When it comes time for a student to choose a college/university to attend, there are many aspects of the institution that can grab his or her attention. Academics, dining halls, student life, clubs, athletics, Greek life….the list goes on and on. One feature that may often be overlooked is the university or college mission statement. Why is that? Well, for starters, it seems that many mission statements fall into one of two categories. Either it’s wordy and abstract, or it’s concise and ambiguous. Due to these often lack-luster qualities mission statements possess, they are ignored, looked-over, or, in some of the more lengthy cases, misunderstood. But should we be paying more attention to them?

Between my undergraduate and graduate studies, I’ve been a student for over 7 years now; yet, having to find two college/university mission statements and writing about them left me in a quandary. Where are these mission statements? Have I even read my own university’s mission statement? After racking my brain for a bit, I finally began my search for the perfect mission statements: two that represent their respective colleges appropriately, effectively, and, hopefully, accurately. My search led me to two colleges right down Interstate 81: Roanoke College and Bridgewater College.

Roanoke College, founded in 1842, is a private institution (enrolling approximately 2,000 undergraduates) located in suburban Salem, VA. Liberal education is its central academic focus. Its mission statement is as follows:

“Roanoke College develops students as whole persons and prepares them for responsible lives of learning, service, and leadership by promoting their intellectual, ethical, spiritual and personal growth.”

At first glance, one aspect that stood out to me about this statement is how short it is. Compared to other similar colleges, including Bridgewater, this mission statement seems to fall in the aforementioned category of “concise and ambiguous.” Roanoke College’s mission statement doesn’t delve into the details about how the college will actually accomplish its mission. In other words, how will Roanoke College “develop students as whole persons” and promote “their intellectual, ethical, spiritual and personal growth?” We do not know, as readers, simply from this statement. Fortunately, the college’s website gives us the “how” of their mission statement on the Statement of Purpose page—a page I could not find on Bridgewater College’s website. This just goes to show that there is no standard criteria for the type of information that must be included in a college mission statement. To get a better grasp on the ins and outs of the college’s mission, it may take some digging.

In contrast, Bridgewater College’s mission statement tells readers immediately how it will achieve its mission. Bridgewater College is also a private institution with a focus in liberal arts. It was founded in 1880, is located just outside of Harrisonburg, VA and enrolls approximately 1,800 undergraduates. Its mission statement, as seen below, is a bit longer than Roanoke College’s, but provides us with a detailed description of their method:

“Bridgewater College educates the whole person by providing a challenging and supportive learning community that fosters the growth of its students and empowers and motivates them to live educated, intelligent, healthy, purposeful and ethical lives in a global society. The College embraces the core values of integrity, equality, service and community, which have been inspired by its history with the Church of the Brethren. The College is a welcoming, diverse and vibrant community, committed to understanding and respecting individual differences and actively engaging all of its members.”

Both colleges emphasize bettering the “whole person;” but, by explicitly stating how Bridgewater College “educates the whole person,” its mission seems a bit more attainable. Compared to Roanoke College’s, this one is more explanatory, detailed, yet not too wordy that one loses interest mid-way through.

Another facet of this mission statement that stood out to me was the description of the college’s religious affiliation. Though both colleges are religiously affiliated, only Bridgewater’s blatantly states which religion. Simply based off Roanoke’s mission statement, the reader only knows that it has a focus on its students’ “spiritual and personal growth.” This could mean anything! Furthermore, a college’s religious affiliation can be the single deciding factor for many interested students. After doing a deeper search, it is clear that Roanoke College has a Lutheran influence. Bridgewater does provide this information, explaining that much of the college and its methodology is influenced by “its history with the Church of the Brethren.” Therefore, whether or not Bridgewater is still actively affiliated with the Church of the Brethren, the student would know simply from reading the mission statement that the college is rooted in the Christian faith.

Based on my evaluation of each mission statement, I have come to a conclusion: one must not judge the university or college solely upon its mission statement. Although a key role of a mission statement is to represent its institution, I now have decided that it is extremely difficult for a single paragraph to achieve such goals. Even though each of these mission statements represented their college to an extent, they in no way provide the complete picture. In order to get a full representation of the college, readers, in both instances, may need to look deeper into the website and actually find the data that proves the mission has been (and is being) accomplished. Mission statements are solely statements of mission, meaning they state large-picture goals that the institution hopes to yield. Unfortunately, since these nuggets of wisdom created by academic leaders must be short and sweet to keep the reader’s attention, understandably, they can’t truly and fully embody everything the college has the potential to achieve. Obviously, I failed in my own mission to find the perfect mission statement. In fact, I’m now feel slightly jaded toward them. Should the mission statement even be a part of the equation when choosing an institute of higher education? Are they just fluff?