What is most important about the “college experience”? Good grades, of course. But a recent report finds that the most important elements can be more difficult to measure.
Most parents and prospective students place an understandable emphasis on the employment and graduate school placement prospects for the graduates of a particular institution, but The Gallup Purdue Index of Well-Being makes a powerful argument that the long-term well-being for college grads is largely the result of the degree of engagement they have in the workplace, and not just the amount of money they earn.
Given the high cost of college, the Report assumes that the benefits of graduation should go beyond high starting pay and include the enjoyment of a well-lived life. Gallup and Purdue do not discount the value of financial rewards but place them in a broader qualitative context.
The Report measures and describes the college experiences that lead to more fulfilling workplace engagement and a greater sense of well-being in the following areas:
- Purpose–enjoying work and being motivated to do your best.
- Social Well-Being–having love and support in your life.
- Financial Well-Being–having sufficient financial resources to reduce stress and enhance security.
- Community Well-Being–working within the local community, enjoying where you live, pride in the community.
- Physical Well-Being–feeling well enough to do good work and enjoy life.
So what are the college experiences that promote engagement in the workplace and a sense of well-being in the above areas?
Students who believed that their college was a great fit for them (regardless of size and selectivity), who had professors who showed interest and made their subjects exciting, and who believed that their school prepared them well for life after college had the greatest degree of workplace engagement.
The Report demonstrates that the type of college makes little difference in workplace engagement and overall well-being, except that for-profit colleges do not promote a high degree of well-being and engagement. The differences between public and private not-for-profit colleges, and between highly selective and less selective colleges, were minimal. The most important elements were what students were doing in college and how they were experiencing their activities, rather than the elite or non-elite status of the school. This finding seems to enforce what most college admissions counselors say: the most important thing for the student is finding the best fit.
More specifically, college experiences that promote engagement and prepare students for life after college are these:
- Professors and mentors who provide inspiration, excitement, encouragement, and commitment.
- Internships, preferably paid at some point, that directly connect university learning with the outside world.
- Extracurricular activities, including social and special interest clubs, that directly connect learning with social engagement.
- Long-term projects of a semester or more, including theses and capstone projects, which associate education with “deep learning” and not merely with rushed preparation for exams.
- On-campus residence.
- Minimal student loan debt, which is directly related to financial well-being.
The Report suggests that parents and prospective students should make direct inquiries about the best professors in the student’s proposed field of study and their availability; undergrad research programs and the means of gaining mentors; the availability of internships, including some that are paid; the presence of clubs or social groups that align with the student’s interests; and the opportunities for “deep learning” and the ways students can be aware of them and seize the opportunities.
One further implication of the Report is that a dramatic increase in online instruction would seriously diminish the advantages and a residential college experience can have for future workplace engagement and well-being.
In conclusion, we will note that many public honors colleges and programs make all of these elements more accessible, or even a part of their completion requirements. Many require an honors thesis; they all provide opportunities for social engagement with serious students; most have connections to undergrad researchers and mentors; and most connect their students with small classes and top professors. In addition, most have special honors residence halls and enhanced opportunities for financial aid, including non-need-based merit aid.