Why go to college?

There is a new study out on the benefit (or not) of attending college. The 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index Report (download full report) looks at the experiences of graduates while in school and how that relates to their current life situation. The study looks specifically at college graduates’ engagement at work and their sense of personal well-being.
Workplace engagement is an important aspect of this new I-Cubed (Information-Innovation-Intangibles) Economy. As the report points out:

People who are engaged at work are involved in and enthusiastic about their work. They are loyal and productive. Those who are not engaged may be productive and satisfied with their workplaces, but they are not intellectually and emotionally connected to them. Workers who are actively disengaged are physically present but intellectually and emotionally disconnected from their work and workplace. They are unhappy with their work, share their unhappiness with their colleagues, and are likely to jeopardize the performance of their teams.

Well-being is also a key metric of the health of the economy and society. Well-being

is about the interaction and interdependency between many aspects of life such as finding fulfillment in daily work and interactions, having strong social relationships and access to the resources people need, feeling financially secure, being physically healthy, and taking part in a true community.

And those who are engaged at work score higher on measures of well-being.
The study found that “the type of schools these college graduates attended — public or private, small or large, very selective or less selective — hardly matters at all to their workplace engagement and current well-being.”

Instead, the study found that support and experiences in college had more of a relationship to long-term outcomes for these college graduates. For example, if graduates recalled having a professor who cared about them as a person, made them excited about learning, and encouraged them to pursue their dreams, their odds of being engaged at work more than doubled, as did their odds of thriving in all aspects of their well-being. And if graduates had an internship or job in college where they were able to apply what they were learning in the classroom, were actively involved in extracurricular activities and organizations, and worked on projects that took a semester or more to complete, their odds of being engaged at work doubled as well.

In other words, as the report states:

When it comes to finding the secret to success,it’s not “where you go,” it’s “how you do it” that makes all the difference in higher education.

On that score, however, the finding raise some serious questions. While 63% of graduates said they had at least one professor who made them excited about learning, only 22% said they had a mentor who helped them. And I would question how good that 63% score is. That means over a third of college graduates never encountered a professor who helped made them excited about learning.
If you believe that the purpose of higher education is to acquire specific (often technical) skills, then the previous statements probably doesn’t worry you. If, however, you believe that the goal of higher education is to learn to learn, then you might be concerned that the system is failing one-third of its customers.
By the way, the baseline data on the work engagement and personal well-being of college graduates is not great either. Only 39% are engaged at work; 49% are not engages; and 12% are actively disengaged. If only a little more than a third of our “best and brightest” are engaged at work, then we are clean not utilizing our human capital to its fullest potential.
This is the first year for this study. It will be interesting to see how (and if) the finding change over time.

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