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Toward A Different Measure Of Success For Colleges And Their Graduates

When it comes to success and fulfillment after college, it's not the school that counts, but the student's experience there. (Jessica Hill, File/AP)
When it comes to success and fulfillment after college, it's not the school that counts, but the student's experience there. (Jessica Hill, File/AP)
This article is more than 5 years old.

What should society desire for college students after they graduate? The Obama administration’s push for a ratings system in higher education emphasizes post-graduate employment and earnings. Critics argue that such a system undervalues the impact of a college education on equally significant — but less economically quantifiable — matters as a commitment to local or global citizenship, the ability to think critically and find solutions to problems or a habit of life-long learning. I believe the president’s plan misses something else that is fundamentally important about the college experience: the potential — sometimes realized, sometimes not — to instill in students a passion for and habits of creative and intellectual discovery. That outcome is critical for the long-term value of education, both for personal well-being and the contributions graduates can make in the local and global communities.

There are strong correlations between levels of vocational engagement and overall well-being with...the student-professor relationship and students’ involvement both in and beyond the classroom.

An interesting recent Gallup-Purdue University study considers the impact of college on leading a life that is fulfilling – both personally and professionally. Researchers surveyed a wide range of public and private colleges, and the results are striking. There are strong correlations between levels of vocational engagement and overall well-being with two very specific aspects of a college experience: the student-professor relationship and students’ involvement both in and beyond the classroom. Students benefit greatly when professors get to know them, spark in them an excitement to learn and serve as encouraging mentors for their aspirations. And students who engage in long-term academic projects, internships (or academically relevant jobs) and extracurricular activities, such as organized sports and college clubs, go on to lead lives of greater purpose. That’s the encouraging news. The discouraging news: a mere 14 percent of college students reported having had a relationship with such an engaged and engaging type of professor, and only 3 percent reported having both the inspiring and caring professor and the varied and absorbing college experience.

The study’s overarching conclusion is that the type of institution — large, small, public, private, elite — matters far less for workplace engagement and overall well-being after graduation than what students experience while in college. Those of us working at institutions identified as “less selective” are hardly surprised. Students are pre-cast by college admissions processes based upon unreliable measures of aptitude, such as SAT and ACT scores, which are poor predictors of how well students will develop within and succeed after college.

Of course, colleges are academic, not therapeutic, institutions. But my career as a professor and college administrator has made me certain of one thing: academic passion matters. How students respond to the challenges of reading a history text or taking a mathematics exam or a writing a philosophy essay is fundamental to the significance those fields will have for them in the future. And this is no less the case for those who do the teaching. It is hardly enough that professors know their subject matter; they need to be passionate about how their fields offer new angles of understanding, open new problems and suggest solutions to problems. When teaching is directed toward creating that passion in students, there is promise for lessons that stick and have lasting value.

...the type of institution -- large, small, public, private, elite -- matters far less for workplace engagement and overall well-being after graduation than what students experience while in college.

The professor-student relationship must be more than a stated institutional commitment to student learning. Learning can mean cramming information for the next exam, only to forget it once the blue book is handed in. What we need is learning that leads to a life of exploration and discovery. For this reason, when considering such a question as the Gallup-Purdue researchers asked in their survey — “When a student is trying to decide between an elite Ivy League school, a large public university, or a small private college, what should he or she consider to help make the decision?” — I suggest starting with that school's educational philosophy. How are academic fields valued and understood? Are students involved in their professors' creative and intellectual pursuits or just along for the ride until the end of the semester? Because when student and professor collaborate as novice and expert, learning becomes relevant for a world that needs graduates ready to shape its direction. That is a philosophy that holds promise for the lasting value of a college education, and it is one that all institutions of higher learning would do well to embrace.


Related:

Jim Ostrow Cognoscenti contributor
Jim Ostrow is vice president for academic affairs and professor of sociology at Lasell College. He is a visiting scholar with the New England Resource Center for Higher Education.

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