Tim Clydesdale on College and Vocation
Date: October 15th, 2017

How do we instill a sense of purpose in young adults who are attending college?  Do we attempt this at all, or is it merely four years of simply checking boxes and earning a degree?  Prof. Tim Clydesdale, a professor of sociology at The College of New Jersey, answers these questions in light of his evaluation of several private college programs funded by the Lilly Endowment Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation Initiative.  We tap into Prof. Clydesdale’s earlier work on “emerging adults,” and specifically on the first year after high school.  Some new trends among this group of individuals (roughly aged 18-30) are explored. Tim notes that it takes roughly one’s entire 20s to establish a career and find a life partner, and this period of life is noted for having to learn how to manage gratification, negotiate relationships and other “daily life” issues.  Rarely is there time to think about and develop one’s broader identity and purpose in life.  We talk about how many college students today are having increased difficulty in not only finding purpose in life, but dealing with intensified anxiety surrounding daily life.  Tim mentions that roughly 25% of all college students today are receiving some form of mental health treatment.  He also reviews the religious outlook of this young demographic, pointing out that a constant 20-30% of individuals in their third decade of life tend to be quite devout, whereas a little less than 30% now consider themselves “nones.”  We review what this means (and it doesn’t necessarily mean atheist).

Next, the discussion moves on to the concept of “vocation,” which Tony sees as a very religious concept, but Tim explains that he uses it in a much broader sense which could include finding a purpose or calling from the world, listening to the voice within oneself about who to be, and/or taking one’s skills out to better society.  The Lilly Foundation set upon an idea more than a decade ago to fund over 80 unique programs at private colleges and universities devoted to promoting the idea of vocation among students.  Most of these schools were religiously-based, though they did cover a smattering of secular liberal arts colleges.  The general nature of these programs was difficult to categorize as Lilly allowed colleges to devise a wide range of programs.  Tim provides a few examples of programs including ones that emphasized “meaningful work” and sponsored internships, to themed residential halls, to the creation of a choir that had the effect of drawing many more students into participation in weekly chapel services.  While the money for these programs dried up in 2009, nearly 9 in 10 of them continued beyond that date, and a network of schools who continued their emphasis on vocation developed (NetVUE, see below for link).  Prof. Clydesdale discusses his research design and mission in evaluating these programs, as well as some of his most important findings.

One thing that did stand out was that the programs that focused on sophomores (second-year students) were much more successful than those emphasizing entering students (freshmen) or seniors.  The reasoning here was that first-year students were usually too absorbed with just acclimating themselves to being on their own, whereas seniors were becoming more narrowly focused on the next stage of their lives, including finding jobs.  The sophomore year was the “sweet spot” that allowed students to do some serious reflection on their life’s calling.  Along the way, Tim reviews his category of college students — from the obsessive-compulsive grade hunters to the “beer and circus” party animals.  He notes that vocation programs tended to do well amongst students who were idealistically-oriented (as compared to instrumental in their education) and did have some degree of concern over their overall student performance (usually measured by grades).  Nonetheless, some students who had a more instrumental outlook on life — i.e., putting in the four years of college to move to the next stage — also benefitted from some of these programs.  Another feature of success for these programs was that they were not too small, yet neither were they too big.  The best range tended to be about 200-400 students.  And where the upper level administrators (e.g., provost, president) were on board with the program, the effort seemed to have greater impact.  This moves us into a discussion of how faculty and staff were invigorated by the Lilly Initiative with some “deadwood” and “institutional grumblers” becoming “good citizens” and finding a renewed purpose in their own professional calling.  We close with Tim’s personal thoughts on how this study affected his own view of the professoriate.  He noted that he has been devoting more attention to teaching and mentoring, as well has having a better understanding for the causes and consequences of anxiety within students.   Although this podcast interview doesn’t explicitly focus on religion, it should be of great interest to students, faculty, college administrators, and parents of college-aged students.  Recorded: October 2, 23017.



Prof. Tim Clydesdale’s bio at The College of New Jersey.

The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students about Vocation, by Tim Clydesdale.

The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens after High School, by Tim Clydesdale.

The Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE).


John Fea on the American Bible Society (mentioned in podcast).

Joseph Castleberry on Religious-Based Higher Education.

Hunter Baker on the Future of Higher Education.

Kevin den Dulk on Religion, Education, and Civic Engagement.

Rick Walston on Distance Learning and Seminary Education.

Kimberly Conger on Being Christian in Secular Academia.

Bill Clark on an Academic’s Spiritual Journey.

Chris Gerhz on the Crisis of Christian Colleges.

Marion Larson on Bubbles, Bridges, and Multi-Faith Education.

Aaron Saiger on Religion and Charter Schools.

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