The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students about Vocation

The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students about Vocation

by Tim Clydesdale


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We all know that higher education has changed dramatically over the past two decades. Historically a time of exploration and self-discovery, the college years have been narrowed toward an increasingly singular goal—career training—and college students these days forgo the big questions about who they are and how they can change the world and instead focus single-mindedly on their economic survival. In The Purposeful Graduate, Tim Clydesdale elucidates just what a tremendous loss this is, for our youth, our universities, and our future as a society. At the same time, he shows that it doesn’t have to be this way: higher education can retain its higher cultural role, and students with a true sense of purpose—of personal, cultural, and intellectual value that cannot be measured by a wage—can be streaming out of every one of its institutions.

The key, he argues, is simple: direct, systematic, and creative programs that engage undergraduates on the question of purpose. Backing up his argument with rich data from a Lilly Endowment grant that funded such programs on eighty-eight different campuses, he shows that thoughtful engagement of the notion of vocational calling by students, faculty, and staff can bring rich rewards for all those involved: greater intellectual development, more robust community involvement, and a more proactive approach to lifelong goals. Nearly every institution he examines—from internationally acclaimed research universities to small liberal arts colleges—is a success story, each designing and implementing its own program, that provides students with deep resources that help them to launch flourishing lives.

Flying in the face of the pessimistic forecast of higher education’s emaciated future, Clydesdale offers a profoundly rich alternative, one that can be achieved if we simply muster the courage to talk with students about who they are and what they are meant to do.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226418889
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/27/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 752,334
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Tim Clydesdale is professor of sociology at the College of New Jersey. He is the author of The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens after High School

Read an Excerpt

The Purposeful Graduate

Why Colleges Must Talk to Students about Vocation

By Tim Clydesdale

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-23648-3


Purposeful Paths

Too Little, Too Late

It was an iffy spring day: overcast, damp, showers possible. These certainly were not the conditions that Princeton University seniors had hoped for as they assembled in front of Nassau Hall for graduation. And yet, the weather on that June day matched the national moment—with banks "too big to fail" propped up by federal funds and interest-free loans from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, President Obama leading not just the free world but also General Motors, and a global economy wobbling and near collapse. As Princeton's then president, Shirley Tilghman was by tradition its commencement speaker as well. I did not envy her task that day. Already, a $4 billion loss from the university's endowment had forced her to make deep budget cuts, push early retirements, and issue the first layoffs in the university's storied history. What could she possibly say to these graduates as they entered the most dismal labor market since the Great Depression?

Tilghman's message was to make lemonade of out lemons. Well, that is not exactly how she put it. She worded it more eloquently: "Let me suggest there has never been a more opportune time to be a seeker after purpose and meaning." Tilghman acknowledged that "the complexity of global challenges," like replacing a carbon-based global economy with green technologies or violent hatred with tolerance, was "enormous." Yet Princeton's graduates could "become leaders" and "change the world for the better" if they help "to find solutions to these challenges." In other words, we grown-ups have so messed things up that our only hope is for you kids to fix it, but take heart—doing so will give you a deep sense of meaning and purpose. The irony is that Tilghman was right. We grown-ups have made a royal mess, and anyone who makes progress on a pressing global problem often finds a profound sense of meaning and purpose in that endeavor. But a ten-minute lesson about seeking meaning and purpose, delivered at the eleventh hour and fiftieth minute of a student's undergraduate experience, was about as useful as finding a hundred parts and no assembly instructions inside my bouncing eight-year-old's bicycle box on Christmas morning. Such a lesson, if it is to be learned, must be introduced before prospective students apply and developed throughout their years of higher education; it ought not be relegated to a university's final oration.

President Tilghman's challenge was, nonetheless, apt. I do not critique her message, only its timing. Encouraging young adults to seek after meaning and purpose is as relevant during boom years as it is during busts. And it is as important to embed in its curriculum, cocurricular programs, and everyday organizational culture as it is to articulate during convocations. This book, in short, is an account of what happens when colleges and universities infuse undergraduate education with exploration of meaning and purpose. Such exploration was once foundational to liberal arts education. That baby got tossed out with a lot of dirty bathwater, however. Ever since, thoughtful critics have pleaded with contemporary universities to resist marketplace pressures, return to the big questions of life, and recapture the historic role that universities have played in society. This book continues in that tradition, yet contributes uniquely to it, for it is an empirical study—of an initiative implemented in eighty-eight colleges and universities that invited students, faculty, staff, and administrators to incorporate questions of meaning and purpose into the undergraduate experience.

This initiative, launched by the Lilly Endowment Inc., invited church-affiliated colleges and universities to develop programming that would foster campus conversations about questions of meaning and purpose, and in particular their religious underpinnings, which is the theology of vocation. The endowment posed three questions in its request for proposals, asking campuses how they might foster students' exploration of the idea of vocation, support preclergy students specifically, and strengthen student mentorship by faculty and staff. The endowment directed applicants to draw from their own campus's tradition and practices in answering these questions, inviting proposals for $50,000 planning grants followed by $2 million implementation grants. More than four hundred church-affiliated colleges and universities applied, designing programs that fit with their institutional cultures and theological traditions. This initiative was thus comprised of willing, often enthusiastic, applicant-designed programs, developed by conservative-to-liberal campuses with proud-to-nominal church affiliations. It was not comprised of reluctant, begrudged efforts by campuses at the behest of meddling bishops or denominational boards. It further represents one of the largest curricular and cocurricular undertakings in American higher education history, and is applicable to campuses of various affiliations or none. This initiative, in short, embodies what happens when campuses intentionally and creatively engage students in conversations about purpose and meaning, a conversation of interest to anyone who embraces Socrates's notion of the examined life.

The participating colleges and universities were a surprisingly diverse lot—from internationally acclaimed research universities to small liberal arts colleges surrounded by cornfields—possessing prominent to neglected church affiliations (see appendix 1). What they had in common was the desire to engage students with questions of purpose and meaning long before graduation day—when reflection on these ideas could positively impact the choices students made and the futures they planned. Not all students nor all eighty-eight campuses had deeply meaningful or lasting experiences through this initiative. Some were untouched and others unfazed. Yet for a remarkable number of students, as well as faculty and staff, these conversations about purpose became, like Max Weber's analogy of ideas as train switchmen altering history's path, profoundly consequential in their lives. Moreover, quite a few participating institutions reclaimed the intentional exploration of purpose and meaning as core to their educational missions. Ideas, in other words, still have consequences. This book tells a story about the consequences of systematically inviting and supporting reflection about life's purpose on dozens of college and university campuses, and among thousands of students, faculty, and staff.

A few examples will help illustrate the shorter- and longer-term impacts that purposeful reflection can have. I begin with stories of three students who attended colleges that participated in this initiative and who took advantage of the available exploration programming. To add contrast, I pair each with another young adult whose life followed a similar trajectory save for exploration programming. As we journey alongside these young adults, I address important questions about self-selection, about programmatic supply versus individual demand, and about the nature of purpose exploration that it should engage young adults at the start of the twenty-first century. I then conclude the chapter with a clear statement of this book's goals, its organizing structure, and its claim about the necessity of engaging the whole student at this critical moment in American higher education.

Melody and Katie

Melody Thompson and Katie Lombardi have a lot in common. Born just nine months apart in the mid-1980s to college-educated and progressive parents, they were reared with younger siblings in well-appointed suburban homes and attended generously supported suburban schools. They grew up taking dance lessons, playing recreational soccer, spending summers at themed day camps, earning money babysitting, and participating in a variety of school clubs and volunteer organizations. And like one out of two American teens today, they attended church nearly every week with their families: Melody's family attended a Presbyterian congregation that hosted a soup kitchen and was active in the sanctuary movement, and Katie's family attended a Catholic parish whose Honduran priest was keen on liberation theology and nuclear disarmament. Not that Melody or Katie were particularly devout. They occupied, rather, the middle ground of semireligious American teens: those who see religion as a "nice thing" but also as something to keep on the periphery of one's life. Their peers were a bit surprised, then, when Melody and Katie chose colleges affiliated with their denominations. But sizable merit scholarships combined with overnight visits that revealed nice buildings, lots of campus fun, and nothing "too religious" left Melody and Katie eager to attend.

Melody enrolled at Presbyter College, a small liberal arts college of twelve hundred students located three hours' drive from her home, while Katie enrolled at Olde Augustinian University, a medium-sized institution of five thousand students located near a large US city and about ninety minutes' drive from her home. Both young women began with a major in the humanities, added a second major to augment their preparation for the workplace, and posted good grades as they followed their life goals of graduating, obtaining a fulfilling job and good income, marrying and having children, and enjoying a variety of leisure and voluntary activities. Katie, for example, hoped to marry "by twenty-five," work until she had children, and then stay home "because I do want to be there for my kids." Katie even shifted her career focus to journalism, after her summer job made it clear that a career in law would not comport readily with her vision of motherhood. Melody voiced similar goals of balancing marriage, family, and career: she did not "envision having a job that makes a significant amount of money, just enough to take care of my family and be able to send my kids to college." Enough to support her love of traveling and maybe a bit more, Melody admitted embarrassedly, to cover the costs of being "really into clothes." Melody need not have felt embarrassed. She had plenty of company, as goals like hers and Katie's are common among traditional-age college students in America, and even laudable compared to the self-destructive behaviors of too many young adults.

Observed across a room, one would see that Melody and Katie had two other commonalities: both were popular among their peers, and neither lacked for suitors. It was tempting, in fact, to conclude that their chief differences were hair and eye color—Melody was a blonde with blue eyes, Katie a brunette with brown eyes. Had I not listened to each young woman talk about her life and experiences for an hour and a half during their final semesters of college, and again one year after they graduated from college, I might have drawn such a conclusion. But important differences between Melody and Katie became apparent during our first interview, and grew large by the time I reinterviewed them. At the root of these differences was Melody's merit scholarship to Presbyter College. More than a welcomed credit on her tuition invoices, this scholarship inserted Melody into a strategically designed program of purpose exploration that included coursework, cocurricular events, service, and internship experiences. Known as the Purpose Scholars program, it selected six bright, prospective leaders from each entering class, assigned them to a faculty mentor, and required their involvement with the diverse activities of the college's Purpose Exploration Center.

Melody thus found herself at the heart of a well-funded campus program that awarded minigrants to faculty to develop and offer courses that infused exploration of purpose into classes like writing, literature, education, social change, public policy, and art; sponsored impressive alternative spring-break service programs; ran a social justice lecture series that featured speakers like poet Maya Angelou and Father Gustavo Gutierrez; organized an annual nonprofit and volunteer service career fair; and offered summer intern placements that included stipends so even students on financial aid could participate in them. In four years' time, Melody went from nibbling at these programs and their underlying ideals to devouring them, coming to see her original goals of comfortable suburban family life as insular if not selfish, and reorienting her entire future to the pursuit of international human rights and sustainable Third World development. She explained, "Since I've come to college, my worldview has developed significantly; I've seen pieces of the world that I never knew existed, and those situations have prompted me to want to become involved in correcting some of the flaws that have come about because of globalization and a lot of US policy and some European policy, too." Consequently, Melody said that her new "awareness of the world has led me to want to work in human rights." She was no longer content to "live just for myself and my own personal comfort," but desired "a profession that embodies my values ... [yet] incorporates the family piece into my vocation." (While her college's Purpose Center did not lead with the term vocation, it did not shy from it either, since it occupies a prominent place in the history of Presbyterian theology. Within a couple of years of matriculation, Purpose Scholars used theological terminology frequently in their everyday conversations.)

By contrast, Katie's scholarship required timely completion of degree requirements and an overall grade average of B or better. That was no problem; Katie met her grade obligation every semester and made steady progress on her course requirements, including Olde Augustinian's religion requirement. None of her courses generated much enthusiasm, however, nor altered her thinking very much. Not that Katie objected. Being efficient with her studies left Katie plenty of time to spend with one, then another boyfriend, and with her sorority sisters. Thus, the mainstream goals with which Katie had entered the university remained intact throughout her four years of study, and she recounted them easily: "I want to have a good career, and I want to have a family, but ultimately, I just want to be happy—'cause you see so many people who, you know, have this great job, and this great status, but they're not happy, so, that's really all. I just want to be happy. Whatever it takes to get there, you know?" Katie, like most Americans, viewed college as an instrumental means to a practical end. Her college years thus served their purpose—she earned her degree and had fun in the process.

Melody and Katie graduated from college within a few days of each other, but they could not have been further apart on the educational idealism-realism continuum. During their graduation ceremony, Melody and Katie each heard speeches relaying heartfelt entreaties to apply their knowledge and skills to serve humanity. The speech reminded Melody of professors who had mentored her and reinforced the reasons she would join an international development project the following week; it made Katie regret that she'd skipped breakfast and ponder where to get lunch. Melody was that idealistic graduate who swells the heart of professors like me; Katie was that sensible graduate whose career plans would secure her a comfortable future. But this book would not be worth reading and the initiative it evaluates not worth considering if its only product were idealistic graduates. Idealism for its own sake is maladaptive in this far from ideal world. Melody knew this world's failings well, however. More important, Melody appreciated the complexities and repeated setbacks involved in attempting to repair a minuscule part of it. Melody possessed a grounded idealism; she revised her formerly mainstream perspective, recalibrated her life trajectory, enacted decisions to effect that trajectory, and anticipated both setbacks and a slow path. On graduation day, her observable differences from Katie were theoretical. But during the days that followed, Melody set off on a trajectory that, one year later, located her in a very different place from Katie, and on a course that would separate her further still.


Excerpted from The Purposeful Graduate by Tim Clydesdale. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 Purposeful Paths
2 Contexts
3 Matters of Design
4 Students
5 Faculty and Staff
6 Strategies and Ecologies
7 Larger Lessons

Appendix 1: List of Participating Institutions in the Lilly Endowment Inc.’s Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation Initiative, 2000–2009
Appendix 2: Methodology
Appendix 3: Interview and Survey Questions
Appendix 4: Visited Campuses, Program Participation, and Postaward Continuation
Appendix 5: Resources for Purpose Exploration Programming


What People are Saying About This

George Dennis O’Brien

“There are all sorts of books offered about how to improve higher education, energize students, incentivize teaching, and so forth. But Clydesdale’s focus on vocation as a fundamental impetus for directing the student’s course in college and beyond makes his book stand out. It is a simple notion that can be generalized to all of higher education, and he offers a bevy of programmatic initiatives that are as feasible as they are sensible.”

William Damon

“At this time of increasing doubt and uncertainty in higher education, Clydesdale has given us a shining path forward. The Purposeful Graduate is well reasoned yet passionate in its recommendations. It is also a good read, filled with compelling stories of young people searching for meaningful vocations in our complex world. I recommend it to anyone who cares about the future of higher education in this country.”

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