Higher Education's Rocky Road to Well-Being

I recently wrote about the inaugural Gallup-Purdue Index Report, Great Jobs, Great Lives, which found that “high impact” college practices have a substantial payoff in terms of the “workplace engagement” and well-being of graduates. Many commentators seized on the fact that the study didn’t find substantial differences in outcomes for elite and non-elite college graduates. There are reasons, I think, not to overemphasize this conclusion, as the practices that are connected with the beneficial outcomes are those that were pioneered by, and still characterize the educational experience in, private liberal arts colleges. In that essay, I focused on workplace engagement and promised to revisit the issue of the connection between higher education and well-being.

Here’s one of the first things the report tells us about college education and graduates’ well-being:

The majority of the graduates surveyed are thriving—strong, consistent, and progressing—in one or more of the five interrelated elements of well-being [purpose, financial, social, community, and physical], but on average, they are thriving in just two elements. In fact, only 11% of graduates are reaping the cumulative advantages of thriving in all five elements—in line with the relatively small percentages Gallup generally sees among the larger U.S. population in other research. More than one in six (17%) graduates are not thriving in any of the elements. Altogether, this suggests that many graduates are still waiting to experience that “great life.”

If this were all one had to go on, it would seem that investing substantially in higher education doesn’t have much of a payoff, as college graduates don’t seem to fare much differently from their counterparts who didn’t walk across the stage at commencement. But that’s not the whole story. The percentage of graduates prospering in all five elements climbs from 3% for recent graduates (2010-2014) to over 20% for those who graduated in 1969 and earlier. This may not be all that surprising, as (for example) younger graduates are, among other things, much less likely than their older counterparts to answer the following question—“I have enough money to do everything I want to do”—in the affirmative. And someone just starting out in his or her field, or waiting for a tight job market to ease up a bit, is also unlikely to affirm that “I like what I do every day.” (I leave open the possibility that there are significant generational differences in the student experience as well, so that it’s possible that recent graduates may never achieve the levels of well-being that their predecessors have.)

As I mentioned in the last essay, Gallup asked a series of questions that purported to determine whether a graduate’s alma mater was “passionate about the long-term success of its students” and “prepared [him or her] well for life outside of college.” People whose colleges did so roughly doubled their odds of thriving in all the areas of well-being. Stated another way, college graduates are, over their lifetimes, roughly twice as likely to thrive in all areas of well-being than are people from the general population.

This sounds wonderful, but we have to remember that “twice as likely” amounts at best to only about one quarter of the respondents. If a college education is sold as a ticket to the “American Dream,” it still looks more like a lottery ticket than a guarantee that one will arrive at one’s destination. Part of the explanation lies in something I noted in my previous essay: a relatively small proportion of college graduates reports having had all the kinds of high impact experiences that seem to increase the odds of success in the workplace and in life. We inside the ivy-covered walls know what to do, but don’t seem to do it with all that many of our students (the range is from 63% who report having a professor who “made [them] excited about learning” to 20% who reported being heavily involved in extracurricular activities; most percentages are in the twenties).

Some of us professors may indeed be falling down on the job, but I’m certain that some of the responsibility lies with the students and the circumstances under which they come to college. Some students just don’t want to be engaged on campus, perhaps because they’re too busy hanging out and playing video games, or because they’re living at home and commuting two hours a day to and from campus, or because they’re working (just under) thirty hours a week off-campus. One study found that almost 60% of students lived at home or with relatives in 2013. Another study found that 72% of students worked at least part-time, with 46% of them working more than twenty hours a week. The old professorial rule of thumb was that students should spend at least two hours preparing for every hour spent in the classroom, which makes a full academic load the equivalent of a full-time job. A recent study found, however, that students are spending, on average, only about half as much time as we say we expect, roughly fourteen hours a week, rather than, say, thirty. Whether it’s because of work or play, contemporary students just don’t give as much of themselves to their dear old alma mater. And they likely won’t receive as much in return.

At the same time, I don’t want to let their teachers off the hook either. In the previous essay, I mentioned the research and publication expectations that are shared by prestigious universities and elite private liberal arts colleges. At many institutions, the incentive structure is skewed away from teaching and toward work that generates publications or patents. The activities that enhance students’ educational experiences may not be those that are rewarded by colleges and universities. But there’s another issue as well: while “back in the good old days” the majority of faculty were tenured or tenure-track, nowadays roughly two-thirds of all college and university instructors are non-tenure track. Some of these faculty have term or visiting appointments; others are adjunct faculty, who teach either part-time or cobble together a full-time teaching load across a number of institutions. Some have the luxury of being devoted entirely to undergraduate teaching; others are coming to the classroom from full-time work or from another classroom at another institution. In the latter cases, they don’t have as much time to engage with their students and offer them the kind of encouragement or supervision that provides long-term payoffs. In short, I’m not altogether confident that the 21st century undergraduate experience will be comparable to its 20th century counterpart. There may now well be less focus on college and classroom, both on the part of faculty and on the part of students.

In other words, I’m not sure that, say, forty years down the road members of the class of 2014 will realize the same level of well-being that members of the class of 1974 experience now. I know that all things won’t be equal: our economy and society are likely to look a lot different, and not necessarily in a good way. But if I’m right to suspect that there are reasons why those high impact experiences are comparatively rare (and perhaps getting rarer), then college in general won’t live up to our expectations. A certain kind of college will, but won’t be all that common in the higher education marketplace.

Let me conclude with some words of caution. For a variety of reasons, I’m not willing to rest content with the results of this survey. It seems to me that the way our researchers have operationalized well-being leaves more than a little bit to be desired. Consider the following statements, supposedly connected with various elements of well-being.

“I like what I do every day.” (Purpose well-being) “I learn or do something interesting every day.” (Purpose well-being) “Someone in my life always encourages me to be healthy.” (Social well-being) “My friends and family give me positive energy every day.” (Social well-being) “The city or area where I live is a perfect place for me.” (Community well-being) “In the last 12 months, I have received recognition for helping to improve the city or area where I live.” (Community well-being)Questions abound. Do we really want to define social well-being in terms of exhortations to be healthy? What on earth is “positive energy”? Isn’t it odd that “community well-being” is defined in terms of what’s in it “for me”? And how are respondents supposed to understand receiving recognition for helping to improve a city or area? Are we talking about awards ceremonies or a simple “thank you”? And are we talking only about civic or other official recognition, or do we include people’s contributions to the various institutions of civil society, like churches, youth sports, and neighborhood associations? While I’m quite pleased that the survey researchers are going beyond workplace success, which is surely too narrow a definition of the purpose of a college education, not to mention the American Dream, but I’m more than a little dismayed by the vagueness and paltriness of their attempts to do so.

I know that this, taken from the introduction to a related Gallup survey, is meant to be reassuring.

Well-being encompasses how we think about and experience our lives. The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index provides an in-depth real-time view of Americans’ perception of their well-being. This information gives employers, health plans, health systems, governments, and communities unmatched insight into the state of their populations. The Gallup and Healthways partnership combines decades of clinical and behavioral economics research, and intervention and health leadership expertise to deliver a preeminent source of well-being data in the U.S. and globally…. Our measurement enables public- and private-sector leaders to know where they stand and how to respond to a variety of well-being factors including basic access to necessities, daily health and work-related experiences, and community and social involvement. This robust measurement gives leaders the opportunity to develop and prioritize informed strategies to help their organizations and communities thrive and grow.

So why is achieving high levels of well-being a strategic imperative for many organizations? Simply stated, people with higher well-being cost less and perform better. By improving well-being, we can unlock this economic value for organizations and communities.

This, of course, is language intended to sell a product to those who have money to spend and need to generate revenue. But it still makes well-being an “input” whose purpose is to help create “economic value.” Well-being isn’t treated as an end in itself, something that we should seek and appreciate for its own sake. If you can’t acknowledge that, if you have to make it instrumental, then I question whether you really understand the multifarious and sophisticated ways in which people might pursue “the good life.”

In some sense, the Gallup-Purdue Index Report points in the direction of a liberal education without understanding what it is or why it’s important. “Well-being” defined in terms of “clinical and behavioral economics research” is a far cry from the human good as explored by Aristotle, Cicero, St. Augustine, Shakespeare, Adam Smith, or Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Perhaps an encounter with “Great Books,” dedicated and inspiring teachers, fellow students alive to the ideas expressed in the books and discussed in the classroom, and a “leisurely” setting where the distractions of work and meaningless play aren’t all that intrusive will show up as making a significant difference in a survey like this one. But it is harder to find something if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

When I talk to my former students, I know I’m on the right track. Knowing the right questions at least, they provide me much surer guidance than does this survey. But if those who follow its tracks stumble upon the path of a liberal education, my colleagues and I will welcome them.