By Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president emeritus and university professor of public service at The George Washington University. He is chairman of the Korn Ferry Higher Education Practice and senior client partner at Korn Ferry International, an executive recruiting firm.
(CNN) -- Over the last several decades, the reasons used to justify acquiring a university education has morphed from the academic to the applied, to the sublime and the ridiculous.
Once characterized as a noble intellectual pursuit -- something one did to gain knowledge and wisdom, contemporary references define college as utilitarian and practical: Without a college degree, one cannot hope to successfully enter the job market. Stay in school and you'll "earn more," as some like to say.
The children of the incumbent middle and upper classes are increasingly the offspring of college graduates and for the most part they follow their parents' lead (especially young women). They understand that to maintain the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed, getting a degree is important both for image and long-term prospects. It is the thing to do, what is expected of the daughters and sons of doctors, lawyers, bankers, teachers, civil servants, etc. There are, of course, a small number of entrepreneurial types (the up-and-coming Steve Jobs and Bill Gates) who forgo college and seek their fortunes in garages. But most people trod a conventional path; they seek to get jobs rather than to be Jobs.