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Stanford professor examines how the college experience may foster purpose in young people

Photo by sjenner13 on Adobe Stock
A new Stanford study will look into how - and whether - students find purpose while in college. (Photo: sjenner13)

Stanford professor examines how the college experience may foster purpose in young people

The study marks the first time that purpose as a possible outcome of higher education has been studied in a rigorous, empirical way.

Over the last 15 years, William Damon has been among the leading scholars studying an assertion that dates to antiquity — namely, that having purpose in life yields all kinds of positive benefits for individuals and societies. In Damon's case, he has shown how purposeful young people are resourceful, resilient, and highly motivated to succeed.

Damon's research, which examines the role that parents, schools and others play in fostering purpose in young people, has been embraced by educators around the world.

Now, with the support of a major grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Damon is in the early stages of a first-of-its-kind study that will look at how (and whether) various contexts of higher education in the United States promote purpose in their students, particularly in liberal arts programs.

The research, which will take five years, will focus on liberal arts programs at 10 U.S. private and public institutions of higher education, ranging from large research universities to small colleges.

Damon, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education and director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, will examine multiple aspects of higher education, including curricula and extracurricular activities such as sports teams, religious groups, off-campus internships, and even late-night philosophy discussions in the dorm. Damon and his research team will rely on methods similar to those that they have used to study adolescents and young adults.

"We'll look as broadly as we can at higher education to see if there are particular experiences that make a difference in young people's search for positive directions in their lives," says Damon. The study, he adds, marks the first time that the development of student purpose in contexts of higher education has been studied in a "rigorous, empirical way."

A value proposition

The study comes at a time when the value of higher education is being questioned. Many colleges and universities, not just liberal arts programs, have long identified the preparation of the whole person for a fulfilling future as core to their missions.

In recent years, however, that proposition — and other perceived benefits of higher education generally — have come under increasing attack as tuition and other costs increase, driving student debt to record levels. Critics also challenge the value of undergraduate degrees in the job market, frequently weighing the payoff of an education that includes humanities and liberal education pathways in addition to STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

Damon’s study intends to look at every relevant aspect of the college experience.

"We may find that there are no effects at all from anything," says Damon. “Or we may find that positive outcomes follow from certain experiences or contexts but not others. We will report just what we find.”

What is purpose?

To developmental psychologists like Damon, purpose is an intention to accomplish something that is personally meaningful while also of consequence to the world beyond the self. Examples include the decision to attend medical school in the hopes of saving lives or to pursue a career as a jazz musician for the sake of the art. Looking for a parking place in town or trying to rob a bank don't count as purposes, which Damon defines as "ultimate concerns." Put another way, "a purpose is the ultimate answer to the question Why?"

Philosophers have been mulling this question for thousands of years, but it's only in the last few decades that scholars have turned the study of purpose into a science. Gerontologists, for instance, have written that morbidity and mortality rates may be lower among those who find meaning in their everyday lives. Studies by Damon’s research team and others across the world have documented how purpose bolsters traits like confidence, motivation, energy and resilience in people of all ages.

"A purpose," writes Damon in his influential 2009 book, The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life, "can organize an entire life."

Higher education is an especially good context in which to examine purpose. Damon has shown that many people who discover their “calling” in life do so between the ages of 20 and 30. He has found, for example, that only about one in five young people are "fully purposeful" by the age of 22, but the proportion rises significantly by the end of that decade of life.

"Purpose is a capacity that takes a lot of reflection and experience, including experience with failing and then bouncing back from it," says Damon. "Nowadays, in our increasingly complex world, many young people are taking their time in finding their purposes. But the important thing is for there to be forward movement rather than aimless drifting — speed is not the critical issue.”

More resources:

Listen to Professor William Damon on School's In with Dan Schwartz and Denise Pope, a Stanford podcast produced by SiriusXM.

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