The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students about Vocation

Tim Clydesdale
Published by University of Chicago Press in 2015

With a “crisis” of purpose haunting higher education, American institutions explore the goals of their existence as their emerging adult occupants do the same with their purposes in the world. Today, the uncertainties of students rise as their commitments drop in relation to key components of adulthood (such as choice of major, marriage). Responding to this listlessness, Tim Clydesdale’s The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students about Vocation comes at a timely point. Admittedly, some practitioners and other readers may balk at the mixed qualitative-quantitative style, as well as at the sheer magnitude of the study. Nevertheless, The Purposeful Graduate offers statistical and anecdotal insights unparalleled in the current research and calls higher education personnel to thought as well as action.

Clydesdale’s work recounts and analyzes the $225 million Lilly Endowment initiative in which 88 higher education institutions participated over 8 years, exploring conversations and projects centered on purpose among their faculty, staff, and students. Data collection for this extensive study included interviews, surveys, focus groups, and document reviews. Clydesdale, a sociologist at the College of New Jersey and author of The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens After High School (University of Chicago Press, 2007), presents his research journey and findings by linking participant narratives with recommendations for practice and reflections on data themes. Helpfully, Clydesdale imbeds diagrams throughout the chapters to explain further the various models and implications he draws from the research. The work’s many appendices then provide extensive information regarding the data collection process.

Clydesdale starts the conversation in his book with a broad perspective on the need for purpose exploration as a force of organizational sustainability, competitiveness, and identity formation in higher education. More specifically, Clydesdale contends that emerging adults hunger for meaning and need to develop what he terms “grounded idealism,” or “a resilience and a persistence that combined broad contentment with their present lives with ongoing progress toward a life that would positively impact others” (18).

After making the case for both the need for this conversation and subsequent offerings, Clydesdale lays out and lauds one institution’s admirable purpose exploration program as a harbinger for the history and intent behind the Lilly Endowment’s initiative: Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation (PTEV). He also explains his involvement in the evaluation process and the implications of said evaluation, especially considering the current sociological contexts of science, spirituality, and education.

Clydesdale then takes the content to a more pragmatic level as he begins to outline the research process and simultaneously discuss the findings. He describes four successful purpose exploration programs at as many institutions, selected for the lasting positive impacts they had on the campuses and in the lives of faculty, staff, and student participants. In explaining the effective attributes of their design plans, Clydesdale highlights that successful institutions can either give birth to completely new vocation exploration programs—for example, a themed residence hall or an interdepartmental, interdisciplinary course—or can build programs on preexisting structures within their organizational operations—such as a reshaped Gospel choir or a reformatted first-year orientation. Moving from design through implementation, each programmatic scenario concludes with the commendable outcomes achieved. Most often, these outcomes include observable development of grounded idealism in students and appreciative engagement of thoughtful, productive faculty and staff.
Delving more into participant impacts, Clydesdale also offers a thorough breakdown description of student types as viewed through the lens of purpose exploration. On perpendicular continua of instrumentalist/idealist (x axis) and performance (y axis), Clydesdale plots six student profiles: obsessive-compulsive achievers, future intelligentsia, utilitarians, reforming activists, minimalists, and rebels. Through further narrative unpacking of these gridded types, Clydesdale presents future intelligentsia and reforming activists—engaged and passionate about the realm of education and beyond—as the most receptive and responsive to programmatic efforts at vocational conversation.

Similarly, another diagram charts faculty and staff participants by occupational orientation (x axis—local to cosmopolitan) and daily work pattern (y axis—hyperbusy to in a rut). According to Clydesdale, at the nexus of institutional grunts, campus stars, deadwood, and institutional gamblers lie the ideal employees: good citizens, or “master teachers, natural-born mentors, campus-engaged intellectuals, campus community-builders” (136).

With the established foundation of data regarding design and personnel, Clydesdale voices both cautions and recommendations. In stark contrast to the ideal plan and people profiles found earlier in the book, readers encounter a chart of the most common strategic blunders revealed by the research efforts, with the most frequent mistakes including poor use of public and private relations, shallow or unrealistic vision, and unwieldy program structure. Clydesdale bluntly elaborates on this chart with anecdotal evidence, honest enough to sober any reader-turned-purpose-exploration-zealot by the preceding success stories.

The end of this section, however, brings something of a soothing balance to these weighty tales of programmatic woes. Here Clydesdale discusses the organizational ecology most conducive to the successful planting, care, and flourishing of programs like the ones he highlights as worthy of imitation. His conclusion then operates as a call to action, situating the essence of his recommendations within higher education’s responsibility to address national anxiety about emerging adults’ increasing purposelessness, as well as its responsibility to respond to the cries for help and meaning from those within its hallowed halls.

The Purposeful Graduate provides a welcome and informed voice in the potentially paralyzing dialogue regarding emerging adults’ and higher education’s pursuits of purpose. First and foremost, the impressive scope of this evaluation of the Lilly Endowment’s initiative cannot go without recognition and appreciation, as this effort provides the field of higher education with an unprecedented perspective on the “crisis” of purpose among college students. Also, Clydesdale’s blend of qualitative and quantitative data, as well as his equally mixed presentation style (interweaving descriptive narratives and clean-cut organizational charts and diagrams), lends a richness to both the study and the written work, likely to engage a variety of readers effectively. In the same way, while the vast majority of Clydesdale’s analysis tends toward the positive or ideal end of the programmatic spectrum, his thoughtful, specific treatment of unsuccessful programs completes the picture well, simultaneously offering practitioners and other readers a window of hope and a mirror of cautionary self-reflection.

Perhaps as a side effect of the data’s magnitude and complexity, Clydesdale’s attempt to present the findings in an approachable book format may leave some readers lost, frustrated, or both. Much of the content within each chapter—in particular, details on the themes— becomes repetitive. While initially fresh, personal and institutional narratives soon seem drawn-out and redundant, with their supposedly new insights hardly distinct from previous examples. Clydesdale clearly makes efforts to distinguish among participants in order to profile his points (such as chapter 1’s Melody and Katie or Jeff and Rosa). However, by the fourth chapter, the stories begin to blur in all their abundant narrative detail without unique philosophical or practical points to which reader-practitioners can fasten their attention.

Clydesdale could present the same findings with equitable richness in a more concrete, synthesized manner. As it stands, the book almost feels as though it needs to do justice to the colossal scope of the Lilly initiative evaluation through the breadth and depth of its reporting. However, this method, in combination with the narrative-statistical mix that may strike some readers as chaotic, eventually detracts from the overall approachable and retainable qualities of the information.

At the conclusion of his work, Clydesdale openly admits, “Others have made this argument before; my contribution is that it works, that it inspires students and educators deeply and equally, and that it is effective on a wide variety of campuses” (230). Admirably exhaustive in magnitude (if mildly exhausting in redundancy and length), Clydesdale’s thoughtful, passionate work worthily joins forces with these active participants in the conversations on purpose and emerging adulthood; together, they send out an unmistakable call to action across the collegiate scene. Practitioners at all institutional types and at all levels of responsibility and experience would do well to read and reflect on Clydesdale’s work—and would do even better to heed the call to action.

Cite this article
Hannah M. (Adderley) Pick, “The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students about Vocation”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 46:1 , 108–109

Hannah M. (Adderley) Pick

University of Portland
Hannah (Adderley) Pick is Executive Administrative Assistant to the Vice President for University Relations at the University of Portland.