The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk About Vocation

Tim Clydesdale
Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2015.



Clydesdale argues that higher education has drifted from the lofty aim of forming students for civic engagement and for the good of the world to answer student and parent demands for employability. The course correction needed has already been tried and shown to be trustworthy according to Clydesdale. He argues that intentional and sustained engagement with questions of purpose and meaning will redirect higher education toward its core mission while also improving student morale, increasing persistence, and reenergizing educators.



Clydesdale received a grant to study the outcomes of the Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation (PTEV), an eight-year, 88 campus, $225 million initiative of Lilly Endowment, Inc. (LEI). After an introductory chapter, the book explains the kinds of campuses that participated and the kinds of programs that were developed, with special attention to practical questions of which campus environments are best suited as well as the best practices they employed. Two chapters focus on outcomes for students and then outcomes for faculty and staff. The final two chapters make suggestions about how to develop programs based on the best practices discovered and how to identify fit with institutional culture.



Tim Clydesdale is a sociologist at the College of New Jersey and is a committed evangelical Christian with degrees from Wheaton College and Princeton University. LEI funded his project to research outcomes of a large-scale initiative that they also funded. While LEI has been known to welcome researchers to give them critical feedback about their initiatives, this project could raise concerns about a conflict of interest. I do not share those concerns.

His presuppositions regarding the state of liberal arts education drew the ire of more than one of the colleagues with whom I read the book earlier this year. Clydesdale states in many ways that institutions are overly concerned with employability of graduates and their own economic interests such that they are distracted from their core mission. Similarly, he often suggests that faculty and staff are distracted by publication, tenure, and other career aspirations to be sufficiently oriented toward student development. He similarly assumes from the outset that a student that is living a sufficiently religious life that is marked by altruism and self-sacrifice is living a better life. My colleagues argued that Clydesdale cannot see the value in a young adult who gets a good corporate job and purchases a home in the suburbs. Though I share Clydesdale’s presuppositions, those who do not may be frustrated by his constant search for the altruistic and idealistic student.



Clydesdale is a Christian, and many of the PTEV programs were developed at Christian and church-related colleges and universities. However, LEI funded many programs at independent institutions and encouraged those programs to interpret the “theological” in PTEV in a broad manner. Clydesdale suggests that his research does not indicate a discernable difference between richly theological purpose exploration programs and those that were significantly more pluralistic in their approach. He therefore consistently refers to “purpose exploration” programs rather than the more theological term, “vocation exploration,” used by LEI and the majority of the program participants. He does not shy away from discussing the theological distinctives of programs that are described, however.



Clydesdale states three goals. First, The Purposeful Graduate is a report on the effectiveness of the PTEV programs. Second, it is a sociological analysis of those programs which allows for the identification of core attributes. Lastly, Clydesdale wants to convince administrators at colleges and universities to develop “purpose exploration” programs. Though Clydesdale denies that he intends to do so, the book additionally serves as something of a guidebook for those developing these kinds of programs. This happens by describing institutional sociologies, best practices, and identifying institutional fit. The book includes a 17-page appendix of resources for purpose exploration that are being used across the country in these kinds of programs. For those developing programs, the appendix alone is worth the price of the book. Regardless of Clydesdale’s claims to the contrary, those hoping to use it as a guide in program development will find rich resources to do so.



LEI launched a Campus Ministries Theological Exploration of Vocation initiative in 2012. For those 104 campus ministries (as well as those that might desire to seek a grant should additional funding be made available), the book is the most comprehensive resource available. Similarly, LEI’s follow-up initiative, the Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE), continues to provide resources for private colleges and universities to develop programs.

The book is not limited in usefulness to those developing full-scale programs for vocation exploration. Some of the key best practice programmatic tools include retreats, internships, residence hall programs (which could all be done within intentional communities), service learning, and formal mentoring relationships. All of these are regular practices of collegiate ministries and can easily be adapted for greater attention to questions of vocation. This is particularly helpful for the spiritual development of young adults because a student that develops a theological notion of calling to their future profession develops a symbiotic relationship between their commitment to their faith and their future career. Each successive religious commitment results in greater commitment to academic success. Their rapidly developing sense of professional identity similarly increases students’ sense that they are or will be doing meaningful work for the Kingdom of God.

Readers hoping for a detailed guide for developing vocation exploration programs will be disappointed. Clydesdale insists this wasn’t an aim. To date I know of no such book, so readers coming to this book as a substitute may not get the level of detail and description for which they hope.

Many of the institutional programs described would be impossible without the infusion of money that LEI provided. Institutional pressures, described by Clydesdale, are too high. Many of these programs would be quite expensive to initiate. Other campus ministers would not have the administrative power, either because they minister at public universities or at universities not friendly to the program concept, to institute some of the suggested initiatives. Gleaning wisdom from the findings to apply to ministry innovations will be necessary.


[Review by Jeremiah Gibbs]