By Marjorie Malpiede

First published on the Mary Christie Institute website

Few would argue that college can be a life-changing experience. But what if it could change not just what you know, but who you are?  What if the goal of going to college were to achieve life-long wellbeing, as well as a good career? And what if that opportunity were to exist for every student in America?

That would be truly transformative.

Bringing life-transformative education to all college students, regardless of means, is the goal of a group of higher education leaders known as the Coalition for Transformational Education (CTE).  As utopian as this charge may seem, it is grounded in data that direct how it can be achieved, as one would expect from a group of academicians – many of them engineers. Their effort to make wellbeing the center of higher education’s mission grows more realistic as administrators struggle to find solutions to the college student mental health crisis, made worse by the pandemic.

If the CTE has a blueprint, it is the 2015 Gallup study, the largest survey of college graduates in history that explored what, in their college experience, mattered most in obtaining a good job and a good life, long after leaving college.  Instead of grades or academic distinctions, the survey found that it was experiences like “having someone care for me as a person,” mentoring opportunities, and activities in the classroom that linked to real world problem-solving.  The survey results showed that graduates who reported having had these experiences achieved a wellbeing index later in life that was twice the national average.

The study, then called the Gallup/Purdue Index, caused a stir throughout academia as it disrupted the notion that success in life correlated most closely to economic metrics or academic achievement.  For people like Rick Miller, then President of Olin College, and Tom Katsouleas, then Provost at the University of Virginia, the Gallup report was a watershed moment that promised to transform the academy.  The urgency to act on its findings was even more compelling as the data also show that only a small portion of graduates reported having had these formative experiences.

Katsouleas recalls discussing the report with Miller when it first came out. “Rick and I were talking about the significance of the results and I said, ‘This is pretty remarkable. If these correlations are really that causal and that strong, don’t we, as educators, have a duty to bring these experiences to every student?’

This moral imperative would become the primary focus of the CTE and what they call “The Grand Challenge of Higher Education.”  For the previous 21 years, Miller had presided over another grand experiment in higher ed in founding and running Olin College of Engineering.  The small school in Massachusetts was built to become an important and constant contributor to the advancement of engineering education in America and throughout the world, through student-centered education focused on design thinking, teamwork, and broad multidisciplinary engagement.

Olin students work extensively in teams on projects that demonstrate how they improve the world. Their professors are also highly collaborative and inter-disciplinary, motivated by what Miller says is a passion for teaching the whole person.  Olin has no tenure and little pressure to publish.  Miller, who stepped down as President in 2020, remains humbled by the success of Olin’s approach. In 2018, an MIT global benchmark study identified Olin among the top two engineering schools in the world.  The more important outcome for Miller is the wellbeing he believes Olin’s approach engenders in its students, something he credits with an unusual and transformative learning culture which dominates the campus.

“The faculty not only take responsibility for transferring knowledge and skill, they also deliberately work on shaping the attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs — or ‘mindset’ – of students,” he said

Miller believes it is this engagement that makes the world of difference.

“We saw students that, four years earlier, were a bit “techie,” competitive, and intimidated by public speaking.  At graduation, they were walking across the stage with a can-do spirit and sense of purpose in life.  I’d get emails from parents saying, ‘What did you do to my kid?’

When Miller retired, he vowed to take what he learned at Olin and share it with other leaders interested in doing things differently, and he personally hoped this would expand beyond the engineering domain. He was particularly interested in how these new approaches might address the year-over-year increases in anxiety and depression reported by students in the annual Healthy Minds Study.

Miller officially launched the Coalition for Transformational Education in 2017. He connected with a group of like-minded college presidents and provosts who were experimenting in similar ways, making wellbeing a priority for their institutions. He, Katsouleas, and others held a series of airport meetings where they brought together curious college leaders from very diverse institutions.  According to Miller, one of the selling points of the Coalition is its spirit of collaboration across boundaries, which he says is atypical in higher education where pecking order often dominates inter-institutional activities.

One leader whose work was particularly interesting to the Coaltion was Clayton Spencer, President of Bates College, a small liberal arts school in Maine which had also engaged Gallup in a school-specific survey.  Motivated by a desire to reconcile career advising with liberal arts principles, Spencer created a program for Bates students called Purposeful Work – a purpose-focused student experience that combines curricular infusion models, practitioner taught courses, internships, and job shadowing to allow students to identify the kind of work that brings them meaning.

“I see career as a deep and powerful category for building meaning and I see meaning as fundamental to wellbeing,” she said
In 2018, Bates partnered with Gallup on a national survey that found that 80% of college graduates say that it is extremely important (43%) or very important (37%) to derive a sense of purpose from their work, yet less than half of college graduates report having found it. The study also showed that graduates with high purpose in work are almost ten times more likely to have overall wellbeing.

Spencer has since joined the Coalition’s Steering Committee along with Miller, Katsouleos, and several others.  The Coalition includes 15 schools with similar philosophies and diverse profiles, underscoring the coalition’s strive for scalability in its work.  Schools like Wellesley College, Arizona State University, and the University of Michigan-Dearborn signed on. Miller says that what brings these schools together is a common concern for their students, and a realization that the old way isn’t working, particularly when it comes to student mental health.  They are also motived, if not disturbed, by recent Pew research that finds that the majority of Americans feel that higher education is going “in the wrong direction.

A New Direction

Tom Katsouleas left UVA in 2019 to become the President of the University of Connecticut, where he made good on his promise to deliver what students said mattered to them most in terms of success in life and improved wellbeing.  He made life transformative education UConn’s number one priority.  He did so by focusing on what happens inside the classroom, not just in activities deemed to be within student affairs, a move he says significantly changed how we think about these issues.

“We took from the Gallup data the two types of activities that strongly correlated with wellbeing after college – emotionally supportive mentoring and connecting what you learn in the classroom to authentic problems in real life.  If you make those a priority, then faculty are not just imparting knowledge, they have shared responsibility in the long-term wellbeing goal.
Miller agrees, saying that to do this work you need to love your students as members of your own family, no matter what department you’re in.  That might sound a bit “cringy” for many administrators on today’s secular campuses, but Miller means it.  “When I talk to provosts about how learning experiences can transform a student’s life, I talk to their hearts, not their heads.
Katsouleas says the implications of bringing the two sides of the house together around these issues are profound.  “For the first time, mental health and wellbeing are at the center of higher education’s mission. That’s a huge shift because now mental health becomes proactive, not auxiliary, and active, rather than reactive,” he said.

Through the Gallup data, the CTE leaders put forth that what is responsible for one’s wellbeing includes the identity, agency, and purpose you get from your education. And, because the Gallup data focus on life after college, they believe that if schools begin this work during the student experience, wellbeing rises over time.  Identity, agency and purpose are currently the foundation for the work of the CTE.

According to the Coalition’s website, “To develop identity, students must be encouraged to discover who they are, where they come from, and their place in the world. To develop agency, they must be encouraged to discover what they can do with what they learn and to apply their knowledge to authentic problems in the world. And alongside these, to develop a sense of purpose they must be encouraged to explore what impact they might have on the world.

Learning by Doing

With evidence, optimism and an impressive roster of converts, the CTE is off and running, but how does a group such as this go about a goal as lofty as the Grand Challenge?  Miller admits it will take time.  CTE’s theory of change is a bit like “build it and they will come,” i.e., don’t tell people what you want them to do; do it and show them how it’s done. The Coalition has offered a series of $25,000 grants for member schools who submit an idea for an initiative that reflects the CTE goals.  The hope is the coalition will create a learning community that will gain knowledge from each other by unpacking these individual experiences, some of which will succeed, others may not.

In addition to focusing their projects on identity, agency and purpose, the awardees must agree to additional prerequisites.  They have to involve faculty; they have to measure their initiatives using a new survey developed in partnership with Gallup; they have to share their experiences broadly and they have to pursue initiatives that promise to scale to all students.  There are currently 15 projects in the works.

Domenico Grasso is the Chancellor of The University of Michigan–Dearborn, a regional practice-based institution with a very different profile than its sister campus in Ann Arbor, with mostly non-traditional students who commute and work.  As he notes, “Talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not. Our campus serves as a gateway to the American Dream for many.” Grasso notes that 42% of the student body are Pell students and 46% are first generation.  The city of Dearborn has the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the country.

Grasso was immediately drawn to the CTE’s approach and believes UM-Dearborn was an important, early addition to the coalition
“Our students are very different from many of the schools in the coalition,” he said.  “Those students, for the most part, do not struggle in the same way ours do. Nonetheless, I want the students here to have the same kind of opportunities for life transformation. I want our students to see their education not solely as utilitarian – a way to make money.  I want them to look at it as an opening of a door to all sorts of life experiences.

This sentiment is reflected in the CTE-funded digital story-telling project UM-Dearborn is now pursuing called, “Not a Single Story,” based on the Ted Talk of a similar name by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who warns of the danger of judging people based on stereotypes.

“Students will tell their stories by answering questions about who they are and how they got here; ‘How is my background affecting how I think and directing me to where I’m going?’” said Grasso.  “This is so gratifying for me because through these narratives, we get to learn of the many stories that comprise our student population but for them, it is a tool for consciously thinking about identity, agency, and purpose.

The UM-Dearborn initiative is one of three story-telling projects being pursued by the member schools. An entirely different example can be found in the CTE-funded work at MIT, which has also joined the Coalition. The initial project frames the wellbeing initiatives at MIT around the pillars of Mind, Body, Relationships, and Purpose, as well as the relationship between these pillars, and the elements of Mental Wellness, Cognition and Mindset, Competence, Physiological Wellbeing, and Environment are needed for student “readiness to learn.

The first step of their project will focus on developing a base of confirming evidence for these five elements.  That will be followed by the creation of a learner readiness app and then assessing the impact of the app on the wellbeing of MIT students.  The project, which is being led by three world-class neuroscience faculty and is in coordination with MIT’s Mental Wellness Initiative, seeks ultimately to distribute the readiness tools more broadly, not only at the higher education level, but also in K-12 schools and the workforce.

This is the first of a larger multi-year research program, requiring other sources of funding, which will monitor what happens in MIT classrooms with students about their identity, their sense of belonging, and their long-term success and wellbeing.  What makes this project so significant in Miller’s mind is the level of faculty involvement

“This is not pulling a faculty member away from their calculus class and saying ‘I want you to institute this intervention,’” he said.  “This is faculty members saying ‘I want to understand what’s going on with young people today and why there are so many suicides and what could be done about it in terms of framing the conversation in a classroom or having a relationship with a student in a different way.  That’s my broader mission.’

An idea whose time has come.

Miller purports that wellbeing is far more than the absence of illness, and education is far more than academic training.  “We are preparing our graduates to flourish and excel in whatever they do,” he said.  “They need excellent academic preparation, a growth mindset, a sense of purpose and citizenship.

While this seems rather straightforward, many questions remain about how all of this will come together. Meanwhile, support for the initiative is catching on quickly.  The Kern Family Foundation, focused on promoting human flourishing, has funded the CTE grant work and has put significant resources behind the initiative.  The American Association of Colleges and Universities, (AAC&U), an organization dedicated to advancing liberal education, is a strong supporter of the CTE and sees its work as synonymous.

“CTE’s focus on the transformational impact of higher education is more critical than ever as campus leaders confront burgeoning mistrust in the academy, a growing racial and economic segregation, and the prospect of a lost generation of college students due to COVID-19,” said Lynn Pasquerella, President of the AAC&U.  CTE’s work perfectly aligns with AAC&U’s mission of advancing the democratic purposes of higher education by promoting equity, innovation, and excellence in liberal education
Tom Katsouleas, who has since left the presidency at UConn, sees life transformative education as the next big thing in higher education, akin to the “student success” movement which united diverse institutions around improving retention and completion rates.

“If you think about how that was achieved, it was really about changing the way we do business at schools of every profile across the country.  Some of the changes took resources, others did not.  And like the LTE movement, it was addressing an issue that was universally deemed to be of critical, national concern.
While Katsouleas credits the student success initiative with significantly moving the needle on these issues, he rejects the use of the label.

“The word “success” was incorrectly used as a synonym for completion,” he said.  “You can’t realize success unless you bring in wellbeing.