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Harnessing the Life-Transformative Powers of Higher Education

Each fall, students enter our colleges and universities, drawn by promises of inexhaustible opportunities for growth in mind and spirit.

When it comes time for our institutions to examine whether or not we’ve met those promises, much of our data focus on student retention and graduation rates as markers of effectiveness. But another marker also deserves our attention: the impact of a college education on students after graduation.

Animated by this mission, an alliance of college and university leaders across the country has formed the Coalition for Life-Transformative Education. Our goal is simple: to ensure all students leave not only with a diploma but also with experiences and inspiration that support their well-being and keep them engaged in their work for years to come.

Achieving the Mission of a College Education

If we want a college education to prepare students to achieve financial viability, find meaning in relationships and their work, and contribute to the common good, then the higher education industry needs to determine which experiences are most likely to lead students to these life-transforming outcomes. Then, we need to make these experiences available to all students.

Several recent studies provide important insights on the correlation between certain kinds of learning experiences in college and high levels of well-being and work engagement throughout a graduate’s life. These experiences include emotionally supportive mentoring and opportunities for students to connect curricular classroom experiences to real-world problem solving. Many colleges and universities offer these kinds of rich learning experiences, but they often occur serendipitously. And only a small fraction of students report having these formative experiences as part of their education.

Gallup surveyed thousands of alumni about the experiences and learning that carried over from their college years and how they have affected their well-being. The results are remarkable. College graduates did not see what educators typically think of as the core of the educational experience—curricular content, class size, campus characteristics, etc.—as the most important factors. Instead, alumni who reported that they had meaningful experiential learning and that “someone cared about me as a person” during college were more than twice as likely to report high levels of well-being and work engagement later in life. And this was true no matter how long ago they graduated.

But, disappointingly, less than 5 percent of the college graduates strongly agreed that they had both of these experiences. Higher education has a large gap to close if we want all students to have these transformative experiences.

Another recent study by Gallup and Bates College found that graduates with a high sense of purpose in their work are almost ten times more likely to express overall well-being. This research confirmed that finding purpose in work is highly correlated with “having someone who encourages students’ goals and dreams” and having the opportunity to link curricular learning to real-world issues through internships or jobs.

Research psychologist Carol Dweck, a nationally recognized expert on mindsets, has found that educators who help students as they shape their attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs about themselves—not just imparting content knowledge—can be life-transformative. While her work primarily focuses on K–12 education, recent research shows that the same principles of growth mindset apply in higher education with very significant results. These life-transformative experiences also support students’ mental health and wellness, which are increasingly critical parts of our mission as college educators.

Transforming the Lives of All Students

If the learning experiences identified above are so profound, don’t our colleges and universities have a moral obligation to ensure that they are made available to every student, not merely those who are lucky enough to encounter them? Helping every student to find identity, agency, purpose, and well-being over a lifetime begins with inclusive curricula and teaching strategies.

The diverse alliance of colleges and universities in the Coalition for Life-Transformative Education includes large and small, public and private, and research and professional institutions. Rather than focusing on traditional student success metrics like retention or graduation, our work, unprecedented in its breadth and ambition, focuses on linking what happens with students after graduation to experiences they have in college.

Student success and transformative experiences are not at odds, of course. Indeed, we believe that when students are empowered to move through their studies with a sense of belonging as well as agency, purpose, and the power of knowledge, it lays the foundation for success in life and work and motivates them to persist through degree completion. But it will take creativity, determination, and tapping into the unique strengths of each of our institutions to meet the grand challenge of delivering those life-transformative experiences at scale. 

Each institution—unique in its mission, culture, and resources—is likely to follow a different path to meet the challenge. This requires experimentation in a diverse set of pilot projects that can be scaled up to reach every student. Members of the Coalition for Life-Transformative Education are launching pilot projects this year, creating a learning community to share best practices. We hope others will join us in this important cause.

Interested in learning more about the work of the Coalition for Life-Transformative Education? Visit the CLTE website and attend the first CLTE Annual Conference on September 22–23. The virtual conference is free and open to all. Conference registration information and additional details can be found here.    

Thomas Katsouleas is past president of the University of Connecticut, Richard Miller is president emeritus of Olin College, and Clayton Spencer is president of Bates College.

Have an idea for a blog post? Write to dedman@aacu.org.

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