A new (and maybe better) way to understand the impact of an Augustana education

As you probably know by now, the new Augustana 2020 strategic plan places our graduates’ success after college at the center of our institutional mission.  In real terms, this means that what our students learn in college matters to the degree that it contributes to their success after college.  Put another way, even if our students learn all kinds of interesting knowledge and complicated skills, if what they have learned can’t be effectively and meaningfully applied to life after college, then we haven’t really done our job.

Now whether you think that this is the last nail in the liberal arts coffin or the long-awaited defibrillator to revive liberal arts education, our own success hinges on something else that I’m pretty sure we haven’t thought much about. Exactly what are we talking about when we talk about a successful life after college? Do we have a working definition of what might make up a successful life for an Augustana graduate? In order to grapple with those vertigo-inducing questions, we have to know a lot more about what happens to our graduates after college.  But do we have anything more than vague notions about our own graduates’ lives?

I’m afraid that the answers to those questions are probably no, no, and no. In part, it’s because these are big, hard questions.  And to be fair, I don’t know of a college that has tried to get a real handle on these ideas.  So . . . . here we go . . . .

This is the kind of research project that can keep you up at night.  Because it isn’t just about getting data to figure out the relationship between one thing (an Augustana college experience) and another thing (a successful life after college).  For starters, these are two monstrously complicated constructs.  Distilling them down to some essential qualities may well be impossible.  I’m not saying that it’s NOT possible; I’m just admitting to the fact that I’m intimidated by the very idea of trying to identify a set of valid essential qualities. And as if that weren’t enough, we (higher education researchers writ large) have yet to have developed a conceptual framework that is complex enough to account for the almost infinite range of ways in which people’s lives evolve. To date, every effort to link alumni success to their college experience has presumed a straight line – even when we know that very few of us traveled a straight path to get to where we are now.

So over the past six months or so, Kimberly and I have built a multi-stage study in an attempt to get at some of these questions.  We settled on calling it “The Winding Path Study” (all credit to Kimberly for the title) and we have organized it around two initial stages, with room for additional exploration.  First, we had to find a conceptual framework that fit the way that people live their lives.  We found one that I think works that comes out of sociology and anthropology called Life Course Perspective. Essentially, this framework describes lives as amazingly complex and almost infinitely unique, yet full of three common elements – trajectories, transitions, and turning points. While Life Course scholars have extended definitions for each of these terms that I won’t try to summarize here, I think we all know what these terms mean just because we can likely point to moments in our own lives where the impact of these concepts became clear.

Next, we built a survey (but of course!) to try to get a better sense of the range of trajectories, transitions, and turning points that our graduates have experienced.  I hoped that we might get 1000 responses.  From these respondents, I hoped that we might find 100 that were willing to participate in a 30 minute interview.

Well, apparently we struck a chord.  We got 1000 responses from Augustana alumni in the first 12 hours of the survey, and finished with 2,792.  In addition, over 1200 respondents said that they would be willing to participate in a 30 minute interview.

I’ll share more about this project in the next several months as we pore through the data. One thing that jumped out at me as I began to watch the data coming in was the extent to which people were willing to tell us surprisingly personal details about their lives.  Our respondents wrote and wrote and wrote. We now have a treasure trove of data that we have to read through and organize.  At the end of this project, however, we will likely have a much greater understanding of the range of life courses that our alums have taken. Better yet, we hope to find some patterns that will help us think about the way that we guide our students during college.

The goals of the Augustana 2020 strategic plan are lofty and complicated.  I’m not sure we even realized how challenging this plan would be when the Board approved it in the winter or when we designed it last fall.  But now that we’ve started to roll up our sleeves, I think we already have information on our graduates that most colleges could only wish that they had.  Now comes the fun part!

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

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