The Case for College: Rediscovering the Purpose of Higher Education

by Cynndie Hoff

College—and the reasons to attend—have changed. Decades ago, students pursued higher education to explore new schools of thought and discover their vocation—not their job, their vocation. These young scholars understood the intrinsic difference between the two and sought their calling, as they peeked behind the curtain of the arts, sampled the sciences, dabbled in business. But those days are gone. The function and main goal of higher education shifted drastically in the 1960s, and today many colleges exist solely to churn out job-ready graduates programmed to perform and earn.

Or do they?

Studies indicate that the shift in focus from pure intellectual exploration to job preparation has neither increased the value of higher education nor rendered graduates more marketable. The Association of American Colleges & Universities found: “When it comes to skills and knowledge that employers feel are important to workplace success, large majorities of employers do NOT feel that recent graduates are well prepared . . . for applying knowledge and skills in real-world settings, critical thinking skills, and written and oral communication skills.” Azusa Pacific University bridges the chasms between the academy’s ideal, the students’ lifelong welfare and viability, and the employers’ reality by doubling down on its 118-year commitment to the pursuit of a higher calling.

“Pursuing one’s vocation means much more than finding meaningful employment,” said Mark Stanton, Ph.D., ABPP, provost. “Vocation lies at the intersection of talent, passion, conscience, and the needs of the world. A job is merely the work you get paid to do. Vocation, which comes from the Latin word vocare, ‘to call,’ embodies the work we do, but it also includes the aspects of well-being, meaning, purpose, and the confidence that this is what I was created to do.” Stanton simultaneously identifies the very characteristics lacking in today’s workforce and the reason employers across industries enthusiastically recruit Azusa Pacific graduates.

Steve Woo, group supervisor at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, looks for employees who can engage in the big picture and think beyond the narrow parameters of a specific skill set, and he looks to APU to fill that need. “Their volunteer and service involvement outside of school demonstrates an awareness bigger than themselves and an earnest desire to be involved,” said Woo, who gets at the very heart of APU’s path to vocation—it is not merely job preparation, but life preparation.

School districts, hospitals, high-tech companies, corporations, state and federal government, and nonprofits agree, and have come to rely on APU’s comprehensive approach to vocational training when they want to add to their workforce. “Students who take full advantage of what a well-rounded liberal arts education has to offer—study abroad, research, language, volunteering, and leadership development opportunities—that’s what makes APU students stand out,” said Justin Tierney, internship program supervisor at World Vision.

Employers may call these soft skills, but they contend that they matter as much as technical aptitude when it comes to hiring and retaining good employees. Many institutions of higher education, however, abandoned the activities, programs, and philosophies that develop such skills. In contrast, APU immerses students in a rich environment that instills these abilities from day one through myriad experiences on and off campus. For instance, those who participate in the High Sierra Semester and live in community with faculty and students studying the Great Works become employees who can synthesize disparate concepts and integrate complex information. The more than 3,400 students who serve more than 160,000 hours each year in their communities become inspirational team players who care for their organization at every level and can communicate needs and solutions. Graduates with relevant internships and international experience demonstrate the ability to lead with confidence and adapt to the unexpected. Learning how to collaborate, communicate, and solve problems before entering the workforce allows these graduates to begin their careers with a distinct advantage, and led the Economist to rank them among the most employable in the nation last year.

“What is uniquely APU is that our students not only have the needed skills, but they are also leaders in all areas—ethical leaders,” said Robert Duke, Ph.D., dean of the School of Theology. “Students here realize that they are not getting an education merely for their own benefit, but to better humanity. When I taught at a secular university, I heard many conversations between students that focused solely on the money and the job. At APU, the students care about why they are doing what they are doing. They want to help people, make improvements, save lives. They are passionate.”

But what happens when that passion falters? Yvette (Irizarry ’09) Martinez knows. “My nursing degree program was challenging and I was spread too thin. I was ready to quit,” said Martinez. “But then I talked with my instructor, Viann Duncan (PMHCNS-BC, MSN, RN), and she saved my career. She cared for me, taught me that ‘there is a season for everything,’ and helped me focus and explore my calling and purpose. That gave me the confidence to realize that this is what I was meant to be, and I finished my degree—one of the best decisions of my life. When I interviewed for a position at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, they recognized the holistic training I received at APU.” Martinez notes that on any given day, at least 5 out of 10 nurses in her unit are APU graduates who bring the same values to their work. “The insight I gained from studying in South Africa for a semester not only taught me how to respect scarce resources and equipment, which my supervisor appreciates, but also taught me firsthand how to care for the whole patient, not merely the wound or disease. APU teaches how to blend the psychological, social, and spiritual aspects of care.”

Part of that holistic approach springs from a classic liberal arts education, which leads students to consider the greater questions of humanity. Part of it comes from learning at a Christian university that emphasizes cultivation of the mind while building character and faith. But just as important is how APU intentionally connects academics with student life. “We constantly build bridges between departments and people,” said Duke. “Everything we do is intentionally interwoven so that the college experience engages the heart, the mind, and the soul. Students don’t just graduate with a major that makes them employable, they graduate with a ministry that transforms work into calling.”By valuing relationships and creating an others-oriented culture, APU produces desirable employees. Mark Sanborn, in his best-selling book The Fred Factor (Currency, 2004), calls this ideal employee “Fred” and notes that all Freds adhere to four key principles: everyone makes a difference, success is built on relationships, you must continually create value for others, and you can reinvent yourself. When the Ruffalo Noel Levitz team, renowned consultants for higher education enrollment management, evaluated Azusa Pacific last year, they stated that “APU’s campus is a walking, talking, breathing version of The Fred Factor.”

While many aspects of APU’s ethos and pathos contribute to this—including mentorship, discipleship, small class sizes, faith integration, countless personal encounters and conversations, and an unapologetic God First commitment—the university also works continuously to identify new needs and new ways to adjust its infrastructure and pour into students. For example, APU views and treats students with undeclared majors (about 15 percent of each incoming class) differently from most universities, offering them several options to find and develop their vocations. Freshmen and sophomores participate in the Exploring program, which introduces them to vocation paths through two specially designed classes, individual advising, speakers, retreats, and discussion groups. Many may opt for the new Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies, one of APU’s clear pathways from education to vocation, launching fall 2017. This 54-unit major includes an 18-unit vocational development core that emphasizes leadership strengths and skills, career and life planning, writing across disciplines, and an internship, then allows students to customize their own major in partnership with a faculty advisor.

For students with declared majors, the minor in vocational development complements all career tracks by focusing on virtuous character, faithful engagement, and vocational coaching. “People change careers six to seven times during their lifetime, and a college degree today must help them navigate those transitions,” said Ryan Hartwig, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the Department of Communication Studies. “APU’s vocational programs produce valuable employees with vocational agility, and good neighbors with a heart to serve. These degrees are flexible, but the core is applicable to whatever the Lord calls them to do.”

The benefits of this approach constitute a win-win for students and the university. Students gain the freedom to explore and develop vocational identity and purpose, avoid the pressure of choosing a major too quickly, and combine a liberal arts education with professional preparation. For Azusa Pacific, these options reinforce APU’s value, facilitate transfer enrollment, increase retention, and increase the number of graduates who enter careers upon graduation, including fields facing shortages such as nursing and education.

In addition, APU’s commitment to vocation, innovation, and alumni provides a comprehensive cadre of resources to equip students and alumni. “We are moving the dial for education to vocation, equipping students and alumni to respond to God’s call and do good,” said President Jon R. Wallace, DBA. “We intentionally form partnerships between academic departments, student life, career planning, alumni networks, and hands-on entrepreneurial projects. Everyone works together toward helping students and alumni translate their passion into their vocation.”

Some participate in Zuventurez, a business-plan competition that allows students and alumni to develop an idea from concept to pitch with the help of expert advisors and industry professionals. Others sign up for entrepreneurial coaching. Undergraduate seniors can attend the Next Event, preparation for postgraduate life, and alumni choose from a robust set of resources to advance their professional goals, including networking events, consulting, workshops, and APU Connect, an exclusive online networking tool.

Since introducing resources that align with this trajectory, APU has seen a 111 percent increase in overall engagement and connects with alumni in every sector and industry, advancing the mission of APU. During the 2015-16 academic year, 75 employers interviewed more than 250 students and alumni on campus; 1,100 students and alumni attended 21 networking, recruiting, professional development, and career fair events; and more than 3,000 jobs and internships were posted on APU Career Network. “We know that connectedness and relationships are how things get done, and it is our academic, spiritual, and fiduciary responsibility to make sure every graduate is prepared,” said Phil Brazell ’08, M.A. ’13, executive director of career and alumni relations.

Gone are the days of attending college to explore interests without thinking about outcomes—but gone, too, is the notion of attending college just to make a buck. The value of an APU education lies in its inherent ability to equip responsible, ethical employees who know how to serve and work together and contribute to an organization’s culture in practical and meaningful ways. These are the service-minded global citizens who value relationships, lean into community, do life together, and make the most productive employees, the best neighbors, and the real difference makers.

Cynndie Hoff is a freelance writer living in Walnut, California. [email protected]

Originally published in the Spring '17 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.