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The Purposeful Graduate

Why Colleges Must Talk to Students about Vocation

We all know that higher education has changed dramatically over the past two decades. Historically a time of exploration and self-discovery, the college years have been narrowed toward an increasingly singular goal—career training—and college students these days forgo the big questions about who they are and how they can change the world and instead focus single-mindedly on their economic survival. In The Purposeful Graduate, Tim Clydesdale elucidates just what a tremendous loss this is, for our youth, our universities, and our future as a society. At the same time, he shows that it doesn’t have to be this way: higher education can retain its higher cultural role, and students with a true sense of purpose—of personal, cultural, and intellectual value that cannot be measured by a wage—can be streaming out of every one of its institutions.

The key, he argues, is simple: direct, systematic, and creative programs that engage undergraduates on the question of purpose. Backing up his argument with rich data from a Lilly Endowment grant that funded such programs on eighty-eight different campuses, he shows that thoughtful engagement of the notion of vocational calling by students, faculty, and staff can bring rich rewards for all those involved: greater intellectual development, more robust community involvement, and a more proactive approach to lifelong goals. Nearly every institution he examines—from internationally acclaimed research universities to small liberal arts colleges—is a success story, each designing and implementing its own program, that provides students with deep resources that help them to launch flourishing lives.

Flying in the face of the pessimistic forecast of higher education’s emaciated future, Clydesdale offers a profoundly rich alternative, one that can be achieved if we simply muster the courage to talk with students about who they are and what they are meant to do.

320 pages | 6 line drawings, 6 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2015

Education: Higher Education

Religion: Religion and Society

Sociology: General Sociology, Social Institutions


“In this book, Clydesdale employs his knowledge of social research and evaluation, higher education, and the sociology of religion to argue that colleges and universities can provide an institutional setting that will enable students to develop a sense of long-term purpose in life. Although exceptions exist, he finds these institutions culpable ‘in not creatively and systematically engaging students in a wide-ranging conversation about living lives of purpose in a complex, globally competitive, and deeply unjust world.’ The book comprises Clydesdale’s evaluation of research (including data, campus visits. focus groups, interviews, and surveys) from an 88-campus, eight-year initiative of the Lilly Endowment, representing schools with a range of Christian affiliations from evangelical to nominal. He concludes optimistically, inviting readers to join him and others among higher education’s ‘grounded idealists.’. . . Recommended.”


“With amiable charm and a refreshing lack of pretense, Professor Tim Clydesdale has penned a more-than-hopeful volume with the message that the Big Questions can be back on the academic table. . . . Clydesdale’s research uncovers immense educational benefits—not just for students, but for faculty and staff as well—who engage Big Questions with theological (or, in some cases, merely spiritual) resources.”

First Things

“An impressive, large-scale mixed-methods, and richly qualitative examination of a program funded by the Lilly Endowment. . . . Clydesdale usefully points to the institutional exigencies that make higher education both a difficult and a fruitful place for change. He finds that these programs, with the right institutional location, leadership, and focus, can make an extremely positive impact on student resilience, engagement, and mental health and on faculty and staff connections to their work and their professional communities. . . . Clydesdale’s book holds higher education to its potential and its promise to nurture our search for purpose on our campuses and—with an important optimism—concludes that this is within our reach.”

American Journal of Sociology

“Clydesdale brings good news: a deliberate attempt to talk about the purpose of human life improves the academic and social life of students while in college, improves the subsequent lives of college students, and also makes colleges more pleasant places to work in for both faculty and staff.”

Historically Thinking

“There are all sorts of books offered about how to improve higher education, energize students, incentivize teaching, and so forth. But Clydesdale’s focus on vocation as a fundamental impetus for directing the student’s course in college and beyond makes his book stand out. It is a simple notion that can be generalized to all of higher education, and he offers a bevy of programmatic initiatives that are as feasible as they are sensible.”

George Dennis O’Brien, president emeritus of the University of Rochester

“At this time of increasing doubt and uncertainty in higher education, Clydesdale has given us a shining path forward. The Purposeful Graduate is well reasoned yet passionate in its recommendations. It is also a good read, filled with compelling stories of young people searching for meaningful vocations in our complex world. I recommend it to anyone who cares about the future of higher education in this country.”

William Damon, Stanford University

Table of Contents


1 Purposeful Paths
2 Contexts
3 Matters of Design
4 Students
5 Faculty and Staff
6 Strategies and Ecologies
7 Larger Lessons

Appendix 1: List of Participating Institutions in the Lilly Endowment Inc.’s Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation Initiative, 2000–2009
Appendix 2: Methodology
Appendix 3: Interview and Survey Questions
Appendix 4: Visited Campuses, Program Participation, and Postaward Continuation
Appendix 5: Resources for Purpose Exploration Programming


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