Archived Voice Articles

It's all about the graduates

By Dr. Carl E. Zylstra

When Hillary Clinton recently made a campaign swing through Sioux Center, I shook her hand, welcomed her to Northwest Iowa, and identified myself to her as president of the local Christian College. The senator’s first question was, “How many students do you have in your college?”  

The question didn’t surprise me. It’s the standard discussion starter I get as a college president, both from those who are hearing about our college for the first time and from those who have been around for the last fifty years: “How many students do you have at Dordt this year?”

I suppose that makes sense, whether it comes from a friend of the college or from a potential president of the United States. After all, as the conventional wisdom goes, when it comes right down to it, when talking about colleges and universities, “It’s really all about the students.”  

It surely is true that Dordt College doesn’t exist first of all to drive economic development in our community–although we do. Nor does our college exist to provide jobs and employment for the gifted professors and staff that make up our campus–although we certainly do that too. So it seems to make sense to conclude that, in the end, colleges are all about the students.

However, the longer I’m at Dordt College, the more I’m convinced that, in the end, we’re not really “all about the students.” Rather, our education actually needs to be “all about the graduates.” When it comes right down to it, it’s not the college experience that is the test of a good quality institution of higher education. Rather it is the graduates’ effectiveness that is our goal, and what graduates do with what they have learned is the measure of whether we have accomplished our mission as a college.

Singing in a college choir is wonderful and playing hockey is exciting. Film festivals are stimulating and service projects are exhilarating. Lab experiments are fascinating and class discussions enlightening. But what really counts is whether those experiences during the campus years have prepared and equipped graduates with the insight, skills, and conviction necessary to spend a lifetime in service to the kingdom Christ is bringing.

That’s also a good perspective from which to evaluate the quality rankings on which Dordt College recently has excelled. It is wonderful that as a very young college we’ve climbed to the top ten (number three actually) among the ninety-five colleges to which U.S. News compares us in its quality rankings. And it’s great that we can do so at a value pricing that places us number four in the U.S. News evaluation of the quality of education received for the price paid.

But such rankings miss the real point. The real point is not whether this is a college that its peers and external evaluators regard as a really good school worth every penny you pay. Instead the fundamental question is whether Dordt College graduates are fanning out across the world to take their place as signposts for the kingdom of God as it comes in every square inch of human culture.  

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to give Senator Clinton that whole speech.  I just told her quickly about the more than 1,300 students who are receiving a Christian education on our campus this year. And she was gracious in her comments about the type of quality education that kind of environment can provide. But I hope someday, whether it is Senator Clinton or one of the other candidates who made their way to Sioux Center, I will be able to tell the next president of the United States something more about the 13,000 alumni of Dordt College who are engaging every corner of this world in the name of Christ–and for his glory alone.

After all, that’s really the measure of any college worthy of its calling. Ultimately, it is all about the graduates.