Education as transformation | WORLD
Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Education as transformation

Vocation and the real value of a college education

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks with students on Nov. 2 in Towson, Md. Associated Press/Photo by Julia Nikhinson

Education as transformation
You have {{ remainingArticles }} free {{ counterWords }} remaining. You've read all of your free articles.

Full access isn’t far.

We can’t release more of our sound journalism without a subscription, but we can make it easy for you to come aboard.

Get started for as low as $3.99 per month.

Current WORLD subscribers can log in to access content. Just go to "SIGN IN" at the top right.


Already a member? Sign in.

Recently, the Biden Administration announced a proposal to cut federal funding for schools that leave students saddled with debt and unable to secure a job that offers a reasonable return on their financial investment. The proposed rule will primarily target for-profit schools, which have received considerable criticism in recent years for allegedly predatory practices and sometimes outright fraud.

However, implicit in the administration’s proposal is a bias toward professional programs that focus narrowly on vocational training. According to the Associated Press, “The [Department of Education] is separately working on a list that would identify low-value programs across all colleges. It would publicize the list as a resource for students, but without the threat of a financial penalty.” While I’m pleased to know there is no “threat of a financial penalty” at the present time, the message remains clear enough: a college education is about career advancement—full stop.

This is not a new posture for the Department of Education. Under DOE Secretary Miguel Cardona, the current administration has advocated for a transactional view of education over a more holistic, transformational vision. Students attend college so that they can be credentialed for “gainful employment,” which is the DOE’s euphemism for an acceptable occupation. If that employment does not result in a certain level of compensation, then the college education was wasted.

This brings me to a recent article from University Business about bachelor’s degrees where graduates on average earn less than they would have earned with a high school diploma. The article was written in response to the aforementioned DOE proposal. But instead of focusing on for-profit schools, the article draws upon data from 867 non-profit schools. Not surprisingly, most of the degrees identified as unacceptably undercompensated are in the liberal arts and humanities, including eight degrees in the arts and another seven in the fields of religion or philosophy.

There is much to critique about these sorts of lists, but I will limit myself to one criticism: They all assume a transactional view of education ought to be normative among students in all programs. This simply isn’t the case, even at institutions that maintain only the thinnest tether to the liberal arts tradition. And it most definitely isn’t true of many of the students who pursue degrees in the arts or religious studies. On some level the money still matters, or course. But compensation isn’t their primary motivation for pursuing a particular career.

A transactional view of education removes any meaningful sense of vocation from the equation.

A transactional view of education removes any meaningful sense of vocation from the equation. The English word vocation, from the Latin vocare, means “calling.” In a biblical worldview, one’s job or even his career is ultimately an expression of his vocation from the Lord. He is called by God to follow a certain path, as evidenced through a combination of his desires, his spiritual gifts, his acquired knowledge and abilities, the affirmation of others, and the opportunities that are open to him. In God’s common grace, he even calls unbelievers to contribute to authentic human flourishing in a variety of vocations. Many students, Christians and non-Christians alike, feel drawn to certain fields because they want to make a difference.

While a merely transactional view of education misses this robustly vocational vision of higher education, it remains an important component of a liberal arts education—especially in Christ-centered colleges and universities. We are educating our students to be particular sorts of people, regardless of their major or what they do with it on the other side of graduation. We understand that education is first and foremost a matter of formation.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. Career preparation is critically important. Every degree program should expose students to career options, connect them with job opportunities, and prepare them to succeed in as many contexts as possible. A transformational education should avoid being overly theoretical and it certainly should never be impractical. Faculty in the humanities should not hesitate to talk about job placement, just as faculty in business should be eager to talk about the importance of vocation and human flourishing.

A degree rooted in the liberal arts and humanities may not be the pathway to some of the highest-paying jobs on the market today, but such a degree, especially from a convictionally Christian institution, will certainly educate students to think critically, communicate clearly, and care about values and goods rooted in God’s design. Such an education will help students to flourish in many different jobs, which is all the more important in a world where so many change jobs so often. A transformational education understands that students are more than simply future workers and that one’s vocation is worth significantly more than whatever financial compensation is earned.

Nathan A. Finn

Nathan A. Finn is professor of faith and culture and directs the Institute for Transformational Leadership at North Greenville University in Tigerville, S.C. He is a research fellow for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and is senior editor for Integration: A Journal of Faith and Learning. He also serves as teaching pastor at the First Baptist Church of Taylors, S.C.

Read the Latest from WORLD Opinions

Katie J. McCoy | The proposal to make women register for the draft reveals the sad state of our country’s spiritual and cultural health

William Inboden | The Russian leader’s visit to North Korea is part of a complex maneuver

Maria Baer | Someday the media will pretend they never said boys can be girls

Carl R. Trueman | The cult of the individual threatens to transform academic institutions


Please wait while we load the latest comments...