Thomas C. Katsouleas is a professor of electrical and computer engineering and physics at the University of Connecticut, where he was the 16th president. He is also a member of the Coalition for Transformational Education, an organization dedicated to fostering opportunities for life-long wellbeing through higher education.
It is widely reported that public confidence in higher education is in decline, the reasons for which consistently line up around affordability and value. Given steep tuition increases and the resulting student debt burden, it is understandable that Americans are questioning whether pursuing a college degree is worth the investment. What is missing, however, in the increasingly polarizing debate about the value of higher education is the opportunity for colleges to improve a person’s life-long wellbeing as well as engagement in career.
As a long-term academic and former college president, I have come to believe that career development and human development are intrinsically linked and not the competing forces colleagues on both sides of this argument would like us to think. This is not based on a specific liberal arts perspective or on a romantic notion about campus traditions that lead to “the best four years of our lives.” Rather, our understanding of these mutually reinforcing dynamics stems from data that show that what we teach and how students learn influence both their level of career engagement as well as their sense of wellbeing. It should not be surprising that these two outcomes are linked and together determine whether graduates view themselves as flourishing adults.
Since 2014, Gallup has measured the post-graduation outcomes of a nationally-representative sample of more than 100,000 US college graduates, showing a link between those life and career outcomes to key experiences alumni had as undergraduates. Through the Gallup Alumni Survey (formerly the Gallup-Purdue Index), Gallup finds alumni who had experienced the “big six”: those who have had three key supportive experiences with faculty and mentors and participated in three experiential education opportunities are significantly more likely to be thriving in their post-graduation lives and their careers. The criteria for “thriving” is based on Gallup’s five dimensions of wellbeing (career, social, financial, physical, and community), all of which were influenced by how they experienced college.
These experiences include emotionally supportive mentoring and opportunities for students to connect curriculum and classroom work to real-world problem solving. The Gallup Alumni Survey results show that graduates who reported having had meaningful experiential learning and reported that “someone cared about me as a person” were more than twice as likely to report high levels of wellbeing and work engagement later in life. (Additional data show that highly engaged teams produce 21% greater profitability, providing a check in the societal ROI column.) Unfortunately, the data also show less than 5% of college graduates surveyed strongly agreed that they had both of these experiences while an undergraduate student.
These findings were reinforced in another study conducted by Gallup in partnership with Bates College designed to explore the extent to which college graduates seek purpose in their work and to identify the college experiences that align with finding purpose after graduation. The study found that 80% of college graduates say that it is extremely important (43%) or very important (37%) to derive a sense of purpose from their work. Likewise, the study showed that graduates with high purpose in work are almost ten times more likely to have overall wellbeing. Again, the disappointing caveat to this information is that less than half of college graduates reported succeeding in finding purpose in their work.
Put in this context, the life-altering decision about whether to go, or send your kid, to college becomes more complex: is college only about getting a job, or can it also be the foundation for a life well lived and a career that brings meaning, as so many graduates say is important to them? We are starting to see evidence of how high impact practices, like project-based learning that connects curriculum to real-world problem solving, is empowering for students. This type of relation-rich education, and a stronger focus on mentoring and teaching generally, increases identity, agency and belonging in current students—all of which we know can lead to improved mental health. From my experience, this can happen just as easily at Santa Monica Community College, where I received my first degree, as it can at Duke, UVA or UConn where I held leadership positions.
According to the National College Health Assessment, 60% of college students reported experiencing one or more mental health challenges in the last year. Mental health has become a major driver in dropping out of college, leading to one of the most egregious consequences in the college ROI debate: the large percentage of students who are loaded with debt for degrees they never received. If we are the heed the US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s warning that mental health challenges are leading to “devastating effects” among young people, we need to look to every community, including higher education, that can foster the kinds of connections and experiences that will improve mental health and wellbeing.
This is where the real examination ought to occur. Given the data on what little opportunity there appears to be for the big six experiences in college that lead to wellbeing, as well as the low numbers on those who find purpose in career despite their desire, higher education needs to face a sobering fact: Perhaps the question is not: “Should people go to college?” But “Is college giving people the kind of learning and life experiences that we know to be truly valuable?”