Gallup poll: how your college experience affects fulfillment & well-being at work

This morning at my semi-monthly meeting with her, Cathy Koshland, our Vice Provost for Teaching, Learning, Academic Facilities & Programs, called my attention to the recently-released Gallup/Purdue report on what factors in alums’ college experiences are predictive of whether they will be “engaged” at work—not just financially stable, but emotionally and intellectually connected to what they do in a way that makes it rewarding. Gallup’s previous extensive studies of workplace engagement have found that it correlates with important economic metrics such as productivity and employee healthcare costs, so even if you don’t care about some touchy-feely “people should feel good about their work,” there’s good reason to care about engagement.

So if a major goal of going to college is to “get a good job”—leaving aside whether that is the proper goal for college—and if “good” means something more than just financially remunerative, it’s worth asking whether colleges are succeeding in doing this.

The timing of this report is fortuitous: my involvement in the world of MOOCs has made clear that while there seems to be some bland agreement that “there’s more to college than taking classes” (and hence a college degree is worth more than the courses it comprises, and therefore MOOCs by and large won’t replace that experience), it’s been slippery to articulate what that “more” is beyond using vague words like “socialization”, “professional networking”, “mentoring”, and so on.

In contrast, this report identifies specific elements of the college experience that are predictive of “workplace engagement.”  Which factors (perhaps surprisingly) do not influence it?  Public vs. private college, race or ethnicity, whether you’re first in your family to go to college, the “selectivity” of your school (i.e. whether it’s in the USN&WR “top 100”).

Which factors do influence it? The most important ones—factors that double the odds of whether you’ll be engaged at work—are as follows, together with the fraction of respondents who agreed with the statement:

  • Whether you had a professor who you believed cared about you as a person (27%)

  • Whether you had a professor who made you excited about learning (63%)

  • Whether you had a mentor who encouraged you to pursue your dreams (22%)

The report’s unclear on whether these have to be three different people, but it is striking that these are all elements that residential colleges are much better positioned to provide than MOOCs, yet most students don’t experience them (and only 14% agreed with all three). The above three criteria are clustered as “[My college] is passionate about my long-term success.” Interestingly, while selectivity of the college didn’t influence engagement, graduates of for-profit private colleges (e.g. University of Phoenix) were less likely to be engaged at work (29% of respondents) than those of not-for-profit public (38%) or private (40%) colleges.

The other general area that doubles the odds of good workplace engagement is “College prepared me well for life after college.” This is broken down into subquestions having to do with internships, extracurriculars, and multi-semester projects such as research or volunteering, but it’s provocative to ask (I think) about the social aspect of “preparation” as well. A few of us CS faculty recently discussed Harry Lewis’s provocative book Excellence Without a Soul, which charges that colleges in fact are doing a terrible job at social preparation (among other duties): they are infantilizing students by sheltering them from learning from their own mistakes, rather than using mistakes as character-building teachable moments where personal growth can occur; they allow students to self-segregate by class or ethnicity or whatever; and they make themselves appealing to students by shallowly providing what students myopically say they want—thereby creating conditions in which the students expect to “blame the system” when something happens to them (personal conflicts, lower-than-expected grade, etc.) and as a result are no better socialized when they graduate than when they began.

The other interesting observation has to do with when you graduated. “Engagement” is measured in terms of 5 subcategories in each of which you are said to be Thriving, Struggling, or Suffering. When graduates are grouped by decade, graduates in the 50s and 60s reported “thriving” in all 5 categories at double the rate of graduates in the 70s-80s, and 3 to 7 times the rate of graduates since the 90s. The report states that this “highlights the important role that age plays in determining the relative influence of experiences on one’s well-being,” but an alternative hypothesis is that this reflects the university’s abdication of moral standing and the development of students’ character, as Lewis charges.

So the good news is universities can indeed offer important experiences beyond course-taking that have a profound effect on graduates’ well-being when they enter the workforce; the bad news is for the most part they’re not doing a great job of it. Lewis’s book continues this thought nicely by providing specific observations on why, and even linking the observations to other problems like academic integrity violations, grade-point-grubbing, and the rancorous debates about the role of college athletics.