineers and specialists (Mining Schools Association, 2024).

However, many colleges seem to be drifting away from their original purpose. The high rate of college graduates either unemployed or underemployed is a testament to the fact that our public institutions are not effectively meeting the economic needs of the community (Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 2024). Furthermore, there is a dearth of college-trained professionals in fields where they are most needed, suggesting a significant disparity between education and industry needs.

Understanding Your Purpose

Understanding a college’s purpose is crucial for several reasons:

  • Identity and Culture. The purpose often shapes the identity and culture of the college. It influences the values, traditions, and practices within the institution. This understanding helps to foster a sense of belonging and unity among students, faculty, and staff.
  • Direction and Goals. The founding purpose can guide the direction and goals of the college. It provides a framework for making strategic decisions, setting priorities, and measuring progress. This clarity of purpose can help the institution stay focused and aligned in its efforts.
  • Motivation and Inspiration. Knowing the purpose can inspire and motivate students, faculty, and staff. It gives a sense of belonging and purpose, and can enhance the commitment and passion towards the institution and its goals.
  • Community Engagement. The purpose often involves serving the community in some way. Understanding this can enhance the college’s engagement with the local community, and can help in building strong relationships and partnerships.
  • Legacy and Continuity. The purpose connects the present to the past, ensuring continuity and preserving the legacy of the founders. It helps to honor the vision and values of those who established the college, and to carry forward their mission.

In essence, the purpose serves as the guiding light for the college, shaping its present and future. Understanding this purpose can help to foster a sense of identity, guide strategic decisions, inspire commitment, enhance community engagement, and preserve the institution’s legacy.

Distinguishing Purpose from Mission

While both purpose and mission are crucial for an organization, they serve different roles and should not be confused.

The “purpose” of an organization, such as a college, is the fundamental reason it was created by its founders. It reveals the intentions of the creators in bringing the organization into existence. The purpose is typically broad and enduring, rarely changing over time, even as the organization evolves and grows. It’s about the impact the founders wanted to make in the world or the needs they identified that inspired them to start the organization.

On the other hand, the “mission” of an organization is a statement that describes its core objectives and how it plans to achieve them. It outlines the actions and steps the organization needs to take to fulfill its purpose. The mission can change over time as the market shifts or business objectives evolve. It’s about what the organization does, how it does it, and why it does it.

The purpose is the foundation, the bedrock of the organization’s existence. The mission, on the other hand, is the strategic plan that guides the organization’s actions and decisions to fulfill its purpose.

In essence, the “purpose” is the ‘why’ behind the organization’s existence, while the “mission” is the ‘how’ it plans to fulfill that purpose.

The purpose of a college is usually established by the founders of the institution, whether that’s a group of private individuals or a state legislature. This purpose is typically maintained and upheld by a governing board or trustees, who ensure that the institution stays true to its founding principles and values. The governing board carries the responsibility of preserving the founders’ vision over time, despite changes in leadership, educational trends, and societal needs.

The mission of a college, however, is more dynamic. While it may initially be established by the founders, it typically evolves over time in response to changing educational landscapes, societal needs, and student demographics. Maintaining and updating the mission often involves broader participation, including faculty, administrative staff, and sometimes even students. This is because the mission is a more operational aspect of the institution that needs to adapt to the times to stay relevant and effective.

Private Colleges: A Unique Challenge

Many private colleges, particularly small ones, were originally established with church affiliations. Their primary purpose was to provide a holistic education that nurtured the development of personal values, moral character, and a sense of social responsibility, alongside academic learning.

Today, these institutions face a myriad of challenges, including some shutting their doors. These circumstances necessitate a reevaluation of their purpose. However, this doesn’t mean abandoning their foundational tenets.

Their original purpose of providing a values-based, holistic education remains relevant. It’s an education that shapes well-rounded individuals, instilling in them a strong moral compass and a commitment to community service.

Yet, the evolving economic landscape and community needs require these colleges to consider adapting to the current reality of the academic marketplace. A practical adaptation is to incorporate career pathways into their curricula. By aligning their educational offerings with the job market, these colleges can ensure their graduates are not only morally sound and socially responsible individuals but also professionals ready to meet the community’s economic needs.

In short, the task for small private colleges is to balance their original purpose – holistic, values-based education – with the need to respond to contemporary economic demands. By achieving this balance, these institutions can continue to mold individuals who are ready to contribute positively to society and the economy.

The Road Ahead

Recent research indicates a disconnect: our higher education institutions may not be sufficiently in sync with their foundational purpose – serving the economic needs of the community. This extends beyond the student population, with potential impacts on our economy and workforce.

The leadership of these institutions, be it state legislature, state coordinating boards, institutional governing boards, presidents for public institutions, or governing boards and presidents for private institutions, are pivotal to addressing this issue.

A potential solution is to realign higher education with the community’s economic needs. This could involve reviewing the relevance of the programs offered to the job market and fostering stronger ties with industries to understand their workforce needs.

The education provided should be academically rigorous and economically relevant, with a well-rounded education remaining essential. This includes the development of cognitive skills like critical thinking, problem solving, and effective communication.

The task is indeed challenging. However, this narrative highlights the need for decision makers within higher education institutions to engage in discussions about how to ensure their relevance and value in the 21st century, balancing the needs of our students and the economy. This points to the importance of dialogue about meeting community’s economic needs while preserving the holistic development of our students, and ultimately, refocusing on the institutions’ foundational purpose.


1.       Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce (2024). Report on Job Demand and Education Supply.

2.       National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (2002). The Land-Grant Tradition.

3.       Urban, W.J. (1990). The ‘Normal’ Origins of Teacher Training. Phi Delta Kappan.

4.       Harvard University (2024). History and Mission.

5.       Khurana, R. (2007). From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession.

6.       Williams, D.L. (2001). A Brief History of Black Education. The Journal of Negro Education.

7.       Mining Schools Association (2024). History of Mining Education.

8.       Federal Reserve Bank of New York (2024). Report on the Labor Market for New College Graduates.

Why Do Our Colleges Exist? – by Robin Capehart (substack.com)

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