Purpose: Higher Education’s Role in Young Adult Development

September 5, 2019

I came to higher education leadership after a career in medicine and public health, with a focus on women. As president of the nation’s preeminent women’s college, I still carry with me the same broad goal that’s fueled my entire career: creating the conditions for women to flourish and reach their full potential—both in service to them and in service to the world.

So how do we create this environment? What are its essentials? 

To start with, we need to clearly identify the long-term outcomes we’re seeking. What does it mean to flourish? What public goods do we serve?

We need to be both intentional and data-driven. As institutions, we believe in rigorous inquiry and the production of new knowledge and evidence-based approaches. It’s essential that we bring this same rigor to our own endeavors, to measure our performance against our purposes. 

In this spirit, there is much to be gleaned from the inaugural Gallup-Purdue Index Report of 2014, which drew on a massive study measuring long-term student outcomes in work and life.

Focused on long-term outcomes, the researchers looked at five dimensions of well-being: purpose, social, financial, community, physical.

Their findings were troubling: Just 11 percent of college graduates were found to be thriving in all five dimensions. More than one in six weren’t thriving in any.

At the same time, researchers found distinct similarities among those who were thriving—a set of widely shared college experiences. Two stood out being especially important: emotional support and deep experiential learning. The impact was far from minor: Graduates who checked both boxes were twice as likely to be engaged in their work and otherwise thriving in adulthood, with thriving defined as “strong, consistent, and progressing in all five dimensions of well-being.”

More specifically, the researchers found six specific experiences that strongly correlated with how well-prepared students felt for college and later life.

The first three were linked to support:

  • Having at least one professor who made the student excited about learning.
  • Feeling that professors cared about them as people.
  • Having a mentor who encouraged the student to pursue her goals and dreams.

The remaining three were linked to experiential learning:

  • Working on a project that took a semester or more to complete.
  • Having an internship or job that allowed the student to apply what she’d learned in the classroom.
  • Being extremely active in extracurricular activities and college organizations.

The good news: Eighty-two percent of college graduates who strongly agreed that they had all of the so-called “big six” experiences as undergraduates also strongly agreed that their schools prepared them well for life after college.

The bad news: Just 3 percent of graduates said they’d had all six. Notably, of the 5 percent of students who strongly agreed they’d had none of the six experiences, just 5 percent believed they were well prepared for post-college life.

Those are some arresting findings. And they underscore the importance of a holistic approach—one that puts student health and well-being among our core responsibilities, no less than scholarship and intellectual growth. Indeed, I would argue, the two go hand in hand.

Now, as the historians among us know, this perspective is nothing new.

Shortly after arriving at Wellesley, I came upon a speech by our second president, Alice Freeman Palmer, on what she called “the larger gifts of college life.” Interestingly, she gave scant attention to the benefits of gaining new knowledge—these, she said, “may be assumed.” Instead her focus was far downstream—on the array of lifelong benefits conferred by college education. 

Topping her list was happiness and physical health—the same issues that bring us here tonight (I believe that the term “mental health” had not been invented!). She also spoke in compelling terms of “the gifts of friendship with people very different from ourselves.”

I’ve thought a lot about that—and about how these gifts have only grown more valuable over time. What better place to practice talking across difference—politics, race, economic class, and all the other myriad fault lines of 21st-century life? 

From their first day on campus, students will encounter, some for the first time, people very different from themselves. And they will not just see them briefly in class, then go their separate ways. For the next four years, they will live together and eat together, study and work together. In the best possible way, they are stuck with each other.

As residential colleges, I believe that we are uniquely positioned to model, teach, and cultivate the capacity to talk across human divides, and that doing so is central to our purpose. It is both an essential tool for life and the foundation of democracy.

If students are to leverage their knowledge and ideas—to have the biggest possible impact in the world—they will need skills that go beyond rational debate and critical thinking. It’s often said that the goal of a liberal arts education is to teach not only content but also how to think. To that I would add that we need to teach not only how to think but also how to connect.

Increasingly, I think in terms of a Curriculum of Connection, one that pervades every aspect of campus life, from the classroom to the cafeteria.

Its lessons will go far to shape our collective future. The greatest challenges of our times—from environment to education, from poverty to pandemics to shoring up democratic institutions—will require us to come together as never before, across disciplines, across interests, across identities.

The Curriculum of Connection is grounded in shared values, and here I know I’m on contested ground, with many arguing that higher education should be values-neutral. But at a time of increased vulnerability for so many of our students—I think of survivors of a myriad of traumas and undocumented students, among so many others—I believe it’s incumbent on us to hold a moral frame. The Curriculum of Connection is rooted in a Culture of Connection—a culture of care, courage, and curiosity.

This calls on us to be ever mindful of our students’ diversity. Just as we consider students’ academic backgrounds in order to support them, we must commit to a holistic understanding of who our students are and what they need. We will need to understand the landscape of mental health in high schools, families, and communities.

Student mental health and well-being is not a single problem, easily tracked and measured. Rather, we are dealing with a variety of levels of pain and illness requiring different approaches. Students come to us with unique life stories and unique needs. We can’t force them into one-size-fits-all solutions. Quite often, we will need to work across silos—no small task for higher education—and on issues that are unfamiliar.

As I stated, I came to higher education from medicine and public health, and increasingly I see a need for the two to come together. Our students are in a demographic where psychiatric illness is likely to present. All in all, one-third of all people will experience psychiatric illness at some point in their lives. Of these, 75 percent will be diagnosed by the age of 24. 

This is a challenge shared by each of our institutions. We need to both learn from each other and collaborate. We might start with creating a repository for interventions that have been tested nationally.

We would also do well to join forces with academic medical centers and schools of public health to develop multicenter trials geared to helping us determine the right strategies and treatments for various conditions.  

Throughout, we need to be committed and creative—to make the most of the limited resources at our disposal. At the residential college, nothing is truly extracurricular. Every aspect of what we do is rife with opportunity—the opportunity both to serve our students and to shape the future.