What College Students Need Most

To many people, vocational education has often meant learning a trade, but a more profound and important meaning of the term has been coming back into use, writes David S. Cunningham.

January 7, 2019
 
 
Istockphoto.com/svetlana borovkova

“Find the college that’s the best fit for you!” So touts the website of the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, an online tool to compare the cost and value of American colleges and universities. The aim is to increase transparency and help students and their parents make smart decisions about college.

Yet despite good intentions, the Scorecard -- like other computer-generated filtering systems -- can’t provide the information that prospective students and their families may need most. By focusing narrowly on numerical data, such instruments ignore the momentous personal development that takes place during the undergraduate years, as well as the ways that college prepares a student for lifelong personal and professional success. In the face of these weighty concerns, a statistical measurement such as such as “cost-of-attendance to first-year-salary ratio” is hardly the most important factor under consideration.

People who are shopping for college are looking for something more. They want a career that pays a good salary but also one that suits their talents and interests. They need a sense of fit with their chosen occupation, so that they can manage the occasional obstacles and the inevitable stress. They want to graduate on time, but only if their academic program has made them nimble enough to navigate a variety of jobs (and even careers) over a lifetime. And most students still hope that college will equip them with a sense of purpose, offer worthy adventures and guide them toward a fulfilling life.

Such “quality of life” goals have been given increasing attention over the past two decades, reaching back at least to Loren Pope’s 1996 book Colleges That Change Lives. Of course, such goals need not stand in opposition to financial concerns; a bachelor’s degree, regardless of major field or type of institution, will on average mean nearly double the income of a high school diploma over a lifetime. College remains a good financial investment. Yet it also offers much more: it helps students cultivate agility and breadth, discover their gifts and talents, clarify their passions and interests, and develop a meaningful philosophy of life.

Toward a New Meaning of “Vocation”

We can’t expect the Department of Education to construct a College Scorecard for Nimble Graduates, Good Career Fit and Meaningful Lives. But we can point prospective students and parents to the increasing body of empirical research that demonstrates how college improves the odds of success in some of these realms. One important contribution is Tim Clydesdale’s 2015 book The Purposeful Graduate. After an extensive multiyear study of a diverse array of campuses, the author concluded that colleges achieved positive results through intentional programming of a specific kind. The subtitle of his book introduces a key word in this discussion: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students About Vocation.

In the medieval era in the West, the Latin verb vocare (“to call”) often had theological ramifications. To have a vocation was to be called by God into the priesthood or a religious order. In the Reformation era, Martin Luther and others argued that all people are called to particular ways of life. Civic leaders, tradespeople, homemakers, parents -- all of these individuals should consider their various occupations, domestic roles and civic contributions to be part of their calling. Vocation is for everyone.

Unfortunately, a number of later developments -- including the rise of capitalism, the industrial revolution and the increasing prominence of paid work in our lives -- meant that “vocation” came to be associated primarily with how one made a living. During much of the 20th century, “vocational education” typically meant learning a trade.

During the last several decades, however, an earlier meaning of the word “vocation” has come back into use, particularly in independent higher education. This has occurred not only in religiously affiliated colleges (where the term’s theological resonances might be accented) but also in secular institutions. Across the country, faculty and staff members in undergraduate programs -- in the classroom and in the residence halls, on the athletic field and at the career center -- are using this language more regularly. College isn’t just about getting a job. It’s about finding your calling.

The language of vocation or calling has become more popular because, while it addresses many of the quality-of-life issues described above, it does not neglect the pressures felt by college students and their parents about future employment. After all, when students find themselves attracted to a particular field of study -- and begin to consider the kinds of work to which it might lead -- they are already thinking in vocational terms. What draws me toward this particular discipline? Am I any good at it? Does it interest me enough to sustain me over the long haul? Does it prepare me to do work that the world needs, at this time and in this place?

Such questions are important ones for undergraduates to be asking -- which explains why foundations such as the Lilly Endowment have provided generous grants to institutions that are willing to encourage vocational reflection. In fact, Lilly has just announced a new grant of nearly $10 million to support this work at small and medium-size independent colleges and universities.

Vocational thinking also recognizes that, while a student’s field of study and future career are certainly important, a variety of other issues need attention as well. The concept of vocation is capacious enough to accommodate myriad other questions that undergraduates face. Where and with whom will I live? What kinds of civic and volunteer organizations will I join? What will I do with my leisure time? What are the trade-offs among the various aspects of my work (salary, time commitment, stress level, impact on family life)? When students look at their future through the lens of a vocation -- and not simply a job or career -- these questions become more prominent. Attending to one’s calling significantly increases the likelihood that, regardless of career field, one’s work will play a positive role in the construction of a life well lived.

Yes, most parents hope that their kids will finish college on time and earn a good first-year salary (or at least some kind of salary!). But that first year may turn out be the last year in a particular job if a graduate discovers that the work doesn’t fit. Better to spend a little more time reflecting on one’s talents and gifts, listening to the advice of mentors, and shadowing practitioners. Better to use the undergraduate years to engage with the work of writers, artists, visiting speakers and peers -- all of whom can nudge students to ask the big questions and to think about how they might lead a life that matters.

Consider, for example, how Augustana College developed a new program that integrates career advising, undergraduate research and vocational reflection -- thereby helping students discern how their particular interests and talents align with the work they hope to undertake after graduation. Or consider Dominican University’s decision to build vocational reflection into each year of its core curriculum, nudging students through a broad consideration of deep, existential concerns and then providing opportunities that will help them make the transition from college to career. Elizabethtown College weaves together experiential options for discernment with an emphasis on interfaith leadership, while Bluffton University capitalizes on strong student interest in community engagement to integrate academic study with a concern for social justice. These examples represent only a small fraction of the innovative programming at academic institutions that have taken up the banner of vocation.

Why Vocation Makes a Difference

Why does a vocational approach to undergraduate education make such a significant difference in the lives of students? A complete answer to this question would fill several books. (And, fortunately, several are being published; this article has links to three of them.) One key feature: the language of vocation and calling tends to reverse the direction in which college students typically think about their future. The most common pattern is to ask, “What do I want to do?” and then simply to choose among the available options. Most 20-year-olds have a difficult time sorting out the many things that they want in life, and most of them find it daunting to make a choice that they’ll have to live with for a long time. William T. Cavanaugh, director of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University, draws a parallel to consumer choice: we’re not sure what we want, and we tend to anticipate future regrets about our decisions -- even as we are deciding.

Vocational thinking turns that pattern around, asking not only about the ways that our internal motivations push us in certain directions, but also how external motivations pull us. Margaret E. Mohrmann thoughtfully explores that distinction in an essay titled “Vocation Is Responsibility.” Rather than focusing only on internal drives, students should also consider the call of what lies outside us. Where am I being drawn? What am I hearing from others about where my talents lie? What is happening in the wider world, and what are those events telling me about what needs to be done?

Some undergraduates find themselves cultivating a particular faith tradition or philosophical perspective that helps them think through these questions; others may rely on educators, mentors and counselors; still others might find that a series of guided discussions with their peers can be a clarifying process. In all of these cases, one element is constant: students are not left on their own to make all these decisions, based only on their own desires. Instead, a “community of conversation” helps students to think about where they are being called.

Some of the nation’s most effective colleges and universities have long recognized these realities. Many strive to build mentoring programs, in which faculty members work one on one with students to help them think about their callings. They organize retreats and teach-ins, bring successful alumni back to campus, and create shadowing opportunities and conversation groups that give students a chance to test their vocational inclinations and aspirations. They also seek to integrate discussions of vocation and calling into the classroom, both in their general education curriculum and in the major fields of study.

In sum, the language of vocation provides faculty members and administrators with an excellent opportunity to address many of the most significant concerns of incoming college students and their parents. They can commit to helping students find a starting job and a starting career that suit their talents and interests, while still attending to the big questions that arise with particular force during the college years. By cultivating the vocabulary of vocation and calling, colleges and universities can offer a more integrated educational program, emphasizing that career planning should go hand in hand with an exploration of deep issues of meaning, purpose and identity.

In doing so, they will be reminding prospective students and their parents that mechanical filters and scorecards don’t provide much of a guide to the quality of particular educational options. If the ultimate goal is genuine success in college and in life, then the undergraduate experience will need to include curricular and co-curricular programming that helps students reflect on the meaning of life. It will also require professors and mentors who can help students integrate those reflections into their future hopes and expectations. In short, undergraduates will be best served when the colleges they attend have demonstrated a willingness to help them explore, reflect upon and discern their vocations.

Bio

David S. Cunningham is the director of the Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE), a consortium of more than 200 colleges and universities that foster programs of vocational exploration and discernment on their campuses to help students find their calling.

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