• July 28, 2014

A Caring Professor May Be Key in How a Graduate Thrives

If you believe the new "Gallup-Purdue Index Report," a study of 30,000 graduates of American colleges on issues of employment, job engagement, and well-being, it all comes down to old-fashioned values and human connectedness. One of the report’s big takeaways: College graduates, whether they went to a hoity-toity private college or a midtier public, had double the chances of being engaged in their work and were three times as likely to be thriving in their well-being if they connected with a professor on the campus who stimulated them, cared about them, and encouraged their hopes and dreams.

The Gallup-Purdue Index, which was announced late last year and is releasing its first survey results on Tuesday, strives to measure the components of "great lives," as the report puts it. The study—based on an online survey and supported by the Lumina Foundation and Purdue University—will be conducted with a new cohort of 30,000 graduates each year over five years, eventually surveying more than 150,000 people. It will assess not only graduates’ financial well-being, but also their well-being related to their sense of purpose, their social lives, their connectedness to the community, and their physical health.

"The thing that I think that is of particular value of this survey is that it is looking at outcomes of college that are different from the outcomes that we typically look at—like did you get a job, what is your salary, and those kinds of things," said Harold V. Hartley III, senior vice president at the Council of Independent Colleges, who got a short briefing on some of the results last week.

Of course, the Gallup-Purdue Index is also a commercial interest for the polling company. It is offering colleges the opportunity to sign up to let Gallup survey their students and alumni, and to find out how they measure up to the benchmarks in the national survey. That has been a point of skepticism for some.

"I think they are doing this as a public service, but also as a campaign to get colleges to buy their products," said Mark S. Schneider, who studies college data and education policy as a vice president at the American Institutes for Research.

‘Engagement’ on the Job

While job title and salary might not define this particular measurement, the Gallup-Purdue Index does rest on an assessment of workplace "engagement," a term signifying that employees are doing something they are best at, something they like, at a company where people care about their work. Engagement has positive effects on absenteeism, turnover, safety, productivity, and profit.

The survey found that, while nearly 40 percent of graduates are engaged at work, half of them are not engaged, and 12 percent are actively disengaged. The liberal arts scored a win in the survey: While people who had majored in science or business reported more full-time employment, those who had majored in the social sciences or the arts and humanities were more engaged at work.

Although higher education is built on a hierarchy of institutional prestige, the Gallup-Purdue Index found virtually no difference in workplace engagement and well-being among graduates of public and private colleges, highly selective colleges and the rest, or the top-100-ranked colleges and the rest.

Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education, said that when he has described the results of the survey to college officials, that nugget has been the most jarring. (Mr. Busteed pointed out that graduates of for-profit colleges are significantly less likely to be engaged and thriving at work, but the survey cannot show where those students started on those measures and what progress they might have made.)

College graduates had double the odds of being engaged at work and three times the odds of thriving in Gallup's five elements of well-being if they had had "emotional support"—professors who "made me excited about learning," "cared about me as a person," or "encouraged my hopes and dreams." Graduates who had done a long-term project that took a semester or more, who had held an internship, or who were extremely involved in extracurricular activities or organizations had twice the odds of being engaged at work and an edge in thriving in well-being.

The bad news, in Mr. Busteed’s view, based on Gallup’s findings, is that colleges have failed on most of those measures. For example, while 63 percent of respondents said they had encountered professors who got them fired up about a subject, only 32 percent said they had worked on a long-term project, 27 percent had had professors who cared about them, and 22 percent had found mentors who encouraged them.

Mr. Busteed said he believes the numbers point to new directions for higher education.

"We have a formula here for something that alters life and career trajectory," he said. "These are pretty specific things that we can think about how we move the needle. It’s all actionable, by way of who we hire and how we incentivize and reward."

Benefits for Colleges

An addendum to the report plays up the benefits to colleges that cultivate "emotional support" and experiential opportunities for students: Gallup asked graduates about their "emotional attachment" to their alma maters and, naturally, found that students who felt they had been well prepared, nurtured, encouraged, and so on were much more connected to their institutions. (The report did not detail how those views translate into donations.)

However, there are some holes in Gallup’s results. Mr. Busteed conceded that there was a "chicken-and-egg problem": It’s not clear whether the respondents who are thriving in the workplace do so because of some internal drive, and whether that internal drive had led them to find internships, proactive mentors, or long-term projects. It’s not clear whether the employed and thriving graduates just look back on their college experience with a rosier view.

"I am worried about the extent to which this is so correlational, no before or after, no causal modeling, with all kinds of self-selection problems hidden in this data," said Mr. Schneider, of the American Institutes for Research. While there is nothing in the results that rings untrue, he said, "I don’t know how valid they are."

On the upside, said Mr. Schneider, is that the major points of the Gallup survey have been validated in other studies of higher education. And because of Gallup’s visibility, he said, its findings will get more public attention than "putting these data into an education journal that five people read." But he said he wonders whether Gallup’s plan to survey alumni of individual institutions will yield useful results.

"If you are talking to alumni 10 years out, the school that they went to is not the school that it is today," Mr. Schneider said. "The president is different, the deans are different, half the faculty might be different, programs have grown or shrunk. … You are talking about a school that might be radically changed."

Still, a handful of colleges have signed up, for undisclosed amounts. Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., president of Purdue University, said that his institution was paying Gallup something in the "low six figures" to survey alumni to find out how they stack up against the national numbers and to find out what’s working at Purdue.

J. Andrew Shepardson, vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Bentley University, wouldn’t reveal what his institution will pay Gallup to survey 30,000 alumni, 4,000 undergraduates, and 1,400 graduate students this fall. But he was open about what Bentley hoped to learn.

"We all believe that a residential experience and all that goes along with a traditional American higher education is valuable, but we have never measured it," he said.

Mr. Shepardson and his colleagues hope to find the elements that "move the needle" on well-being and engagement in the Bentley experience. "For me it’s a bit about, Why spend the money for a place-based education when you can get 120 credits from your parents’ basement? Can we articulate that there is a value?"

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