As the founding president of Olin College of Engineering, Richard K. Miller knew he had an advantage in graduating students with a sense of purpose that would serve them well down the road. The experimental college had its choice of students, “gazillions of dollars” and a made-from-scratch curriculum focused on project-based learning. It was no wonder parents marveled at graduation about how Olin had transformed their children.
In his post-Olin work, Miller and a group of like-minded college leaders aim to make similar results much more widespread in higher education, to help combat the public perception that college isn’t worth it and that graduates aren’t prepared for a life of work.
In a recent episode of The Key, Inside Higher Ed’s news and analysis podcast, Miller discussed the mission and work of the Coalition for Life Transformative Education, whose members strive to use data-informed experiments to rework their curricula and scale the use of project-based experiences to build a sense of belonging and growth mindset for all of their students.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Inside Higher Ed: You’ve decided to cap off your long career in postsecondary education and engineering education by founding something called the Coalition for Life Transformative Education. Can you tell our audience what it is? And why do we need it?
Miller: After 21 years as the first president of Olin College, watching kids walk across the stage at commencement, it became really clear to me that they had more than just an engineering education. They had a calling in life. And I kept getting letters from parents that said, “What did you do to my kid?” There was this notion … “We left them here four years ago, they were really good at math, but they were not really sure what they were getting into. We were hopeful they wouldn’t live in our basement and postpone getting married for 20 years. Now they’re ready to go on the TED stage.”
A little bit of reflection made it clear that this was not about engineering. This was about the culture of learning, and their sense of identity, agency and purpose. I felt guilty. And I felt that while I still have a few grains of sand left in my hourglass, I should use it to do something on a broader scale. I had some wind at my back from a private foundation that had been needling me to do something like this for a while. So I decided to leave early … and to step out on the thin ice and to see if others will join me.
A lot of things that bring diverse people together is interesting data that is relevant. We found this data from the Gallup-Purdue Index about what really matters in college decades after students leave. Two things jump off the page: “someone cared about me as a person” and “college is not just about books and tests—I had an opportunity to apply what I learned in the real world while I [was] still a student.” If they responded positively to those two principles, the data shows you doubled their life well-being as long as 40 years after they graduate.
A central theme in this is intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is close to what we’re calling “life transformative education.” Intrinsic means you’re doing this for you. Lifelong learning doesn’t happen without intrinsic motivation. You don’t do it to put a check in the box constantly. It has to be something that’s part of who you are. Extrinsic motivation is what people think of about getting a job. It’s vocational.
I called people, friends, presidents and provosts of other universities, and said, “Let’s look at this data.” I invited Brandon Busteed, [formerly] of Gallup, to come and explain the data to us in a small conference room. I invited Carol Dweck from Stanford, who is brilliant with the whole concept of mind-set. A whole lot of head nodding in that room. “Yes, of course, we’re doing this at our place, too.” But the data show that only 3 percent of college graduates in America tell you that that’s the kind of experience they had. So we started there: What can we do about this?
Inside Higher Ed: What was it about the education that you helped define and then create from scratch at Olin that allowed your relatively small group of students to get those kinds of benefits?
Miller: That’s exactly the right question. Olin is a lab school that was developed with a $500 million investment from the F. W. Olin Foundation to completely start over in engineering education, because there was a great deal of unhappiness about the way engineers were prepared. The country produces a lot of applied scientists who are really good at equations but don’t actually know how to conceive things to design and build them, to work together on a team, to worry about budgets and schedules, and to get a customer that comes back and buys it again. That’s not part of the curriculum.
When I look at the way I was educated, at good schools, projects were an afterthought. The outcomes didn’t matter very much. It was mostly about how you apply the equations you’ve been using. That is backwards. The average kid who walks across the stage at commencement at Olin has generally done between 25 and 35 design-build projects on a team. You can’t get through it by sitting in your chair and filling out multiple-choice tests at the end. You have to be engaged with others.
Design thinking is about caring about people. Olin has this signature course in the middle of the curriculum, in which we put students in teams of about five. On the first day, you ask them a question: identify a group of people whose lives you want to change, not someday, but within the next four months, and then listen to what they say.
Here’s a composite of some case studies. Some young lady says, “My grandmother has Alzheimer’s, and she’s living in assisted living. I’d like to do something to help the elderly.” So we find 10 elderly people in assisted living facilities within a 10-minute drive of campus who are willing to be interviewed by five kids for two hours each in the first two weeks. That’s 20 hours of interviews by 19-year-olds in a nursing home with people in their 80s. That does not happen very often, especially in engineering schools.
What’s the point? What does it mean to be elderly today? What keeps them up at night? They take all kinds of quotes on little sticky notes, put them on the wall and debate about what they heard. Things like, definitely afraid of falling and breaking a hip and being confined to a wheelchair for the rest of your life. If you’re confined to a wheelchair, you can only look at people’s belt buckle. Can’t look at them eye to eye; they look down on you. And when people come to see you on the weekend, they talk about you in the third person, and you’re no longer a person. Now you’re a problem that needs to be solved. Something fundamental about humanity is lost.
There’s a secondary effect. If you’re confined to a wheelchair, you can’t control your metabolism. You can’t walk anymore, you can’t burn the same calories—even finding out how much you weigh is a big ordeal. They have to hold you up by your elbows on a hospital scale—humiliating.
The students convene. What are we going to do about this? This course is about coming up with two or three ideas these people tell us would change their lives. We’re 19; I don’t think we’re going to fix the aging problem today. Maybe we can do something about their weight. What if we thought about making a little carpet with pressure sensors you could drive your wheelchair onto, and an RFID radio transmitter would send the data to your iPhone, which has an app that tells you, “Today you weigh 150 pounds”?
This is on their list. They talk to the people in the nursing home, who say two things. No. 1, you listened to us. Nobody listens to us. No. 2, do you think you could actually make one? The students say, “I’m not sure—we don’t have a course on how to make carpets with pressure sensors. But we can find out.”
They go home, and they’re on fire. This is what I mean by intrinsic motivation. They asked who on this campus knows anything about pressure sensors, who knows anything about RFID radio transmission. Two months later, they have a prototype. They’re back in the nursing home, and the people have tears in their eyes. “If you could actually make this, this would change my life.”
That’s how we teach engineering. It’s about envisioning what has never been and doing whatever it takes to make it real. It’s putting people in the center. It’s about caring for others. You can’t sit for 20 hours in a nursing home, talking to people in their 80s, without it building empathy and changing your sense of identity about who you are.
Having to build this prototype without having a course and just scrounging for materials teaches you a sense of agency. I don’t need a Ph.D. from Harvard to make a difference in the world.
And No. 3, when you see the tears in their eyes when you show them the product at the end, you build a sense of purpose. This is the power tool in what Gallup is telling you. Gallup’s Bates project on purposeful work demonstrated a factor-of-10 increase in well-being.
Inside Higher Ed: What is the set of conditions you see in and around postsecondary education now that has you wanting to do something along these lines?
Miller: I originally thought of this as a “nice to have” in higher ed. Wouldn’t it be great if we could share the riches of a place like Olin with people who are in a community college or a state university in the middle of the country somewhere? Now I think of it as a must-have. Higher education is a house on fire. There’s an urgency to it.
No. 1 is the Pew Research Center data on public opinions about higher ed. It basically says that most Americans, for the first time in history, feel that higher education is on the wrong path. They don’t always agree on why, but nobody’s happy about it. No. 2, most Republicans feel that the country would be better off without higher education, full stop. I thought of this as hyperbole a few years ago, but I don’t think of it as hyperbole anymore. We have to do something about the public’s view of higher education or we risk losing the opportunity to send our kids to the best higher educational institutions on the planet.
No. 2, CDC has pointed out the No. 2 cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 29 is now suicide. Healthy Minds reports that from 2010 to 2020, the percentage of young people involved in mental health crises in college has doubled. This is not a fad. This is not going away. You can’t just pick up the lecture notes you used in 2010 and walk into the classroom and present them and expect the same result. The kids are in a different place, and it’s our responsibility to meet them. And student well-being has never been such a [big] flashing red light on the dashboard.
No. 3 is Anthony Carnevale at Georgetown, who a year ago published the study on the College Scorecard data on financial outcomes for kids who go to college today. He pointed out that one in three colleges in America has a distinction—that the average student they enrolled 10 years ago is worse off financially today than they would have been if they had never gone to college at all. And by the way, only one in three Americans has a college degree of any kind. So most Americans don’t have firsthand knowledge of what happens in college.
Inside Higher Ed: A lot of the proposed solutions to the problems you’ve just listed are focused on building skills that can help graduates get a first job or otherwise point in a more sort of vocational direction, much to the dismay of many faculty members and advocates for the liberal arts. Why are you and your colleagues focusing more on things like human relations and mind-set?
Miller: The coalition is focusing on interventions that have three characteristics. No. 1, most important, they’re evidence based. We don’t just dream up an idea and say, “Oh, I think I’m going to try poetry and see if this makes life better.” The Gallup data are one example of that, and I’m sure there are other sources, too. Be focused on finding evidence that what you’re doing will make an impact on people’s lives long after they graduate.
No. 2, your intervention is intended to scale to everyone on campus. This is not an intervention for a subpopulation somewhere that might have urgent need. Think of it as a public health initiative. We’re looking for the fluoride you can put in the water that prevents cavities everywhere. And we’re trying to prevent forest fires, not put them out. What can we do from an educational structure point of view that prepares people with identity, agency and purpose no matter what they study when they’re coming out?
No. 3, we are primarily focused on the impact of these interventions many years after college. This is not about the graduation rate. This is not about the starting salary. This is about 10 years later, 20 years later.
Our program has had generous funding from a couple of foundations that allows us to give really small grants to institutions that would incentivize multidisciplinary teams of faculty to try experiments on their own campus, to take these ideas and apply them there.
I can give you examples of how this has worked. Storytelling turns out to be a powerful tool for changing identity and belonging. Our friends at University of Michigan at Dearborn have been working that idea with groups of students at the University of Michigan, and we have presentations on how that … turned out in the last year or two. It’s very promising work.
Another example is Bates College’s purposeful work program—a liberal arts college talking about work, which can [be] a four-letter word. It’s about purpose. It’s about doing something meaningful with your life. Their particular intervention, which is not very labor- or cost-intensive, produces a factor-of-10 increase in student well-being after graduation.
Arizona State University heard about this and has an adaptation of that idea for a completely different institution called Work Plus, and they’re scaling up to the entire university of 80,000 students.
It’s the three principles—evidence-based, scales to everyone, the impact long after graduation. You incentivize them to experiment with their own student population with their own limited resources to develop a plan that will guide them in trying to scale this up to every student in their campus.
Inside Higher Ed: This seems like it’s playing the long game, potentially, with the focus on decades after college. Can it have near-term effects as well? And how are you going to be able to judge that?
Miller: This is really hard to do. There are no guarantees. We do know from the Gallup data, which is probably the largest alumni survey database in existence, that there are very strong correlations in self-reported experiences and long-term outcomes among students who just graduated and students who’ve been out for 40 years. Gallup calls them the Big Six—three questions in each of two areas, “someone cared about me as a person” and “experiences outside of the classroom really matter.” There may be lots of other ones we just haven’t discovered yet.
It’s going to be decades before we know for sure, and just because we think it’s a cool idea does not mean that over the long run it’s going to work. We have to be constantly humbled by the fact that we could be wrong about this. We need to be driven by data; we need to be doggedly committed to assessing what we do with the best tools that we can find.
Inside Higher Ed: How applicable might this work be to institutions and groups of students that may be unlike the somewhat privileged environment of a place like Olin? Is this approach just as workable for a working mother studying social work at a community college, who may be more typical in higher education, as it is for an 18-year-old engineering student at a selective institution?
Miller: Olin is an odd place, right? It started with plenty of money … and a mandate to do crazy things. And we had a lot of success. And I’d go to meetings, and people would say, “Yeah, sure, if we had a gazillion dollars and geniuses, we could do cool stuff, too, but we have to live in the real world.”
At Olin we knew there might be selection bias in terms of the original kids, so we started looking around for partners that had a completely different environment. We did some work with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, certainly very different from Olin. A book came out of that called A Whole New Engineer, which demonstrates how you can transfer these ideas.
We then worked with the University of Texas at El Paso, which has a highly minority student population, and got similar results. I went to College Unbound and Dennis Littky, who is brilliant. [College Unbound serves adult learners who have faced significant barriers.] How do you create an educational environment for them? It turns out that project-based learning, where you have a clear goal, and an intrinsically motivated learning style works for this group....
These principles work everywhere. So I’m convinced there are pathways to success here that work for everyone.