Choosing a College for a Common Good Posted on February 10th, 2017 by

This article was first published on the Huffington Post, and can be found at the following link:

Before asking “where” or even “how much will it cost”, perhaps it is most worthwhile to first consider “why” when choosing a college.

Why college? For starters, one should challenge the common assumption that campuses are mere four-year corridors to higher wages, elevated social status, and comfortable lifestyles. A reputable college degree often leads to such outcomes, yet higher education is supposed to provide something far more valuable. Since “civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe”, as H.G. Wells argued, then personal education should ultimatley lead to public transformation, thus the aim of college should be to think and act free for the sake of serving a common good.

“The common good” is why one should choose a college.

The contemporary ethicist, John Rawls, defined the common good as “certain general conditions that are…equally to everyone’s advantage”. This notion includes earning a fair income through meaningful employment, and also incorporates social systems, institutions, and settings that benefit the good of all people. Examples of the common good include an accessible health care system, effective and affordable education, safety and security, peace among nations of the world, a just legal and political organization, an unpolluted natural environment, and a flourishing and fair economic system (which includes minimal burdens surrounding student loans and longer-term debt). As such structures, institutions, and settings have a direct impact on the wellbeing of all in society, it is no surprise that virtually everyone and everything is linked to how well these structures and institutions function. There are few vocational pursuits that fall outside the realm of the common good, thus (not coincidentally) there are few employers not interested in potential employees that are equipped to think and act in such virtuous and valuable ways.

North America is filled with excellent institutions of higher education, and selecting a college is one of the most important, exciting, and difficult decisions one will face. There are numerous factors to consider surrounding available classes, extracurricular options, campus culture, housing, possible career path, and of course, total financial cost. The context of such a decision should impact its content, and in challenging times such as ours some questions can take a higher priority than others, such as: Where will I live into my full potential by learning to engage ethical issues, build peace, act for justice, explore faith and values, develop as a leader (and discover how to develop others as leaders), be empowered for service and advocacy, grow in both knowledge and wisdom, transform conflict, honor human worth, and celebrate the diversity and unity of community? Perhaps most importantly, where is a college that will provide life-long opportunities to repeatedly live into the “why” one attended college in the first place?

Why college? At a time when our local and global communities are increasingly connected yet ideologically isolated, diverse yet distant, and filled with hope and optimism yet also panic and aggression, higher education is one of the best public and personal investments possible, as colleges remind their communities (and communities teach their colleges!) that we all belong to each other, and we need each other to become ourselves. As the African proverb reminds us, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This embrace of education for a common good honors our personal opportunities and embodies our public responsibilities, which means selecting a college is less about the professional ladders one seeks to climb, and more about the public chains one wishes to break. For such reasons, when choosing a college “where” and “how much” are indeed critically important to consider, yet “why” should be at the forefront, as one should expect far more than a stepping stone to an entry-level job, but instead yearn for a launching pad to an exceptional life.

The Rev. Dr. Brian E. Konkol serves as Chaplain of the College, teaches in the Peace, Justice, and Conflict Studies program and Three Crowns Curriculum, and is the Creative Director for Christmas in Christ Chapel at Gustavus Adolphus College. He tweets @BrianKonkol and blogs at

NOTE: The views expressed here are entirely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gustavus Adolphus College, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or other affiliated organizations. Those with questions or concerns may contact the author.


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