At Saint Michael’s College (SMC), Colchester, Vt., we are called to uplift the human condition by integrating faith with action, intellect with empathy, and the individual with the community. We believe we’re unique, yet when potential students face a universe of education options, how might we best stand out as a small, Catholic, residential, liberal arts school in northern Vermont—especially in view of cultural shifts that have diminished the perceived value of a college education in general and the value of a classic liberal arts education in particular?
This quest not only to distinguish ourselves, but also to perform a rigorous and independent assessment of those distinctions, led us to partner with Gallup Inc.’s higher education team. Gallup staff designed several studies to help us quantify and validate SMC’s “sense of self” so that we could communicate it to the outside world and enhance our students’ experiences. While this initiative certainly had marketing and alumni relations elements—prompted by increasing calls for accountability and outcomes assessments from many angles—at its heart our work with Gallup was designed to answer a core question: Are we who we say we are?
In 2015, former SMC President John J. Neuhauser formulated Vision 2020, our strategic plan that included an emphasis on measuring student outcomes. Gallup surveys featured prominently in several elements of the plan, namely those coordinated by a new “life after college” committee—a group of faculty and staff charged with developing programs to enhance career options for graduates and facilitate meaningful connections among the college, alumni, and current students.
Although Saint Michael’s had conducted alumni surveys in the past, staffing transitions and the potential that comes with access to a national comparative data set convinced us to have Gallup administer its Gallup-Purdue Index (GPI) survey. Gallup, Purdue University, and the Lumina Foundation developed the GPI to study a nationally representative sample of college graduates. The first report—Great Jobs. Great Lives.—established that several undergraduate experiences strongly and consistently relate to workplace engagement and overall well-being after graduation. It identified six key undergraduate experiences, three of which center on experiential learning and three of which relate to emotional support.
More on Methodology
Saint Michael’s contracted with Gallup’s higher education team for a multiyear initiative featuring several elements:
Administration of the Gallup-Purdue Index survey for alumni. To ensure comparability with national GPI data, most questions mirrored the national GPI survey. In addition, SMC included 10 custom questions related to topics such as specific student activities and participation in varsity sports, religious preferences, postgraduation volunteer work and nonprofit employment, and whether the graduate had made donations to the college—as well as why (or why not).
The Saint Michael’s College alumni study, conducted in fall 2015, surveyed all alumni who had graduated from the college from 1950 to 2015 and had a valid e-mail address on file. The web-based survey was completed by 3,371 alumni (www.smcvt.edu/gallup); their responses were compared to results of the national GPI survey conducted between December 2014 and June 2015. Gallup also compared the SMC results to subsets of private nonprofit colleges, baccalaureate arts and sciences colleges, and competitor institutions identified by Saint Michael’s.
Qualitative interviews of more recent alumni. To elicit more in-depth input on key areas of interest, Gallup conducted qualitative one-on-one interviews with 50 alumni who had graduated from 2010 to 2015.
Surveys of current students. In 2015 and 2019, Gallup conducted surveys of current SMC students for internal use. The student surveys, based on engagement and well-being indicators, also included questions designed to measure attachment to the college and hope for the future.
The Big Six
Overall, the study’s results were affirming: 65 percent of SMC graduates work full time for an employer, with another 4 percent reporting full-time self-employment; the percentages were even higher for those who graduated between 2000 and 2015. In addition, nearly half (49 percent) of SMC graduates are engaged in their jobs, and 33 percent are “attached” to the college—all metrics that compare favorably to results from comparison groups and the national study.
Findings about SMC alumni as identified by Gallup—that is, the six key student experiences that drive lifetime workplace engagement and well-being—were:
- Nearly three out of four (74 percent) SMC alumni reported having at least one professor who made them excited about learning, compared to 64 percent in the GPI national study.
- Forty-five percent of SMC alumni, as compared to 28 percent of college graduates nationally, believed their professors cared about them as people.
- Among SMC alumni, 29 percent had a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their dreams and goals, compared to 22 percent of graduates nationally.
- Nearly one-third (32 percent) of Saint Michael’s College alumni reported working on a project that took a semester or more to complete, mirroring the result in the national study (31 percent).
- Of the SMC respondents, 30 percent said they were extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations during college, compared to 19 percent nationally.
- One area of experiential learning where SMC fell short of the national average was internships. While 30 percent of national respondents said they had a college internship or job that enabled them to apply what they learned in the classroom, fewer than one-quarter (24 percent) of SMC respondents felt the same way.
In most areas, we found SMC compared favorably to the GPI national average and often registered better results when compared to competing institutions. But we were looking for what could be improved. In particular, the data emphasized the need to enhance our internship programs and refocus our advising efforts. As an example, the findings affirmed our plan to combine SMC’s alumni and career offices into a new Career Education and Alumni Engagement Center. The center has crafted a four-year development plan for students and expanded opportunities for internships and co-op experiences so our students don’t always have to leave campus to find meaningful work experience. We recently hired a new associate dean to coordinate improvements in our advising processes and practices, and we also modified the curriculum to feature more specific experiential learning requirements within each major.
Still, people are ultimately at the heart of student learning. Being able to use one’s natural talents—either as a student or as a member of the faculty or staff—is a core element of engagement, based on Gallup research. So, we designed several pilot programs to introduce staff and small groups of students to CliftonStrengths—the Gallup assessment tool that helps people identify and apply their unique talents. SMC’s academic support office is using the assessment with students to help increase their self-knowledge, self-awareness, and confidence in the classroom.
Are we who we say we are? Our work with Gallup enabled Saint Michael’s College to answer a resounding “yes” to that question, while providing insight into how alumni and current students perceive the school. It has proven instrumental in helping us equip our students both to be well and to do well in their chosen careers, while also inspiring them to do good in their respective communities.
SUBMITTED BY Mary Jane Russell, associate CIO, institutional research and analytics, Saint Michael’s College, Colchester, Vt.