How one small college helps its students find 'purposeful work'
Bates College President Clayton Spencer discusses the link between college and a meaningful career, as well as the future of the liberal arts.
Four out of five of today's college graduates say they want to find purpose in their work, which means their job interests them and provides meaning in their lives, according to a recent report from Gallup and Bates College. Yet fewer than half say they've done so successfully.
This so-called "purpose gap" can have big implications for workers and employers. Graduates with high levels of purpose are nearly 10 times more likely to "have high levels of overall wellbeing," the report notes. And other research has found engaged workers tend to be more productive in and loyal to their jobs.
Four college experiences are strongly tied to a graduate's ability to find purpose in their work, the report explains. They include having an internship, knowing someone who inspires them to pursue their goals, setting realistic expectations for their post-college job prospects and participating in a college program that encourages them to find meaning in their work.
In 2013, Bates College launched an effort to provide such a program for its students. Called Purposeful Work, it aims to help the college's some 2,000 students pinpoint their strengths and use them to shape career trajectories.
The program covers several areas. To give students the opportunity to explore their interests, they can take on internships, some of which are funded either through Bates or employer partners. The Maine college also offers several practitioner-taught courses that cover the real-world applications of their fields of study. Students also can participate in job shadows and take courses designed to teach students how the knowledge is applied outside of the classroom.
To better understand the program, Education Dive sat down with Bates President Clayton Spencer in Washington, D.C., last week after a presentation of the new research, to discuss the connection between finding purpose in work and the college experience, as well as the future of the liberal arts.
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited and condensed.
EDUCATION DIVE: How does the concept of 'purposeful work' relate to a world that is being reshaped by automation?
CLAYTON SPENCER: The world is being reshaped by the velocity of change, and automation is a piece of that. That means our students are graduating into a world defined by uncertainty, an accelerating rate of change and a high need for adaptability over the course of their working lives. Purposeful Work attempts to instill in them the ability to navigate a changing world — the tools, the self-awareness and the set of experiences to pressure test their interests.
How does practicality in picking a field or a major factor into the Purposeful Work program?
SPENCER: All work has a practical dimension. You need to put food on the table. You need to either be an economically viable adult or part of an economically viable household. Purposeful Work asks students not to choose what might seem like the most obvious choice on the surface. Because that will change, and it might not match your skills, interests and strengths.
For example, if you're in college and you say, "I want to make a high salary, so I'm going to major in economics." But you may not be very quantitatively interested. And somebody else says, "I'm going to major in philosophy because this is the last time I can really dive into this kind of learning." If that person knocks the top out of philosophy while the other is knocking the bottom out of economics — the philosophy student is going to do better, right? The most practical thing you can do is align your interests, strengths and values with the work you seek.
During the presentation, you described the liberal arts as the "most powerful and adaptable form of education." Why is that?
SPENCER: It asks students to develop a point of view, which means they have the skills to evaluate evidence. It's also grounded in their strengths and interests. We don't make students prematurely say, "I want to be an auto mechanic." Students can explore what they want to do. The cycle of exploration and reflection is fundamental to the liberal arts.
It's also fundamental to purposeful work and its root skills. Most employers will say they can teach industry-specific skills and competencies, but if workers don't have the root skills of critical thinking and the ability to persist with hard problems, make connections and look around corners, no amount of industry-specific knowledge is going to get you there.
Are there any elements of Bates' Purposeful Work program you've had to shift away from or any elements you want to expand?
SPENCER: We kept the program in the design phase for four years before we brought it fully online. We have been very careful in the design and testing of each module, so what now makes up Purposeful Work is working very well.
We really want to create financial sustainability under it. We also want to continue to expand internships. My goal is to have all of our students have the opportunity for a paid internship during their four years and the ability to have the kind of reflection we were talking about. We also want to expand the number of core employers. We've got about 75, but I'd like to see that rise to 100.
You've mentioned that the program has helped lift the profile of Bates' career services office.
SPENCER: We've moved away from a career services office that students visit their senior year when they start to panic. We take a developmental approach by working with students when they come in, helping them understand that making good choices in college is part of being purposeful. Career services, which tends to be more tactical, is now integrated into this philosophical underpinning.
There are looming enrollment declines in New England, as well as across much of the U.S. Do you see this program as a way to set Bates apart in the face of those challenges?
SPENCER: It's not meant as a tactic. I do hope people take notice of the kind of creativity and philosophical commitment that underlies the program and how deeply that is connected to the liberal arts.
Bates has had record levels of applicants in recent years, but other small colleges are closing, often as a consequence of enrollment declines. What does the future look like for liberal arts institutions?
SPENCER: Their future lies in what they've always been known for. That is, taking students at a really powerful developmental moment, putting them in a residential community with close relationships to faculty and close connectivity to the community, as well as with an incredibly rigorous curriculum, and educating the whole person. If a student goes online, they may be getting a degree that's super important, and it may be an important way for them to get that degree, but that's not educating the whole person.
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