What is a Successful College Education?

President Kroger Offers his Thoughts.

March 1, 2016

Adapted from a talk that President  John R. Kroger gave to Reed parents in November 2015. 

There is a passage in Aristotle’s book The Nicomachean Ethics that has always struck me as profound. Aristotle says that if you are an archer, you’re unlikely to hit your target if you don’t know what you are aiming for. In the same way, Aristotle suggests, you can’t achieve your goals unless you know what they are. 

That idea is highly relevant to the subject I want to talk about—what it means to succeed in college.

In the United States, we spend a massive amount of time and energy figuring out where our kids should go to college. We start worrying about it their sophomore year of high school and never really stop until we write the first tuition checks. We read guidebooks, consult counselors, pay for test prep, visit campuses, and even—in extreme cases—hire college search consultants.

But after all this effort to find the perfect college, we spend virtually no time talking about what students should do once they get there. We equip them with bows and arrows but identify no targets.

I think we should spend more time thinking about the purpose of college. You can decide this for yourselves, but I would like to suggest that a successful college education consists of five fundamental elements:

  • learning a set of core intellectual capabilities
  • developing character 
  • pursuing rich positive experiences
  • self-definition
  • preparing for the future.

Intellectual Capabilities

The most important thing that should happen in college is the development of core intellectual capabilities. I’ll list a few. Thinking critically. Learning to read quickly, carefully, and efficiently. Learning how to write—not just to write well, but to write with confidence, to write with joy. Speaking effectively, clearly, and persuasively when you’re in a group of your peers. Learning how to experiment in a lab. Speaking a foreign language. Knowing how to make art, and having the courage to make art. Learning to criticize art: to know what kind of art you love, and what kind you do not. Analyzing problems quantitatively and statistically. Thinking algorithmically. Working effectively within teams of diverse individuals. And finally, developing a deep appreciation for the diversity of human practices and values across time and place.

Does a student need to have all twelve skills? No. Indeed, you might want to think of this list of intellectual capabilities as a flexible menu of options. It might be better if they can do six of these things really well than if they can do all twelve in a cursory fashion.

Your students will graduate into a radically changing world. They will be better prepared to face that world if they have these skills. These capabilities are also the key to leading a life of meaning and purpose. They give students the ability to think critically about the world we live in and to imagine how that world could be better. They are the tools we need to narrow that gap between the world as it exists and the world as we want it to be.


The second element is the development of certain character dispositions. This suggestion is, I think, a bit controversial today. When colleges were first founded in the United States, starting with Harvard in 1638, they were explicitly Christian institutions. Their primary goal, at least up until the 1880s, was to promote a certain model of Christian character. Reed was founded in 1908, at the beginning of a different era, when people wanted to offer a secular education open to all kinds of faiths, backgrounds, and beliefs. These new institutions decided not to focus on character, but on knowledge: on the creation and transmission of knowledge and the development of those intellectual capabilities I outlined a moment ago. That was a powerful idea, and it was adopted by practically every college in America. 

Unfortunately, we threw the baby out with the bathwater. When colleges stopped promoting Christian values, they stopped promoting any ethical values. We made knowledge more important than character. This seems to me a dangerous trend. Most students are between 18 and 22 years old. They are in a critical developmental phase. Their brains remain, for a relatively brief period of time, in a plastic state. In a few years, that window will close. This is why it’s so critical that we throw all this difficult intellectual material at them now.

But this is true in the sphere of ethics as well. Your students’ character is taking shape. The habits and values they develop in college—their sense of what is important in life, what kind of person they want to be, and how they will treat other people—are likely to stay with them for a long time. This is, in short, a critical period not just intellectually, but ethically.

Of course, people continue to evolve over the course of their lives. We can improve. We can learn from our mistakes. We can work to make ourselves better. But certain core ways of looking at the world, of interacting with other people, get fixed early in life. For the most part, adults are recognizably the people they were when they turned 25 or 26. 

At Reed, we do not engage in ethical indoctrination. But we do, I think, teach students to value certain things. One is usually portrayed as an intellectual value: a belief in rigor, precision, and excellence. Reedies learn to approach problems in a comprehensive and aggressive fashion. Don’t read one article—read 27 articles. Don’t just parrot back the assignment—figure out what’s wrong with those articles, develop your own hypothesis, imagine what you could do to test out your ideas. Don’t be satisfied with incomplete data—go back to the lab, try something different, develop a better foundation for your thinking.

But this way of looking at the world has profound ethical dimensions. It implies a commitment to getting it right, to being precise in your thought and language, to mean what you say. It produces graduates who carry these values out into the world. That makes Reedies a force for change and innovation.

Another value I want to talk about is kindness. I don’t think we have a very kind society. We often treat each other atrociously. At Reed, the Honor Principle forces us to reflect concretely about how we interact with other people, what kind of an impression or impact we’re making on the people around us, and what we can add to the community. Honor is not just a list of things Reedies cannot do, but a permanent and affirmative obligation to think constantly about what they can do to help their fellow Reedies and build a stronger community. That, in the end, is a very powerful tool of ethical development.

A third virtue we promote here at Reed is the ability of students to challenge themselves. Education is not about being comfortable. It is not about being easy. It is about challenging yourself by taking on intellectual and artistic projects that are probably beyond your capability. You see this most clearly at Reed in the senior thesis. In some ways, the ideal thesis is one where the student selects a problem that is so important, so complex, so difficult, that it requires them to stretch and struggle. That ability to challenge oneself, to be willing to try and fail, is something that our society does not actively promote. It is one of the things a student really needs to develop while they are in college. 

I am sure you can imagine a long list of character traits that you want your students to develop in college. I won’t try to suggest today what that list should be. Every student, every family, should develop its own list. I do, however, believe that developing character is a vital part of a successful education. 

Positive Experiences

The third element of a successful education is often overlooked, and that is rich and positive personal experiences. These are experiences that we value as humans not because they have some instrumental purpose, that we can employ to our benefit later in life, but things that are good in themselves in the moment. College is a huge percentage of your kid’s life. They are going to spend four, maybe five, years here. That’s at least five percent of their entire life, if they are fortunate enough to live to age eighty. It is even more, when viewed from the students’ perspective. College will be a third of their conscious life to date! For this reason, it is important that their days be filled with rich experiences that are valuable in themselves. 

What kind of things really matter? You can make your own list. Learning to have a healthy relationship with yourself and with other people. Making friends. Falling in love. Getting your heart broken. Learning how to get in and out of a relationship responsibly and ethically. Playing a sport. Trying something athletic or artistic you’ve never tried. If you’ve never skied, try skiing. If you’ve never rock climbed, go rock climbing. If you’ve never gone hiking before, go hiking. Travel overseas. Act in a play. Paint a landscape. Play the mandolin. Operate a nuclear reactor. Do things that are fun, that are rewarding, that offer pleasure and satisfy curiosity. 

I hope all of your students have one positive experience that is unique to college—the chance to fall in love with an intellectual discipline. I would encourage students and their parents not to think about this decision instrumentally. Students should not major in a field because they imagine it will be useful. They should major in a subject they love. This is in part because you’re more likely to work hard at something you enjoy. But I also believe that in life, people who have the courage to do what they love ultimately have the most success. That’s why I think it’s so important to get students into the habit of taking a risk and doing what they love, not what they think is safe.


Fourth, college students have to learn to define themselves in the world. As you know, teenagers are highly impressionable. They arrive at college with an amorphous and plastic sense of self that has been shaped heavily to date by their families, their high schools, their peers, the media, and the internet. 

It is critical, during the years from 18 to 22, that students begin to evolve into adults with their own sets of values, beliefs, and style—ones that they have chosen for themselves, not ones that have been inherited or received from others. They need to take time when they’re in college to think about what’s truly important to them. Do they believe in God? What kind of God? If they don’t believe in God, what provides the foundation of their values? What are the values that they want to pursue and espouse for the rest of their lives? What aesthetic and personal style do they want to present to the outside world? If they fail to ask and answer these questions, as least provisionally, they will be societally programmed robots, not human beings. 

This self-definition—the moment a young person says, “I’m going to be a human being who cares about this set of things, and who chooses to live in this manner,” is important and powerful. There is not, however, much social discourse about it. That is one of the things that makes a liberal arts education so important. The texts that students read in Hum 110 require them to think critically about the values of classical society and, more importantly, about how their own personal values relate to those of others. The class requires them to engage intellectually over fundamental questions of aesthetic, ethical, and political values with peers who come from radically different backgrounds. That ability to listen to other people, to think about what they believe, to compare that to their own values, and then potentially to modify their own beliefs because of these interactions with others, is something only a great college education can instill. And if that education is successful, your students will emerge with a set of values and a sense of self that is uniquely and truly theirs. 

Preparing for the Future

Finally, a successful college education should help students build for the future. A place like Reed should be like a trampoline. You jump on it, and there’s a little bit of resistance, and it’s difficult. After four years, however, it should blow you out into orbit with a sense of power to live a life of meaning and purpose. 

There’s a lot of talk in America about how college should prepare you for your first job. This seems incredibly short-sighted to me. College should not prepare you for your first job, but for the rest of your life. 

I would prefer us to take one step back and to ask students to do more than just find a job. I want them to identify, while they are in college, the kind of life of meaning and purpose that they would like to pursue. This requires more than seeking employment. It forces them to identify a long-term professional trajectory that will offer them the kinds of rewards and experiences they desire. We are going to spend a lot of our lives working. So, students should ask themselves: What kind of work will sustain me? What kind of rewards do I want? What kind of financial, personal, and societal goals will give my life value?

Thinking creatively about the future is not enough. Students need to take some proactive steps to prepare for life after Reed as well. Let me suggest that students should leave Reed with four interesting things on their résumé that they can talk about when applying for work. These might include a compelling summer job or internship, a particular academic distinction, or a valuable skill like the ability to write code or speak a foreign language. You want to leave Reed with four things that you can talk about. As long as you pile up one of those things a year, you’re doing fine.

So that concludes my sermon. I have given this topic a great deal of thought, but I don’t want to suggest that this is the only way to define success. You may have other goals in mind for your student—and they may have goals that are radically different from yours. I am certain, however, that the students who take the time to identify goals are the ones who get the most out of their education—and, like Aristotle’s archers, the ones most likely to hit their targets.

Tags: Academics, Students, Institutional