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Building Students’ Skills or Souls? Student Affairs Educators Can Foster Both Goals

Career and Workforce Development Student Career Development Faculty
February 26, 2024 Michael J. Stebleton Aysa Tarana

JCC Connexions, Vol. 10, No. 1, February 2024

New Spaces & Roles for Student Affairs: An Ongoing Series of Articles of JCC Connexions

Is the purpose of higher education to build students’ souls, or to build their skills? Is one area of development more important than the other? These are the questions I (Stebleton) posed to 18 undergraduate honors students across multiple majors and colleges in a recent fall semester seminar. The title of the class was: What is College For? Examining the Purpose and Value of American Higher Education. For fifteen weeks, students majoring in engineering, liberal arts, computer science, biology, and other disciplines discussed critical issues and current topics in higher education. stebleton and tarana

On the first day of class, I presented an activity that asked them to reflect on the following statement: “College is about building your soul as much as building your skills.” The prompt generated immediate engagement and served as the curricular backbone for the rest of the semester. To my surprise, during the semester students would return to this language of building both skills and souls. There is no one definition of souls, however; it involves values, spirituality, character, and moral development, and a holistic approach to education. In this blog, we will outline why these questions are so timely and what student affairs educators can do to encourage their own students to engage in reflection about the purpose and value of post-secondary education. Aysa (second author) is a student at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities who recently completed the honors seminar.

Higher Education and Liberal Education Under Fire

Higher education has been embroiled in controversy in recent years, especially regarding perceptions of the American public in opinion polls around confidence. In the summer of 2023, a Gallup poll found that only 36% of respondents have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education, an all-time low (Brenan, 2023). Many students and their families are exploring alternatives to the four-year degree option, while others are looking at non-traditional pathways after high school graduation including technical and military training (Sanchez, 2023). Interestingly, the doubts about higher education do not align neatly along political affiliation lines. In other words, both Republican and Democratic-leaning respondents (as well as independents) expressed concerns about the rising tuition costs and the overall direction of higher education. Specifically, conservative leaders warn about the college-for-all mentality and argue that higher education is a growing problematic bubble that will burst eventually (Berger, 2023).

Understandably, students and families are expecting immediate and significant ROI (return on investment) upon earning their degrees. The federal government will be requiring institutions to demonstrate how students financially benefit from completing certain programs. With the total cost of attendance at some private colleges nearing $85,000 or more, students (and their tuition-paying parents) seek some degree of security and guarantee that the costs will be worth it, and that there will be a well-paying job upon graduation (Bushman, 2023). It is not surprising then that the most popular majors and programs at colleges lie in the areas of business and health-related majors, as opposed to the arts and humanities.

Similarly, academic leaders in recent years have been forced to cut majors that are less popular, mostly in the humanities, social sciences, and some foreign language programs. In recent years, numerous language programs have closed across the United States, such as the ones at West Virginia University (Nietzel, 2023). It should be noted that administrators at West Virginia eventually did retain Spanish and Chinese language instruction after ardent criticism of a budget plan. These decisions represent an obvious problem: There just are not enough students enrolling in these majors and university leaders are making draconian slashes to their budgets just to stay fiscally afloat. So, what do these fiscal trends in higher education have to do with building souls and skills?

Getting Students Ready for Life

 A primary goal of college should be supporting students to build souls and skills while in college. Evidence exists that supports a connection between job satisfaction and building one’s soul, or authentic self (Niles & Guttierez, 2019). Student affairs educators can continue to play critical roles in fulfilling both objectives. As I (Stebleton) prepared the syllabus for the Honors seminar, I rediscovered a New York Times Magazine article by philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah titled, “What’s the Point of College?” Appiah advocated for an emphasis on the role of liberal education–and how it should not be lost.

Another vision of college centers on what John Stuart Mill called ‘‘experiments in living,’’ aimed at getting students ready for life as free men and women. (This was not an entirely new thought: the ‘‘liberal’’ in ‘‘liberal education’’ comes from the Latin liberalis, which means ‘‘befitting a free person.’’) Here, college is about building your soul as much as your skills. Students want to think critically about the values that guide them, and they will inevitably want to test out their ideas and ideals in the campus community.” (Appiah, 2015)

Appiah contended that there was a growing tension between Utility U (i.e., skills, practical) and Utopia U (i.e., soul, values). We share Appiah’s insightful thoughts on this subject. Career-life development can be seen as a constellation of one’s life roles. We view developing souls as comparable to finding purpose and meaning beyond paid work roles (Colby, 2020). A concern is that in a quest to get students vocationally prepared for work after college (i.e., building skills), educators are losing opportunities to engage students around questions of the soul. Many writers have advocated for a return to a focus on the goals and benefits of a liberal education. Scholars such as Neem (2018) and Scheuer (2023) outlined the many merits of liberal education, including the benefits of fostering goals around citizenship and engagement. These objectives align with the early principles and objectives of the student affairs profession.

Returning to the Roots of Student Affairs

From a student affairs perspective, higher education was grounded on holistic student development, as evidenced by the Student Personnel 1937 documents that are close to 100 years old (American Council on Education, 1937). The guiding principles of the profession were founded on developing well-rounded, holistic students (Evans & Reason, 2001); emphasis was placed on fostering students’ moral development, spirituality, and emotional/psychological development just as much as their intellectual progress. Education included preparing for vocational pathways. Yet, more importantly, university objectives focused on preparing students to be citizens and contributing members to a democratic society (Coomes & Wilson, 2009).

Today’s educators still play this same important role in students’ lives. According to Love and Talbot (2000), “student affairs professionals must understand the role that such values as faith, hope, and love play in the structure and persistence of communities, in the construction of knowledge, in the understanding of truth, and in developmental processes of students” (p. 362). In sum, good student development has always focused on building souls and skills. We insist that we need to do a better job of articulating how we build students’ souls. Moreover, we agree with Bret C. Devereaux (2023), a historian, who asserted that colleges should be more than just vocational schools. The honors students through many discussions this past semester echoed these thoughts around their own purpose of higher education.

Sharing Student Voices

In the first major writing project for the honors seminar, I (Stebleton) asked students to reflect on their own perceptions of the value and purpose of a college degree. I encouraged them to consider early messages they received from family members, teachers, and coaches about what it means to be successful. Some students in their final papers opted to return to these questions of building souls and skills. Not surprisingly, students agreed that institutions of higher education have a responsibility to do both. One student, Aysa (second author), is a pre-med student who is majoring in biochemistry and philosophy with an art history minor. She stated in her final paper:

Higher institutions should recognize that while skills are vital to thriving in the workforce, there is intrinsic value in fostering curiosity, an understanding of the world, and personal growth. The interplay between cultivating souls and skills directly influences students as they transition from undergraduate learning to their professional journey. The classes and professors a student has play a pivotal role in shaping their readiness for the professional field and academic growth, contributing to the type of working citizen they become and how they impact society. Considering the enduring impact of educational institutions on community well-being, it is evident that an education fostering well-rounded citizens contributes to a better, productive society.

Aysa has plans to graduate early (within three years) and then apply to medical school after a gap year. Her long-term goal is to become a pediatrician. She explained:

As liberal education emphasizes building these human skills, it helps advance a student's learning in a larger community context. For example, I aim to go to medical school after a gap year, which requires me to be a well-rounded student; I can’t just focus on developing practical skills to pursue a career in medicine. I must also be compassionate, knowledgeable, empathetic, and charismatic to be successful in handling patients and networking.

From Aysa’s reflections, it was clear that she understood the importance of having the skills to become a successful physician, yet she also recognized the criticality of developing interpersonal traits such as empathy and compassion to complete her medical training. Aysa’s response to the question of building skills or souls was not a binary one. Like most students, she saw the value of developing and fostering both as part of her college education. Her biochemistry interests aligned with her skill-building, and the philosophy major and art history minor with her soul-building. As Aysa stated: “The soul and hard skills built through my courses have emphasized the necessity of both aspects to develop the tools needed for the workforce.”

Several other students also talked about the importance of building one’s soul through social engagement opportunities on campus. For example, Aysa, who identifies as Indian-Muslim and Asian American, is actively involved in Asian American/South Asian and pre-medical student organizations on campus and sees herself as a student activist as well. Aysa integrated building skills and souls within her academics and extracurriculars. Some of the students in the seminar viewed building skills as mostly related to their academics and building souls as a primarily social, extracurricular activity. Although one can understand how students might differentiate these two areas, it is evident that both types of learning can occur across educational contexts. Student affairs educators can play important roles as well in supporting both types of learning.

Three Recommendations for Student Affairs Educators

Strategy #1:

Look for innovative strategies to integrate liberal arts and education with more applied learning opportunities. For instance, Beloit College in Wisconsin recently developed interdisciplinary courses and experiential learning opportunities where students can be challenged to think across majors and disciplines. Leaders at Beloit started two programs this past fall: one in Business/Entrepreneurship and the other in Health Sciences. Media and the Arts, and Environment, Climate, and Sustainability programs will follow.

Educators at Beloit College are attempting to shift the narrative to demonstrate that liberal education is still here and not dead–and that knowledge learned from the liberal arts can be seamlessly integrated with career-oriented planning (Chatterjee, 2023). Educators can encourage students to participate in internships, volunteer opportunities, study abroad experiences, and high-impact practices that foster engagement. Language that captures the idea of lifelong engagement with students and recent graduates is a proactive message, and educators can frequently promote this strategy (Light & Jegla, 2022).

Strategy #2:

Support students to better articulate the meaning of their degree and why liberal education is important. These conversations with students can occur across campus, in the classroom, through academic advising conversations, and through career services. Understanding and being equipped to articulate the meaning of students’ experiences will allow students to better translate their skills to new opportunities (i.e., new job contexts). In a past JCC feature, my colleague Candy Ho and I wrote about educators, including student affairs practitioners, becoming career influencers (Stebleton & Ho, 2023). Career influencers are post-secondary professionals who informally provide career-related guidance or counseling, either formally or informally to college students. Career influencers can engage students in conversations about life-career decision-making, both inside and outside the classroom. Aysa also agreed that faculty members and academic advisors can both do a better job of supporting students by having more frequent conversations and meaningful interactions with students.

Strategy #3:

Student affairs educators can stay current on latest trends, demographics, and shifts in higher education. Wildavsky (2023) in his new book The Career Arts described how a growing number of jobs will be hybrid jobs, combining both vocational-oriented skills and liberal education learning. He also talked about current trends in alternative education models that have the potential to complement traditional higher education structures. These innovative approaches will involve future students swirling, or flowing in and out of different learning structures that include but are not limited to micro-credentialing, stackable modules, badges, and competency-based learning (Khademian, 2022). Educators can keep up to date on these contemporary trends and how they might impact their students’ development.

Providing Students with Challenge and Support

When this seminar was proposed over a year ago, I was not sure if students would enroll. Students had many options for their registration choice. Would students, most who were not affiliated with the College of Education & Human Development, select a course that focused on post-secondary education? And would they be engaged enough to discuss higher education topics for 15 weeks? Fortunately, the answer to both questions was “yes.” It was an affirming reminder that students seek out opportunities to talk about their own experiences as college students; they want to be validated. In turn, tomorrow’s undergraduates will seek a range of new experiences to build their souls and their skills. It is our goal as educators, with a healthy balance of challenge and support, to help provide those learning options for students.


Discussion Questions:

1)     How can educators and institutional initiatives strive to build students’ souls and skills?

2)     What messages or observations are you noticing from your own students? Is there an increasing desire to be more vocationally prepared?

3)     What trends or changes have you noticed in your work with students?

4)     Identify at least one strategy that you could implement to support students.

5)     What is one concept from this blog that you can apply to your own learning?


American Council on Education. (1937). The student personnel point of view: A report of a conference on the philosophy and development of student personnel work in college and university, (Series I, Vol. I, No. 3). Washington, DC.

Appiah, K. A. (2015, September 15). What is the point of college? The New York Times Magazine. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/13/magazine/what-is-the-point-of-college.html

Berger, J. (2023, July 7). The college reckoning is here. The National Review. https://www.nationalreview.com/the-weekend-jolt/the-college-reckoning-is-here/

Brenan, M. (2023, July 11). Americans’ confidence in higher education down sharply. Gallup. https://news.gallup.com/poll/508352/americans-confidence-higher-education-down-sharply.aspx

Bushman, D. (2023, August 28). Time to get real about tuition. Inside Higher Education. https://www.insidehighered.com/opinion/views/2023/08/28/time-get-real-about-tuition-and-discounting-opinion

Chatterjee, A. (2023, December 19). This small college has a message: The liberal arts ‘are not dead.’ The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/this-small-college-has-a-message-the-liberal-arts-are-not-dead

Colby, A. (2020). Purpose as a unifying goal for higher education. Journal of College and Character, 21(1), 21-29. https://doi.org/10.1080/2194587X.2019.1696829

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Devereaux, B. C. (2023, April 2). Colleges should be more than just vocational schools. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/02/opinion/humanities-liberal-arts-policy-higher-education.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share&referringSource=articleShare

Evans, N. J., & Reason, R. R. (2001). Guiding principles: A review and analysis of student affairs philosophical statements. Journal of College Student Development, 42(4), 359-377.

Khademian, A. (2022, August 15). Fluid students flowing in and out of education are higher ed’s future. Here’s how colleges must adapt. Highereddive.com. https://www.highereddive.com/news/fluid-students-flowing-in-and-out-of-education-are-higher-eds-future-here/629119/

Light, R. J., & Jegla, A. (2022). Becoming great universities: Small steps for sustained excellence. Princeton University Press.

Love, P., & Talbot, D. (2000). Defining spiritual development: A missing consideration for student affairs. NASPA Journal, 37(1), 361-375. https://doi.org/10.2202/1949-6605.1097

Neem, J. N. (2018). What is college for? Counterpoints, 517, 3-14. Peter Lang Publishing http://www.jstor.org/stable/45178149

Nietzel, M. T. (2023, August 30). West Virginia University to retain only Chinese and Spanish language instruction. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaeltnietzel/2023/08/30/west-virginia-university-to-retain-only-chinese-and-spanish-language-instruction/?sh=341e8b7e60a4

Niles S. G., Guttierez D. (2019). Career counselling with soul. In Maree J. (Ed.), Handbook of innovative career counselling (pp. 633–645). Springer.

Sanchez, O. (2023, April 17). Trade programs — unlike other areas of higher education — are in hot demand. The Hechinger Report. https://hechingerreport.org/trade-programs-unlike-other-areas-of-higher-education-are-in-hot-demand/

Scheuer, J. (2023). Why democracies need the liberal arts. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 55(6), 11-14. https://doi.org/10.1080/00091383.2023.2263186

Stebleton, M. J., & Ho, C. (2023). Career development is everyone’s responsibility: Envisioning educators as career influencers. Journal of College and Character, 24(3), 189-196. https://doi.org/10.1080/2194587X.2023.2224577

Wildavsky, B. (2023). The career arts: Making the most of college, credentials, and connections. Princeton University Press. https://doi.org/doi:10.1515/9780691239804

Author Note: Special thanks to Abby Wilfert and Vic Massaglia for their helpful comments and feedback.