Let’s Get Engaged

By Joseph E. Aoun

RCEd Commentary

As anyone following higher education knows, there's a growing movement to assess colleges by measuring the post-graduation earnings of their graduates. The underlying - and quite reasonable - assumption is that on some level, a good college education ought to translate into a good post-college salary.

Even so, the recently released Gallup-Purdue University Index of college and life outcomes may have identified an even more pressing issue: most college graduates in the U.S. aren't truly "engaged" in their employment. As a matter of fact, the index reports that of the 30,000 graduates they surveyed who are working full-time, a meager 39 percent feel they are actually engaged in what they do for a living.

According to Gallup, disengaged employees drag morale and corrode their teams' performance. They pass their workdays in general disgruntlement and make the workplace less productive for everyone. On a human level, this is disturbing enough - but considering that the nation's economic health depends on innovation, creativity, and drive, it's downright alarming. As such, graduates' salaries ultimately may be less of a problem than the apparent national crisis of professional malaise.

However, the Gallup index points to a solution, noting the correlation between certain educational experiences in college and subsequent engagement in one's job. For instance, twice as many respondents reported that they felt engaged in their work if they had previously experienced a college internship, job, or co-op that allowed them to apply classroom learning to the professional sphere. Moreover, the odds of graduates being engaged in work were 2.6 times higher if they agreed that their universities had adequately prepared them for post-college life.

These findings should spur some reflection within higher education. Every college professes the goal of producing graduates poised for lives of productivity and personal fulfillment. If that's the case, perhaps more institutions should consider integrating classroom learning with the real world, as the index suggests.

At my own university, which uses the co-op model, we've long believed in the link between experiential learning and positive future job outcomes. As I often say to our first-year students, by exposing them to different careers and workplace experiences, co-ops will help them learn what they're good at, what they're not good at - and hopefully, what they'll love for a lifetime. For example, Emily Izzo, our student commencement speaker this year, started with a co-op in Belfast, Ireland working in education communications. But it was only after another study experience in smoggy St. Petersburg, Russia, that she discovered a passion for environmental issues. As a result, she sought her next co-op with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, and is now pursuing a career in the field.

Other students take a more direct route. Rachael Tompa, who graduated this month, dreamed of being an astronaut growing up - dreams that led her to co-ops at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she worked as a thermal engineer on three aerospace projects. Likewise, her fellow graduate Stanislas Phanord pursued his childhood ambition to be a diplomat through a co-op at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, after which he worked in Senegal as a human rights advocate. He'll be joining the Foreign Service in short order.

Americans fortunate enough to be employed work an average of about 1,790 hours per year. Those hours needn't be drudgery. Engagement with the real world in college directly relates to workplace engagement after graduation - and happy workers are generally happier people. Focusing on the size of graduates' paychecks is certainly one relevant way to measure a college's impact. But as the Gallup index shows, there are other - perhaps deeper - measures, too. It's put a new twist on an old trope: money won't get you happiness, but the right education might.

Joseph E. Aoun is President of Northeastern University.

Joseph E. Aoun
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