What’s College Actually For?

By Angela Myles Beeching –

The standard reason for getting a college education these days (for musicians and everyone else) is to get a better job in order to have a better lifestyle. Certainly, for first generation college students, the issue of securing a decent future is paramount. But in the larger context of a student’s future—a lifetime of work and family and community—what we see is a more compelling reason for attending college that fuels the more obvious one. Career counselors look beyond immediate outcomes. There’s more to life than that better job. Hopefully, there’s more to a college education, too. Getting an education to get a better job is the easy answer, not the whole answer.

The Ultimate Goal

Underneath the “get a better job” business is a more basic human yearning. People go to college hoping to find their life’s mission or purpose. What people want ultimately (see Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) is to live a meaningful life. And college is, in our culture, the usual route to the promise of finding a meaningful life. The process of learning—the real business of education—is to create meaning, and the ultimate goal is to create a life that has meaning. In life, we all want to make good use of our talents and to feel that our work matters in the world. Though it may be unstated or unconscious, this yearning is expressed in many ways, from students’ angst over choice of major to their demand for relevancy in the curriculum. Some students arrive on campus with the drive to succeed and just a vague cause, but they’re looking for ways to harness their energies to specific objectives. Others may be lacking in ambition and are seeking in college the cause that will ignite their passions. College is, we hope, a place for inspiration.

Delivering on the Promise

Providing the pathway to a meaningful life is a tall order. Complicating matters is the fact that there’s often a gap between what the staff and faculty idealistically think we’re providing and what students actually reap. The undergraduate years, for most middle class Americans, mark the actual coming of age. For many students, college years are about learning to fend for oneself, managing one’s time, choosing courses and majors, working part-time jobs, learning to balance a checkbook, live with roommates, and deal with one’s own time, healthcare, and sexuality—the necessary “stuff” of becoming an adult, a citizen. But if an undergraduate program is to be more than an adolescent holding tank, a laboratory for cultivating young adults, what should it provide?

Ultimately, a college education provides the opportunity to question and test ideas about how to live a life. And this brings us back to that quest for meaning. It is during the undergraduate years that students struggle with what to believe, and they eventually choose the lives they want to lead and the people they want to become, based in part on the challenges they find in the curriculum. College provides the opportunity to question it all. What is life? What is of value? How shall I contribute to the world? These are the big questions in life and the answers to these shape both the person and her or his future.


Music career strategist Angela Myles Beeching is author of Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music and has advised hundreds of musicians on a full range of career-related issues. This article has been excerpted and adapted from a piece she originally wrote for New England Conservatory’s Career Services Center where she was director from 1993-2010. She has also worked as a consultant to the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. She currently directs the Center for Music Entrepreneurship at Manhattan School of Music and maintains a thriving consulting practice, Beyond Talent Consulting.

Excerpted from “Curriculum Reform—A Perspective,” an article published in the Journal of the Music and Entertainment Industry Association Journal, 2005. Copyright, Angela Beeching, July 13, 2011 (Reproduction granted with credit to the author and MajoringInMusic.com.)

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