Sociology Focus
Author: Stephanie Medley-Rath

What is College For? The Manifest & Latent Functions of College

What is college for? Getting a job? Finding your soulmate? Developing your professional network? Learning how to party? Well, in this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath answer this question by explaining the difference between manifest and latent functions of college.

As college tuitions continue to increase, students (and their parents) are asking, what is college for? A sociologist might answer that question using the symbolic interactionist, conflict, or functionalist perspective. Let’s explore how a functionalist might answer this question.

Once upon a time, it was thought that a woman who attended college was primarily after her MRS degree and only secondarily, if at all, a college degree. While many people do meet their significant other while attending college, there are many more functions of college besides matchmaking.

Matchmaking would be a latent function of college. A latent function is an outcome that is unintended or not the main point.

In contrast, a manifest function is an intended outcome of a phenomena. Most would agree that manifest functions of college attendance include gaining the necessary skills and knowledge to secure emloyment.

Increasingly, college student and their parents expect a college graduate to be both employable and earning more money than they would without a college degree. On both counts, college graduates do succeed. College graduates have lower unemployment rates and earn higher wages over the course of their lifetime. Some critics go as far to suggest that students should focus on the return on investment they get out of a college degree. Forbes has even created two lists of the colleges with the best and worst return on investment.

A sociologist, however, always digs deeper. While some groups might believe employability and return on investment are the manifest functions of college, other groups argue there are other important latent functions as well.

The college degree may be the ultimate goal and manifest function of college, but what does a student get along the way (i.e., latent functions)?

A latent function of college includes increasing one’s social network. For example, a college graduate should have larger social network upon graduation, simply because they are meeting new people with every additional course they take. While we might criticize the friend with 800 facebook friends, that person has a number of weak ties in their social network. Weak ties matter in that we are more likely to learn novel information, such as job opportunities, from our weak ties than we are from our stronger ties. I recieved my first “real” job on account of a weak tie I had with a classmate. It is entirely likely that a college graduate is much better able to accumulate a larger network of weak ties than the non-college graduate. While colleges do not set out to increase a student’s social network, this is certainly a latent function of college.

Another latent function of college is that it helps stablize employment. Imagine if all the colleges closed their doors tomorrow. Currently 10.3 million students are enrolled in four-year colleges, 3.8 million are enrolled in graduate schools, and 6 million are enrolled in two-year colleges. Imagine if there were an additional 20.1 million people looking for full-time work tomorrow? Would they find jobs? What kind of jobs? What would this do to the U.S. unemployment rate?

While college has obvious or manifest functions for both students and society, it also has latent functions, which are much easier to overlook, yet also important for society.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Distinguish between manifest and latent function. Give an example of each (not used above) as it relates to college.
  2. How might a symbolic interationist perspective address the question what is college for?
  3. How might a conflict perspective address the question what is college for?
  4. Check out the lists of the colleges with the best and worst return on investment from Forbes. Do you notice any common themes among the colleges on each list? Might some types of colleges have different manifest and latent functions than outlined above? Give an example.

 

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