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Higher Education's Six Sigma
Business Journal

Higher Education's Six Sigma

The Gallup-Purdue Index reveals six critical ingredients of the college experience that have a profound link to life well-being and engagement at work

by Brandon Busteed

Higher education has studied pretty much everything except itself.

Strategies such as Six Sigma and total quality management took corporate America by storm in the 1990s, serving as tools and techniques for continuous improvement. They helped companies drive down costs, increase profitability, and improve customer satisfaction.

Yet higher education remained conspicuously absent from the quality movement, even as industries around the world widely adopted these strategies. Now, findings from a Gallup study of college graduates may finally change this, ushering in an era of continuous improvement for higher education -- its equivalent of Six Sigma.

A profound link to life well-being and engagement at work

There are many different rankings of higher education institutions, but they have yet to motivate real and continuous improvement. Since 1986, when the Six Sigma movement was launched, higher education tuition has risen dramatically while its quality has come under ever greater scrutiny. Yet over this same time frame, higher education has studied pretty much everything except itself. Few institutions of higher learning can answer the fundamental question: What elements of college drive long-term measures of success?

Findings from the Gallup-Purdue Index -- a study of more than 30,000 college graduates -- answer this question. We've identified six crucial elements of the college experience that have a profound link to long-term success in work engagement and life well-being: three elements that pertain to feeling supported and three that apply to experiential and deep learning. These are all things colleges can measure and manage -- and by taking action, they might not only improve the campus experience for their students, but enrich students' lives after graduation.

  • College graduates who felt supported during college (professors cared, professors made them excited about learning, and they had a mentor) doubled their odds of being engaged at work. They were also three times as likely to be thriving in all areas of well-being as those who didn't feel supported.
  • College graduates who engaged in experiential and deep learning (worked on a long-term project, had an internship, and were extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations) during their college experience doubled their odds of being engaged at work. They also were slightly more likely to be thriving in all areas of well-being than were students who did not have these experiences.

It's stunning and inspiring to know what a profound impact these six relatively simple elements can make. To all those great faculty and staff who care for and mentor students and create deep learning and experiential opportunities, congratulations. Your life work is validated in more ways than you can imagine.

But when we look at the percentage of college graduates who actually experienced these essential ingredients of life well-being and engagement at work, things get rather depressing. Only 14% of all college graduates we studied strongly agreed that they experienced all three support elements, while a mere 6% strongly agreed that they experienced all three experiential and deep learning elements. The percentage of college grads who hit the career and life lotto on all six was just 3%. We must do better.

Six Sigma for Colleges and Universities

What students, parents, and educators can do differently

The empowering news is that all of us can do something about every one of these crucial elements:

  • If you're a student, you can look for a college or university that provides these experiences for most students. You can gravitate toward faculty and staff who have reputations for caring about students, mentoring them, and making them excited about learning. You can work hard to ensure your college experience includes internships and long-term projects.
  • If you're a parent, you can understand how important these elements are to your child's success and do your best to ensure that he or she experiences them. This plays out in the values you espouse to your children and in how you help them select a college or university.
  • If you're a faculty member, coach, or student affairs staff member -- or any adult working on a campus, for that matter -- you can work harder in myriad ways to show students that you care about them as people. You can mentor students and ask them about their hopes and dreams, and you can create opportunities for long-term projects and real-life work opportunities.
  • If you're a college president, you can provide leadership by ensuring that your institution does everything in its power to double down on making these experiences happen for as many students as possible. You can prioritize how you spend precious time and resources to maximize them toward these ends.
  • And if you're an employer, you can do your part by offering college students as many paid or unpaid work experiences as possible.

For students, here's the bottom line: We found that it really doesn't matter what type of college you go to -- whether it's public or private, large or small, very selective or not selective. The type of institution has little to no bearing on your long-term life well-being and engagement at work. But how you go to college makes all the difference to your future. Finding a college that provides you with support and experiential and deep learning should be your top goal.

Colleges have a long way to go before they can guarantee this kind of experience for all their students. But it is so very possible -- and a true effort aimed at continuous improvement will get us there. Welcome to higher education's era of Six Sigma.

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