Higher Ed Outcome That May Overshadow All

This question still has not been answered: What is the real value of higher education? Last month President Obama proposed a plan to rate colleges in terms of access, affordability and outcomes. It is not surprising that his plan incorporates performance measures such as relative cost, average student debt after graduation and starting salary after graduation. In its "Best Colleges 2014" edition, U.S. News & World Report has increased the weight of output measures that signal how well a college is educating its students. Many other individuals and organizations have proposed their own outcome measures. One thing is abundantly clear: There is no agreement on what are the most appropriate outcome metrics for higher education. While each metric may have some value, any particular one seems too narrow and fails to capture the more elusive, overarching goal of a college education.

In a recent article in AGB Trusteeship, Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education, offered a very different perspective on the value of higher education. After interviewing college presidents and trustees, he determined that they shared a longer term, more inspirational view of higher education outcomes. To define those outcomes, Busteed looked to research conducted by Gallup over the past 70 years and an even more expansive, recent global research study representing more than 98 percent of the world's adult population in more than 150 countries. Informed by this research, Busteed proposed that the ultimate outcome of a college education may be "career wellbeing."

As the chancellor of Albion College (a liberal arts college in the Midwest), I was intrigued by Busteed's article. Albion College has sought to blend career readiness support with a liberal arts and sciences education through the "Albion Advantage." I wanted to learn more about how the college's focus on helping students take the next step after graduation -- to medical school, law school, graduate school, a job or voluntary service -- may lead to career well-being. So, I contacted Busteed to find out more about this concept. He suggested that I read Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, co-authored by Tom Rath and Jim Harter, which used Gallup data.

Here's what I learned: After extensive research, Gallup found that there are five broad elements essential to the well-being of most people around the world: career, social, financial, physical and community. Of great surprise, career well-being was the most important predictor of overall well-being. Career well-being is not about making a high salary; it is about liking what you do every day. If you increase your career well-being, it is then likely that you'll increase your social, financial, physical and community well-being. Here's just one telling finding from Rath and Harter's book:

"Compared to those who do not get to focus on what they do best, people who have the opportunity to use their strengths are six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and more than three times as likely to report having an excellent quality of life."

So what does this mean for higher education? I believe we need to redouble our efforts to help students find their passion and develop their unique strengths. In addition to providing a solid academic foundation, we must ensure that we have robust career development offices that can assess and inventory student interests and talents early in their college career and help them craft an individualized four-year plan to explore options and opportunities. As part of this plan, we need to encourage students to actively explore different careers by volunteering, job shadowing and interning. We also need to assess our own performance as higher education institutions by surveying our alumni, measuring their level of career wellbeing, and, based on their feedback, committing to improvements on campus to raise the career wellbeing of future generations.

Of course, higher education cannot totally determine the wellbeing of graduates. As individuals, they will continue to grow and develop personally and professionally over time. Their interests may, in fact, change after college, and they are likely to pursue multiple careers. However, if we in higher education can at least point them in the right direction while they are still our students and help them discover a career that they love and where they are at their best, then we have an outcome that is profoundly important.