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The Storytelling Imperative: Amplifying the Value of Liberal Education
In recent years, the increasing cost of higher education has introduced a new level of scrutiny toward colleges and universities, including the concern of prospective students and their families about the return on investment (ROI) of a college education. Despite the work of many colleges and universities—particularly those with commitments to the liberal arts—to develop citizens of the future and not just workers, the demand for data-driven transparency about the cost of college prevails. Colleges are challenged by both the fiscal burden their students bear and the all-too-quick assumption that the value of a college experience can be boiled down to the starting salaries of graduates.
Since 2015, the “First-Destination Survey” from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) has led the charge to establish standards and protocols for the reporting of postcollegiate success.1 First-destination outcomes (also referred to as postgraduation outcomes or career outcomes) indicate students’ first destinations after college, whether full- or part-time employment, graduate school, or full-time volunteer programs. NACE requires institutions to track and report on their students’ outcomes six months after graduation, and the association’s efforts have raised the bar by requiring colleges to have data on at least 60 percent of their graduates.
Colleges are investing significant resources to capture these outcomes, whether by redistributing staff hours to support research efforts or by licensing third-party vendors. There is a fiery, perhaps even dogmatic, commitment to arriving at the highest outcomes rate possible. Yet even with an increase in the outcomes data benchmark, the numbers that campuses report tell a myopic story and beg the question that families across the country still ask: Will college be worth it?
However, these data alone are like a half-constructed puzzle with several missing pieces. To produce a holistic message, narrative is necessary. It is important to recognize why stories are powerful and what they can contribute to the conversation. To begin with, our brains are hardwired for stories. Most of us have been told a story about someone we did not know, producing both an emotional and physical reaction. We cried. We laughed. We got goose bumps. Our hearts can start beating faster while listening to a story because the brain’s activity increases and a host of chemicals are released.2 Harnessing this power of storytelling can provide the missing pieces to tell a more complete story about the ROI of a college education.
Liberal arts in the marketplace
Questions about the value of a liberal arts education are driven in part by the marketplace. Careers are no longer as linear as they once were, and what is expected of a successful employee is not as well defined. People used to go to college, get a degree or two, and then land a job with a company they would often commit to for decades. Now, rapidly changing business processes require employees to continually evolve. A recent study shows that millennials have changed jobs three to four times in the first decade after college, more than previous generations, requiring greater nimbleness and more transferable skills.3 Employers, on the other hand, fight to attract and retain top talent as they are pressed to offer competitive pay, increase perks and benefits, and ensure that employees are finding meaning in their work.
Graduates are also navigating societal and internal unrest as they try to figure out their “purpose.” And there, at the intersection of personal development and societal impact, educators are challenged to not only dispense facts (we have Google for that) but also engage learners in developing skills and competencies that will outlast the jobs of today and strengthen the character and fabric of our society for generations to come.
Out of this struggle for purpose, for both students and organizations, a new message is mounting. A 2015 issue of Forbes featured this headline: “The New Golden Ticket: You Don’t Have to Code to Get Rich. How Liberal Arts Grads Are Conquering Silicon Valley.”4 This message of hope showcases society’s need for a new generation of graduates prepared with the outcomes of a liberal education, which are notably not limited to a particular degree. These outcomes include cognitive flexibility, nimbleness, creativity, problem solving, communication and analysis, emotional intelligence, and sound judgment. These are the characteristics of employees and leaders of the future who will be prepared to solve not-yet-discovered problems and embrace the opportunities still to come.
NACE believes these competencies to be of such great importance that they surveyed thousands of employers to determine which traits rose to the top of the list. What will successful students and workers look like in this new normal? Are students already developing these traits, and if not, how can colleges and employers create opportunities that ensure that they do? What the research revealed was that the leading traits desired by employers were not new at all to the liberal education community: critical thinking and problem solving, oral and written communication, collaboration and teamwork, digital technology skills, leadership, professionalism and work ethic, career management, and global and intercultural fluency.5 The case supporting the value of a liberal education has emerged again, with direct demand from the marketplace.
So why, in spite of the deep learning delivered by a liberal education, are we still fighting to defend its value? If those on the outside are convinced that our graduates have much to offer, how can we shift the story to demonstrate that we believe it, too?
Telling the story about “Success After Seaver”
Seaver College is the college of arts and sciences at Pepperdine University, a private Christian institution in Malibu, California. The college has approximately 3,500 undergraduate students and a strong emphasis on the liberal arts. For a number of years, Seaver College has been collecting data on each graduating class at the time of graduation and six months after graduation. Through these data, we hoped to discover how many students are employed and where, what graduate schools students applied to and whether they got in, and even if graduates are happy with their choice. The data we’ve collected over the past few years as part of the NACE initiative affirm that our students are successfully launching from college. In the 2017 class, 89 percent of our graduates were employed, in graduate school, or volunteering full-time within six months of graduation. Yet someone could still walk across campus and hear a faculty member worrying aloud that our students do not get jobs, or hear a board member state that our students are underemployed—a part of the “barista generation.” It became clear that our community didn’t know our story, despite the fact that we had been making our first-destination data public for several years. We produced reports and gave presentations, but the story wasn’t sticking. We decided to shift both what we communicated and how we communicated it.
This revelation inspired Seaver College’s career center leaders to examine their internal and external messages. The bulk of our advertising, posters, digital signs, and emails promoted services to current students. But we communicated far less about the results of that programming. The career center was successfully engaging two-thirds of the student population in various programs and services; however, the community still lacked clarity about the success of our graduates, in part because there wasn’t consistent messaging to the Pepperdine community. We most often communicated the yearly career outcomes data to administrators, while faculty, university boards, prospective students, and alumni received very little of this information. We shifted our communications and developed a dual strategy to expand our story: an external storytelling campaign targeting prospective students and university boards, and an internal campaign focused on current faculty and students.
Gathering the right data
Fortunately, Pepperdine’s practice of gathering and disaggregating data had always been central to our storytelling process. Though we consistently captured data for more than 90 percent of each class at graduation, it was difficult to gather an equally high response from students six months after commencement, a critical time for securing jobs and formulating plans. One of the opportunities that emerged when NACE established its first-destination standards was the invitation to report a “knowledge rate,” rather than simply a survey response rate. A knowledge rate combines what students report on a survey with research conducted by our career center staff. They search social media sites, gather faculty feedback, and make phone calls to graduates to capture current employment or graduate school status.
Pepperdine, like many other institutions, quickly mobilized to gather these additional data. Once given the opportunity to have a more comprehensive view of the overall class, we designated additional staff time to conduct outreach to graduates seeking information and offering support. Through these efforts, we increased our overall knowledge rate. For the class of 2017, our knowledge rate is 97 percent. This changed everything. Better data about more students amplified the confidence with which we could promote the value of our degrees.
External storytelling campaign
Armed with comprehensive data about the graduating class, we soon found an opportunity to scale our story. In early conversations about adapting the outcomes data for the college’s website and admissions presentations, a colleague named the project “Success After Seaver,” which solidified and catalyzed the campaign. With transparency and accuracy as a goal, the team moved to establish a strong web presence featuring first-destination data and other pertinent details, including the kinds of graduate schools students attended, the correlation between internships and employment, the diverse kinds of fellowships earned, and the types of work Pepperdine graduates pursued (see fig. 1).6 Each element represented the different paths that Seaver College students select, the mission-centered values of graduates, the academic rigor of the community, and the importance of high-impact practices.7 Even at a general level, the data began to expose the unique narratives of Pepperdine students and the value of a liberal education.
As the campaign grew in visibility on the internet, it also became an asset that could be repurposed in publications, presentations, reports, and alumni newsletters. The ready-made infographics and student testimonials created a way to scale stories of student success for our community and beyond.
Storytelling within Pepperdine
Building on the look and feel of the statistics and infographics highlighted on the Success After Seaver web page, the career center began an effort to collect personal narratives from graduates. We began collecting individual stories that featured the graduate’s photo, major, career outcome, and a quote about how Pepperdine prepared him or her for this particular path. Recognizing the closeness faculty often share with students on a small campus like Pepperdine, we saw an opportunity to strengthen bridges with our academic partners by inviting them to submit names and recommendations for standout alumni in their programs. Drawing on these stories, the career center designed easy-to-access slides that we distributed across campus, along with infographics (see fig. 2) that we shared using varied media, including digital signs, posters, and large wall coverings. We targeted departments and locations where those alumni normally studied. This process gave faculty buy-in to the campaign and excited them when they saw the faces of their former students around campus.
Staff repurposed the stories for admission and administrative presentations and shared them with faculty along with disaggregated data on majors. The stories not only signaled the success of each graduate, but also affirmed the impact of faculty, staff, and the community on student success. As a result, campus community members began to perpetuate other stories of success while also gaining confidence about the role each one of us plays in supporting the career readiness of students.
Going deeper with the data
Putting these data to the page, sending them out on the road to admissions receptions, and sharing them with faculty, administrators, and partners certainly felt significant, not only because it demonstrated the clear value of Seaver College degrees, but also because the subsets of data prompted additional questions from distinct groups. Divisional deans wanted to compare the outcomes of their majors. Athletics, student affairs, and international student services wanted to know how their students fared in comparison to the class as a whole, and how they could enhance their students’ success.
In response to these requests, we first worked to disaggregate the data annually by each major and division (groups of similar disciplines), or by student information such as affiliation with leadership groups, scholarship programs, clubs, and organizations; racial or ethnic demographics; and status as athletes (see fig. 3). Our second goal was to make data easily accessible to those departments and later to students and prospective students via the internet. It took a few years to get this right, but as a result, every academic program webpage will soon highlight individual data by major, and, in some cases, will also feature stories of student success. What is most powerful about these data is that we get to celebrate, with faculty, the contributions made across the college to student success. Detailed data also give faculty hard facts to leverage in their assessment and program reviews, as well as career pathways to share with current students. Some faculty members have been inspired to include career readiness activities in the classroom. In essence, the data gave faculty confidence in what the college does well and illuminated opportunities to grow.
While the Pepperdine story showcases many of the opportunities unleashed through data and storytelling, it is critical to remember that every college campus is unique. Characteristics of your campus culture and values might inspire you to highlight different findings in your data. Your institution’s target market for prospective students might encourage you to position graduate school pathways over employment, or perhaps you’re looking to inspire a connection between academic theory and high-impact practices focused on real-world experiences.
At Pepperdine, we want our students to be transformed, inside and out, to fulfill a greater purpose in the world through whatever life path they pursue. Amplifying our story through both data and narrative has empowered us to demonstrate more fully our commitment to preparing students for lives of purpose, service, and leadership. Regardless of where you or your institution are in terms of data collection, outcomes reporting, or narrative building, you have the opportunity to tell a different or better story. In fact, it is imperative that you do.
1. National Association of Colleges and Employers, “The NACE First-Destination Survey,” http://www.naceweb.org/job-market/graduate-outcomes/first-destination/.
2. Paul J. Zak, “Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling,” Harvard Business Review, October 28, 2014, https://hbr.org/2014/10/why-your-brain-loves-good-storytelling.
3. Guy Berger, “Will This Year’s College Grads Job-Hop More Than Previous Grads?,” LinkedIn Official Blog, April 12, 2016, https://blog.linkedin.com/2016/04/12/will-this-year_s-college-grads-job-hop-more-than-previous-grads.
4. “The New Golden Ticket: You Don’t Have to Code to Get Rich. How Liberal Arts Grads Are Conquering Silicon Valley,” Forbes, cover story, August 15, 2015.
5. National Association of Colleges and Employers, “Career Readiness Defined,” accessed June 11, 2018, http://www.naceweb.org/career-readiness/competencies/career-readiness-defined/.
6. Pepperdine University, “Success After Seaver: Class of 2016 First-Destination Summary Six Months after Graduation,” accessed May 24, 2018, https://seaver.pepperdine.edu/success-after-seaver/.
7. George D. Kuh, High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2008).
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AMY ADAMS is executive director of the career center at Seaver College of Pepperdine University. DANA DUDLEY is assistant dean of special academic programs at Seaver College of Pepperdine University.