Reaffirming the Public Purposes of Higher Education: First-Generation and Continuing Generation Students’ Perspectives

Cuellar et al. / The Journal of Higher Education / October 2021

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For more than a century, scholars and policymakers have commented and debated on the purposes of higher education. These conversations reflect a combination of public and private goals, with an increasing emphasis on social mobility. The perspective of students, especially those currently enrolled and first-generation college goers for whom social mobility is likely salient, are often not part of these conversations. This study examines how first-generation and continuing generation students describe the purposes of higher education during college. Students note a strong emphasis on the private goals of higher education from society and parents. However, students’ narratives reflect how they grapple with multiple purposes with some also recognizing a change in their views. Differences by generational status also emerged, emphasizing a continued need to balance public and private goals.