What Is the Purpose of Higher Education? (Part 4)

The Roger Williams University Story

Part 1 of this series, “Attack of the Politicians,” discussed the widespread notion that higher education’s purpose is, first and foremost, to prepare students for the workforce. Part 2, “Higher Education Strikes Back (Weakly),” focused on the idea that higher education actually serves a multitude of purposes, preparation for a career being perhaps the most important, but far from the only, purpose. Part 3, “A New Hope,” considered the findings of a Gallup-Purdue study that correlated particular experiences and opportunities students had as undergraduates with a subsequent rich and fulfilling life – and surely “a great job and a great life” is something that all prospective students (and their parents) desire.

Now, in Part 4, I examine the efforts we at Roger Williams University are making to ensure that our students receive these highly desirable experiences and opportunities, as a way of demonstrating the ultimate value of an RWU education. Here, then, are the nine major experiences that the Gallup-Purdue report found to be highly correlated with great jobs and great lives.

The numeric figure that follows each experience is the percentage of the 30,000 college graduates surveyed by Gallup who indicated that they “strongly agreed” that they had had these experiences as undergraduates.

  1. A professor who cared about the student as a person (27%): RWU faculty are hired, retained, tenured and promoted based primarily on their effectiveness in teaching our undergraduates. RWU’s classes are deliberately kept small, averaging fewer than 20 students, in order to foster personal connections between individual students and their professors. In fact, when asked what one thing they hope never changes at RWU, the overwhelming response from graduating seniors is the close personal relationship between faculty and students that developed over their four undergraduate years. Bottom line: our faculty care about our students.
  1. A professor who made the student excited about learning (63%): Not every student arrives on a college campus (including Roger Williams University) with the motivation to excel. Accordingly, our faculty assume the responsibility for motivating students and encouraging them to become excited about learning. Our students may become motivated because of the skill of a professor in presenting subject material in class in a fundamentally engaging and exciting manner. Other students become motivated because their professor includes them in a research project. Still other students become motivated because they become a part of interdisciplinary teams of students and professors working on often-complicated problems and projects in our external community. We see how motivated and excited students are about research and hands-on experiential projects during one week each spring when they present the results of their individual work through posters and talks at our weeklong SASH (Student Academic Showcase and Honors) Conference. This year, 468 students – the equivalent of almost half of our graduating class – presented at SASH.
  1. A mentor who encouraged the student to pursue his or her dreams (22%): Very often, it is our faculty who serve as mentors to our students. But mentorship can come from anyone on the campus – including the juniors and seniors who serve as student senators, Presidential Ambassadors, Orientation Advisors, Student Advocates and Resident Assistants, as well as the staff in the Division of Student Life, senior administrators – even the departmental secretaries. I have never seen or worked on a campus where the entire staff is so completely focused on student success. It is sad to see that only about one in five of the college graduates in the Gallup-Purdue study strongly agreed that they had had a mentor while in college. I am confident that the percentage of RWU graduates responding affirmatively would be much higher.
  1. An internship or job where the student was able to apply what she or he learned in the classroom (29%): Internships are common in many of our academic departments. At RWU, in fields as disparate as journalism, architecture and public relations, internships are required for graduation. Many of our students in a variety of majors graduate having had two or three internships. Similarly, students in fields such as engineering, construction management and finance are placed in summer jobs where they are able to demonstrate in the field what they have learned in formal classroom work – and often these summer jobs and internships translate into a permanent position after graduation.
  1. Active involvement with extracurricular activities and organizations (20%): Roger Williams University has more clubs and organizations than many much larger campuses, and every year students who have the desire to do so can (and do) create new clubs. Our campus is a hive of activity on every night of the school year, where social life is not dominated by fraternities and sororities (since we have none), but by clubs, intercollegiate and intramural athletics, and service organizations of every kind – an outgrowth of the fact that the great majority of our students live on campus and truly enjoy the company of their classmates.
  1. A project that took a semester or more to complete (32%): One of the hallmarks of a Roger Williams University education is the opportunity to do research with faculty (a thesis or senior project), or to be on a Community Partnerships Center interdisciplinary team of students, in a for-credit project guided by faculty. These projects originate from community nonprofits and government agencies and require the analysis of, and recommendations for solving, complex problems, using students from several academic specialties that, of necessity, must learn to work together. These projects are a semester or more in length, and, in the last three-plus years, we have had more than 150 such projects, involving more than 1,300 students.
  1. Felt well prepared for life after college (29%): About once a week throughout the school year, my wife and I host dinner parties in our home for small groups of students. We are curious to know more about the students: what state or country are they from; how was it that they chose RWU; how are they enjoying their experience here; if they are seniors, have they secured a job; how well prepared do they feel as they leave the campus for the “real world?” The information is anecdotal, of course, but while many of our seniors express some reluctance to leave the campus life they know and love, overwhelmingly (and certainly at a rate much higher than Gallup found in its study) they feel well prepared for the next stage of their lives. They feel this way because they know that they have what it takes to be successful: they are confident because of the education and mentorship they have received at RWU. Their off-campus experiences in internships, study abroad, or in presenting the results of their research at regional or national conferences, coupled with a great work ethic, are the icing on the cake. They feel that they can compete with the graduates of any university.
  1. Felt emotionally attached to the college (18%): When high school seniors come to an Open House at RWU, we often ask them, “How many of you would like to have one more year of high school?” Of course, they look at us as if we had lost our minds. One more year of high school? You have got to be kidding! No one ever puts up his or her hand. But, four years later, when I talk to our graduating seniors at one of the many celebratory events we hold for them, it’s quite a different story. About half say they would love to come back for another year at RWU, even as they acknowledge that it’s time for them to move on. They are sometimes wistful to the point of tears. There is no question in my mind that the large majority of our graduates have formed a strong emotional attachment to our campus – and that is something of which I am very proud.
  1. Felt the college was passionate about the long-term success of its students (24%): I have previously mentioned the unusual level of commitment our entire staff at RWU has for maximizing our students’ success, and how the students, when asked what they hope will never change, overwhelmingly talk of the close and supportive relationships they have developed with both faculty and staff. They reference conversations they have had with high school friends who went to other colleges, and report their recognition of, and appreciation for, the fact that their experience at RWU was exceptional. As president, I am very confident that the percentage of our graduates, especially in recent years, who would “strongly agree” that their college was passionate about their long-term success would be significantly higher than the 24 percent found by Gallup in its study of 30,000 college graduates.

The Takeaway

Well, of course a university president, given the opportunity, will brag about his or her campus, faculty, students and programs. So kindly forgive my enthusiasm about Roger Williams University. But there are two points that I want to make as I end this blog post:

  1. From the Gallup-Purdue study, we in higher education now have a far clearer sense of which experiences matter most to our graduates as they seek to have a life well lived. Surely, our collective objective should be intentionally to increase the likelihood that our students will have such positive experiences (rather than just leaving everything to chance) – and yet I see very little evidence that this critical study – one that provides answers and direction to an industry (higher education) that many observers feel is in grave need of answers and direction – is being taken seriously by educators. Rather than reconsidering and reframing their institutions’ educational objectives, too many campus leaders seem intent on staying the course – even though they have no real sense of what that course is, or where it will take them.
  1. I take no small delight in learning that many of the things we have been doing at Roger Williams University historically, and even more in recent years, align very well with the experiences that were shown to matter most in the Gallup-Purdue study. But there is more that we can do, and are doing, not only to increase the opportunity and likelihood that our students will have these experiences, but also to survey our students and graduates to ascertain whether they “strongly agree” that they are receiving them.

I remain very optimistic about the future of Roger Williams University and about our growing reputation in preparing our students in an exceptional manner to have a great job and a great life.