By Thomas J. Botzman, Ph.D.
President, Misericordia University
Life in college matters, according to the recent "Great Jobs, Great Lives'' Gallup-Purdue University study.
I know that is a rather simple statement, but when you boil down the essence of a college education – the overall experience is just as vital as the rigor of the academic programs and the engagement of the career placement office. Just as in life, experiences – both good and bad – shape the student today and the person who appears years down the road. The same holds true professionally.
A meaningful college experience is not the same for every student, nor should it be. That's why colleges and universities around the world offer myriads of academic programs, extracurricular and cocurricular activities, campus settings, athletics, off-campus learning and service opportunities. Although similar in purpose, no two colleges are the same. The same is true for students.
"The Great Jobs, Great Lives'' index report reinforces the notion that academics are important, but college life adds to the experience and, therefore, the long-term positive outcomes we want in higher education. The poll of 30,000 college graduates was conducted to study the relationship between the college experience and college graduates' lives, according to the study. Researchers found that the typical descriptors of a college – public or private, large or small – had limited bearing on graduates' well-being and workplace engagement.
What mattered most to long-term outcomes was the support students received in college and the experiences they had while enrolled, according to the study. The study found that if students received personal attention from their professors and advisers the odds doubled for them being engaged in later work.
The graduates' odds of being engaged at work also doubled when students had secured internships or jobs that applied classroom lessons, involved extracurricular activities and clubs, and worked on projects that took a semester or more to complete, according to the study.
The results of the study, frankly, did not surprise me. At Misericordia University, for example, it is our mission to provide motivated students with the challenging academics and personal attention they need, and the opportunities they require to be successful in their lives and in their chosen careers. Our university, while comparatively young, has remained small by design so we can keep that promise and grow it.
Take our inaugural Summer Research Fellowship Program, for instance. Misericordia students worked side-by-side with faculty on complex research that enabled them to develop new knowledge and skills using innovative technology and methods. Most of the students involved in the program plan to attend graduate school to become physicians, advanced health care professionals or research scientists.
This program, however, is about more than science and laboratory techniques. It provides our students with opportunities to grow by collaborating with other students, faculty and outside scholars. Critical thinking and independent learnings skills are developed as they explore beyond their current boundaries. Equally as important is learning to educate others at state and national conferences where our students delivered research papers before their peers.
The program was so successful we are expanding it to be three times as large next year. "We learned from our research, our faculty mentors, and we learned from each other,'' says student research Fellow Megan Toda of Olyphant, Pa. "I have been so fortunate to have faculty support throughout my college experience."
"Being able to collaborate on research with a professor of my choice, one-on-one, was the most rewarding experience of my undergraduate career,'' adds Fellow Alice Messler, a Waverly, Pa., native who graduated with a bachelor's degree in biology in December. "Dr. (Cosima) Wiese has provided me with an immeasurable amount of knowledge, helpfulness, support and inspiration. I know everything I have learned from her will benefit me greatly throughout my graduate education.''
The 2014 National Survey of Student Engagement, which asks first- and fourth-year students at participating institutions about their educational experiences, supports Megan's and Alice's viewpoints. In the survey, students overwhelmingly rated the quality of interactions with Misericordia faculty higher than the average of all other groups. First-year students said MU provided the support they needed to succeed academically, while their senior counterparts rated this aspect of their education higher than at other institutions.
There are many factors that go into choosing the right college. Academic reputation, graduation rates and affordability remain high on the list for almost everyone. The right fit should be, too. When you combine the right characteristics and quality of the undergraduate experience with rigorous academics, you will no doubt receive the preferred outcome – an experience that remains with you throughout your life.