Higher Education in Crisis: How Colleges Fail at Vocation

Posted by Jason Arnold on February 20, 2016

What is Vocation?

One solution that we might hear about is the idea of vocational training. But when we bring up the subject, we usually end up talking about automotive tech schools or welding certifications. We as a society have reduced these fields to “academic consolation prizes” for students who are not “cut out for college”.

This is misguided. Take a look at the actual definition of vocation:

Profitable Hydroponic Farming

This should come as good news. If a student feels "a strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation", who is to say that it is the wrong one? Does it matter if the student wants to be a mechanic, or a farmer?

But it gets a little more confusing as you keep reading. You may have noticed several annoying little words in the definition of vocation. These are calling, life’s work, mission, and purpose

These kinds of words make us nervous. Very few people say "my mission in life is to be a mechanic", or "my mission in life is to be a secretary". We would rather think of vocation as just a job, not a life calling. The confusion probably comes from the roots of the word, when it was more likely to mean a priest or a nun.  Many of the early colleges were built on protestant values. As much as we might like to forget it, we will probably see religious themes come up regularly, especially when we talk about the liberal arts curriculum. 

If we are serious about sustainability, and local economies, we will need to get over our anxiety about words like this. Students are searching for direction and meaning in life, and we should be providing leadership and mentoring to help them understand their choices. 

How does it feel...to be on your own?

In my recent article The Search for Meaning; How Colleges are Failing at Mentoring, I concluded that if college is reduced to the simple delivery of information, students will find the easiest way to pass the test and get the degree. And with the rise of online learning, there will soon be easier, cheaper ways to get the information without the hassle of finding a parking spot and, you know, actually attending a real classroom. You may end up with a degree, but you are also more likely to struggle to find a meaningful direction in life, and make your way in a difficult job market. James Clark, writing for the Institute for Faith, Work and Economics, puts it this way:

Tuition is increasing at “twice the rate of inflation,” leaving many emerging graduates in serious debt. Yet these same graduates who paid so much money for a degree “lack basic academic skills” and are “lost in transition,” taking longer than expected to get a job.What_should_I_do_with_my_life-_1.jpg

How did we lose our way?

Here is a quote from Dr. Tim Clydesdale, the author of The First Year Out of College: Driven, Dazed, or Disillusioned:

"For probably a century and a half, liberal arts colleges have always been about these bigger questions, but what happened in the 1960s, as institutions realized that they were becoming very white and male and privileged in their perspective, they said, “We need to be much more diverse. We need to open up access much more. We need to think more broadly.”

Then the pendulum swung to: “We’re not even going to engage questions of character formation—this ‘whole student’ idea. We’re going to let students have their private lives and we’re going to focus on the education.

This might be a simplification, but I think we can all see what Clydesdale is getting at. Character education is a subjective experience that doesn't have a place on campus anymore. And this is too bad. We used to have a grid for making the tough decisions in life. A discussion about character might include ideas like virtue, honor, loyalty, and courage. These words just seem out of place on a modern college campus. I certainly can't imagine them coming up in a conversation with a professor, or without a footnote that puts them in their proper place in 18th century England.

And that is too bad. Character education is important. This problem, as much as anything else, is creating a generation of students who are academically adrift. Without a strong sense of purpose in life, they jump through the hoops and graduate as confused as when they started.

Parents are just as confused about this question as the faculty. As Mike Rowe points out, we usually retreat to platitudes or cliches: you can be anything you want in life

The problem with purpose

The students I talk to sound a little like this:

I know I can "be anything I want to be". That is the problem. I don't know what I want. There are so many choices, and so many pressures to deal with. Should I follow a secure career path, or pursue something I love? What if I am not really passionate about anything? What if I try something out, and find that I don't like it? Would that be a waste of time? Like, if I don't have it figured out by the time I am 24, will I be left behind? I will probably never get into a good graduate school. Should I even go to graduate school?vocation_2.jpg

To give a real response to these questions, we might need to actually understand the student’s values, their gifts and their strengths. We might need to engage with them, and coach them through some tough questions. 

"Clydesdale argues that when campuses implement programs to encourage students to seriously consider questions like “What gifts and strengths do I have that I enjoy using?” and “How can I use those gifts to make the world a better place,” they are more likely to become “broadly skilled [and] thoughtfully engaged” after graduation."¹

Unfortunately, as the Gallup Survey reports, only 2 out of every 10 students they surveyed were finding this kind of "deep learning", and were experiencing growth in their sense of purpose and direction in life. 

Vocation means your life calling and purpose

The interesting thing is, we all probably know someone who seems to have a very clear purpose in life:

“I want to start a business and raise a family.”

“I want to reach the top of my profession, and make a positive impact on the world.”

“I want to go into public service, and eventually run for office.”

“I want to help refugees resettle in my community.”

Or, if you are interested in sustainability and local food systems,

"I want to start a farm and help feed my community."

"I want to live closer to the land, and help protect our environment."

These people make an impression on all of us. How can someone be so focused, even while they are still in their twenties? (or teens?). These people seem like they understand their  "mission in life". To help students with these questions, Stanford University is now discouraging students from "choosing a major", and instead is asking them to "write a mission statement". The irony here is that we may need to stop calling them "graduates", and start calling them "missionaries". 

Conclusion: College gave up on vocation a long time ago

College is backwards. You think you may find a vocation in life, or at least some marketable skills. Many students find neither. The college degree is increasingly meaningless. If you are searching for a vocation, or purpose in life, it is no longer realistic to assume that you will find it while you are in college. You might want to find an outside mentor, or look somewhere else.

It didn't used to be this way. There was a time when the college was focused on the deeper questions, and could provide mentoring and coaching to the students. That time is gone, unless you can afford to pay for a private liberal arts education.Hydroponic Farming

Image credit: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture

Here are some questions for discussion. I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject, and find out how we might prepare the next generation to participate in the sustainable economy.

  • Is being a plumber, an electrician, or a farmer a good calling in life?
  • Do you have to be religious to have a calling in life?
  • If the roots of the private college were religious in nature, how should a secular university handle questions of purpose?
  • Would you encourage a student to skip, or postpone, college to pursue "real world" experiences? 


Clark, James. "Is Vocation the Key to Revitalizing Higher Education?"Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics. N.p., 10 Feb. 2016. Web. 18 Feb. 2016.

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