Parental Promises

Photo: Tommy O'Laughlin '13

Photo: Tommy O’Laughlin ’13

With graduation behind us and about 400 new Johnnies launched into the world, we are feeling pretty good in Collegeville.  The weather gods gave us a spectacular commencement day—70 degrees and a light breeze.  Our speakers, Joe Cavanaugh ’81 and Paul Knaak ’16 were both great. And, most importantly, our parents were happy.  Fine weather and pleased parents: it is a hard combination to beat.

While we certainly want our graduates to feel good about Saint John’s, and most do, parents’ opinions matter very much to us.  They play a significant role in footing the bill, and they are what our admission staff calls “influencers,” those individuals who can sway young men and their parents to take a look at Saint John’s when they begin their college search.  So parents matter a lot.

Of course on commencement day, parents are very generous and appreciative.  Numerous parents took the time after the ceremony to find me and thank me for what Saint John’s did for their son.  I reminded them that it was our great faculty and staff who did the hands-on work with their sons, but I was more than happy to be the representative of the institution they were thankful for.  I asked them to send us their sons’ younger brothers and cousins (and their sisters to CSB).

I was reminded of these parents when I read the Star Tribune article entitled, “Goodbye, empty nest: Millennials staying longer with parents.”  Data included:

  • Living with parents is now the most common arrangement for people ages 18 to 34, an analysis of census data by the Pew Research Center has found;
  • The proportion of older millennials — those ages 25 to 34 — who are living at home has reached its highest point (19 percent) on record, Pew analysts said;
  • Nearly one-third of all millennials live with their parents, slightly more than the proportion who live with a spouse or partner. It’s the first time that living at home has outpaced living with a spouse for this age group since such record-keeping began in 1880.

Among young men:

  • Declining employment and falling wages are another factor keeping many 18-to-34-year-olds unmarried, Fry said. The share of young men with jobs fell to 71 percent in 2014 from 84 percent in 1960 — the year when the proportion of young adults living outside the home peaked.
  • Incomes have fallen, too: adjusted for inflation, wages plunged 34 percent for the typical young man from 2000 to 2014.

Young adults living at home is clearly not new, but Americans have tended to think of this as a European, maybe even specifically Italian problem, as stories like this one in the NY Daily News reported that, “52% of Italian men still live with their mothers.” Obviously these data suggest that for American millennials the economic challenges of leaving the nest are harder than in the past.

Photo: Tommy O'Laughlin '13

Photo: Tommy O’Laughlin ’13

Whatever economic challenges facing this generation of young people, education is certainly part of the solution.  At Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict we are doing what we can to help our graduates (and their parents) overcome these trends.  We make two promises to our incoming students: one explicit and another implicit.

The explicit promise is “four and done.”  If an incoming student meets their academic obligations and responsibilities, mom and dad can pencil in graduation for May four years hence.  This is not typical of most colleges as the Department of Education Scorecard uses a six year graduation rate as the standard.

The implicit promise is that your CSB/SJU son or daughter won’t be returning to their bedroom post-graduation—they will be employed (or at least gainfully situated). We are very proud of our placement rate: 99% of our graduates are employed, volunteering full-time or in graduate school within one year of graduation.  And we are happy to share the data by individual major or even by individual student.

Philanthropic Marginal Analysis


Louis Johnston

For economists, good policy and personal choices are almost always about marginal analysis.  What is the impact, on the margin, of a change in an economic variable?  How will costs and benefits be affected by a change in policy or a change in behavior?  If Saint John’s raises tuition by 3.5% how will this affect the retention rate, how will this affect the yield on this year’s applications and what will happen to our tuition revenue?

My colleague, Louis Johnston, the Joseph P. Farry Professor of Economics, reminded me of the importance of this in one of his recent blog posts. In a thoughtful obituary about the life of St. Cloud philanthropist William Clemens, Louis notes the generosity of Bill and his wife Virginia, but makes the further point that the impact of their giving was especially significant because of the choices they made.

While the Clemens family has given Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict millions of dollars, these generous gifts appear to pale in comparison to the donations in the hundreds of millions of dollars given recently to Stanford and Harvard.  But Louis reminds his readers, using marginal analysis, that the Clemens family may very well have been more impactful donors than Stanford’s and Harvard’s benefactors because the marginal benefit of a $4M gift to an institution that has an endowment of $100M might well be larger than a $200M gift to an institution with an endowment of $20B.

As Louis nicely puts it:

It’s clear to me that the marginal benefit of a $1-$5 million dollar gift to a small institution is far greater than the $395-$400 million dollars received by Stanford, Harvard, or even a large gift to schools such as Carleton College ($783 million) or Macalester College ($754 million).  Bill Clemens knew this.

This philanthropic marginal analysis is very important for our donors to remember, especially our young alumni, who have occasionally told me, “My contribution is so small at this point in my life, it doesn’t really help Saint John’s.”

Every gift matters to us, and the impact of any gift is made more significant by the relatively intimate scale of our educational enterprise.  One does not have to be a billionaire to have a powerful impact on the educational mission of Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict .

Assessment: The Parent Test

2014-08-21 CSB-SJU Move In 076In recent years there has been a growing focus on assessment in higher education.  The basic question is, “Are colleges and universities providing students the education they purport to?”

A whole industry has grown up around this complicated topic, with professional associations, conferences and the inevitable pushback .  A common methodology in educational assessment is to look at outcomes.  What does the student know after a particular educational experience?  How do graduates perform in professional settings after earning their degrees?  It is certainly understandable that students and parents want to know what to expect for their investment in education.
While I certainly care about many of the metrics used in assessment —graduate school acceptances, professional successes, income etc.—I have developed my own informal assessment tool which I call, “The Parent Test.”

2015-08-27 113207 SJU Move-In Day 050I am very happy when students on campus tell me how much they love being at Saint John’s or when recent alumni tell me how much they miss the time in Collegeville, but the proof of the educational pudding for me is what parents say about their sons’ experience.  Not only have they typically footed much of the bill, but, more importantly, they have the distance and wisdom to make a thoughtful assessment.

Parents each have a vision for the kind of person they want their son to become, the kind of life they hope he will lead and the happiness they hope he will enjoy.  So I often ask parents when I meet them on campus how they think their son’s education is going and how we are doing.  But it is also quite common that a parent will communicate to me or someone else at Saint John’s to offer an unsolicited “thank you” for what we did for their son.  These stories are more powerful and meaningful than any quantitative assessment measure could ever be.

1. From a parent of two Johnnies who came from a very rural setting and a different cultural milieu:

Scott and Sam are my sons.  They are non-majority students, who are from a tiny, remote village.  They were not raised Catholic. They graduated with honors from their small high school, where they were good athletes.  At times they occasionally got into a little mischief. With deepest gratitude, I wish to thank St. John’s University for their enrollment, education, guidance provided, forbearance offered, and the molding of their character.  Your professional and Christian endeavors goes not without notice.  I shall be forever grateful and shall remain a stalwart ambassador promoting the superior educational experience of St. John’s University.

Deepest Regards,

A grateful father

2. I got a recent call from the president of another university.  He had been talking to a local parent who happened to have a first year son at Saint John’s.  The son was thinking about transferring (there was a girlfriend involved), much to the deep chagrin of his parents who had come to believe that Saint John’s was just the right place for their son, even though it was some distance from their home.  They were struggling with the desire to let their son make his own decisions and their own belief that the educational experience at SJU was superior to anything he would find elsewhere.  The president was calling to see if there was anything we might do to encourage the young man to stay.

3. An alum told me the story of his college decision.  His older brother was a Johnnie, and he was looking at Saint John’s along with a number of other schools.  He had an inkling that his parents were not indifferent about his choices, but they were being very careful not influence him.  When he finally told his father of his decision to come to Saint John’s, his dad said, “Your brother had a great experience there, and you will, too.  If I had to do it all over again, I would have gone to Saint John’s, too.”

4. At a conference, when another college president from the east coast found out I was from Saint John’s,  told me his son was a Johnnie alum.  He said his son was living in the Twin Cities, loving his teaching career, was happily married to a Bennie from Minnesota and his first child had just been born.  I smiled and asked if he thought his son might ever return east to be closer to home.  With some certainty he said, “No, he is a Minnesotan now.”  I asked if this made him or his wife a little sad, especially with their first grandchild now in Minnesota. He said, “Absolutely not.  Saint John’s was the perfect place for our son, and we are delighted he went there and had the experiences he did and met his wife.  We can always travel to Minnesota.”

5. At a charity event in the Twin Cities, a father approached me and said, “I want to thank you and Saint John’s for what you did for our son.  He had a great academic experience that has led to a job he loves.  He has a great group of friends he sees often—even having a second Thanksgiving with them after our family gathering.  But most importantly, he has grown into a young man of character and substance that his mother and I are exceptionally proud of.”

6. At a conference of Catholic college presidents, yet another college president approached me.  She said,

I have two sons that are Johnnies.  Both are doing great, but my younger son struggled early in college.  He followed his older brother to Saint John’s because of the great experience Joe was having.  But Jacob was not Joe.  He was not as strong a student and did not have the same focus.  Soon Jacob was floundering emotionally, struggling academically and was considering dropping out.  Then Professor X reached out to Jacob and showed an interest in him.  With regular conversations Professor X soon became a mentor to Jacob, who quickly found an academic focus in Professor X’s department, developed new friendships through his major  and went on to have as good an experience as his older brother.  When I think about what would have happened to Jacob if he had left Saint John’s, I have come to believe that Saint John’s saved my son.

I’d love to find a way to quantify The Parent Test.  I think we are an elite school by this measure.



By |February 16th, 2016|Categories: Alumni, Higher Education|0 Comments