We find ourselves in a political climate where many say that college graduates are not ready to join the workforce. This is true in many respects, but the greater truth is that the majority of higher ed has lost its way when it comes to preparing students for life, something equally if not more important than preparing them for their first job.
Then there is Texas A&M.
Like the service academies (e.g., West Point, Annapolis, etc.), Texas A&M takes a holistic approach to education – preparing students for life, not just for a job.
This holistic approach has resulted in Texas A&M’s undergraduate employment rate being second only to Harvard’s, a testament to the quality and talent its students bring to employers on day one after graduating. This is one reason for the well-known statement in Aggieland: “What do you call an Aggie five years after they graduate? Boss.”
Background and TAMU History
Founded in 1876, Texas A&M has had a tight alignment with the military. In fact, for its first 100 years, the school only admitted male students and they were required to serve in the Corps of Cadets. After graduation, these students went on to active duty in the military while others went into the workforce, often rising through the ranks to top leadership roles.
This laid the groundwork for the fundamental principles that continue to this day of preparing young men (and now women) to lead in the world. During this time, the university started empowering and enabling students to find self-solutions, identify problems and begin to identify means to solve an issue. That concept of a student-led, student-run process began at the infancy of Texas A&M.
Operationalizing Texas A&M’s Six Core Values
Texas A&M has six core values — excellence, integrity, leadership, loyalty, respect and selfless service. These values, which not well-specified early on, have informed the university in many ways over the years. For instance, the Holocaust Museum Houston recently recognized Texas A&M for producing more than 20,000 Aggies who stepped forward to serve in World War II and made an incredible difference in the outcome of that war on a global scale. This ties back to the core value of selfless service.
Starting approximately 20 years ago, past Texas A&M presidents and staff began an exercise in which they looked back at the institution’s 100-plus-year history and then put the core values on paper. That exercise became the foundational pieces through which TAMU recruits students and how it communicates with former students.
These core values are shared in recruitment materials and are prominently displayed across campus and permeate Texas A&M’s programs and culture. They are discussed in orientation and residence halls and during a variety of leadership training programs. By the end of their college experience, students can talk about the six core values with a very specific framework and how that led them to be able to achieve certain aspects of their undergraduate and graduate experience.
Texas A&M also embeds the core values as learning outcomes when developing and reviewing programs and courses. For example, when the university thinks about developing a new initiative, they don’t talk about a baseline. Instead, the conversation is about whether the program is excellent, is it right and is there integrity and what is the right thing to do. The conversation is not about what might be expedient or put the university in the best light, but what is the right thing to do for the students and building individual character.
Building the Next Generation of Leaders
Texas A&M takes this one step further by putting students (instead of faculty or staff) in charge of organizing groups and major events. The faculty and staff members serve in advisory roles instead of being in charge of the activity.
Texas A&M is very conscious and deliberate in focusing on the core values and encourages students to focus on their work ethic and the value of the work that brings the rewards. Instead of making assumptions about salary and title, the Aggies understand that they need to make appropriate progress to begin to get promotions, a process that starts with their roles at TAMU.
For example, students begin their “training” as underclassmen when they join a variety of organizations. Each year, they have the opportunity to move into leadership roles as they begin to narrow their focus. In these roles, they are responsible for operations, training, budgeting or marketing. This enables students to get real-time leadership experience while in school which translates into students being ready to take on significant roles early in their careers.
Texas A&M’s Enrollment Processes
Whereas many institutions of higher education are seeing enrollment declines and some are being forced to shutter their doors, Texas A&M, which articulates its core values and what being an Aggie is about in its recruitment materials, enrollment selection process is highly competitive and it always has a wait list. The number of applications in 2018 were 20-25 percent higher than in 2016. (The 2017 applications were skewed by Hurricane Harvey.) The interest in attending the university is indicative of not only the quality of education, but also the experiences that students will have.
Legacy students are not an automatic admit, but at least 25 percent do come from families with Aggie ties. The legacy student typically has the desire to attend Texas A&M as well as the drive to make top grades and a strong work ethic. In one instance, Dr. Pugh could track the Aggie heritage of a recent Texas A&M Yell Leader back to his great-great-great-great grandfather who was the first student ever to enroll at Texas A&M.
Hiring Faculty Members and Staff
Texas A&M’s values also go out to how they hire faculty and staff. It looks for the qualities of the individual in relation to the quality of their knowledge, their ethics and their integrity. The expectation is that these individuals will be leaders when they come to Texas A&M.
Faculty are expected to be outstanding researchers, which goes hand-in-hand with the core values, and faculty are expected to be part of the local and A&M community.
The Division of Student Affairs looks for candidates who align with the university’s core values so they can model those values and take a leadership role. These staff members understand the role of mentorship and are expected to adopt a facilitative, advising stance so that students learn how to take ownership and solve their own problems. The staff also models service leadership concepts and encourages reflection so that students learn from both their successes and their failures, and then are able to move forward.
Taking a Longer View
Texas A&M is in the process of envisioning what higher education will look like in 2030 and what Texas A&M needs to be proactive in creating that vision. They are involving faculty, staff and students in these discussions and finding ways to embrace these changes.
The Texas A&M Foundation has a capital campaign, Lead by Example, that includes three principles: transformational experiences for students, faculty and staff; discovery and innovation, to tackle the major problems in the world; and impact on the state, nation and world, to bring out the servant leadership. They want to encourage students to lead a life of value to commit to the betterment of the world.
Texas A&M offers an important example of how higher education can create an environment in which students learn not only their core discipline, but also the softer skills of leadership. Texas A&M’s core values infuse everything they do, from recruitment brochures and signage to their coursework and how student activities are run. This type of approach offers a way to quiet naysayers who question the value of higher education as to whether institutions prepare their graduates to succeed in the work environment. This state university puts a premium on creating a life of value – and it shows in its current and former students, the faculty, staff and administration.