Colleges and Universities

Five Mindsets That A Great College Education Helps To Cultivate

July 12, 2019  • Daniel R. Porterfield

Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield delivered the below remarks at the AspenBrainLab conference on July 12, 2019 in Aspen, CO. Follow him on Twitter @DanPorterfield.

Thank you, Glenda, for hosting this wonderful convening, and for that lovely introduction. It’s great to be here today.

The Aspen Institute works across the country and around the world to promote a free, just, and equitable society. We bring together and build networks of values-driven leaders who make positive change in many areas—from education to entrepreneurship and from economic growth to national security.

I was invited today to talk about mindset, which is perfect because it gives me an occasion to workshop a book I’m currently writing, which proclaims the value of residential liberal arts education by examining some of the major mindsets that this type of education cultivates in students.

I hope this topic will resonate as you gather to think about issues of human and cognitive development.

You might be asking yourself: Why does the value of higher education need to be proclaimed right now?

Because, perhaps more than at any other time in our history, higher education is highly contested terrain.

Today, both Republicans and Democrats constantly criticize our higher education system: Republicans over cost and political correctness; Democrats over student debt and the underrepresentation of lower-income students in selective schools.

We’ve had a decade of divestment in public higher education with 40 states currently spending less on higher education than they were before the 2008 recession.

Just this week in Alaska, there has been a devastating debate about whether or not the legislature and governor will immediately cut 41 percent of the funding from that system—which will throw Alaskan public higher education into complete turmoil.

There have been highly visible controversies like the Varsity Blues admission scandal, #MeToo and Title IX debates, speaker disruptions, and athletics scandals.

We have also seen unprecedented federal government regulation of higher education in recent years, including a new endowment tax.

At the same time, there is ample evidence of the immense value of higher education in a democratic capitalist system like ours:

Harvard economist Raj Chetty has shown through Nobel Prize level research on economic mobility that “students from poor families who go to [leading colleges and universities] have a 50 percent chance or better of becoming top earners.”

Georgetown’s education and workforce researcher Anthony Carnevale reports that “a bachelor’s degree is worth $2.8 million on average over a lifetime”—84% more than a high school diploma.

And College Board research shows that: “college education is associated with healthier lifestyles, reducing health care costs. Adults with higher levels of education are more active citizens than others and are more involved in their children’s activities.”

Furthermore, we know that 10,000 baby boomers will retire every day until 2029. Whose work and what type of jobs will cover the Social Security and Medicare costs of these 50-60 million members of America’s largest and longest-living generation?

The answer: today’s college students and tomorrow’s college students. 

I also would argue that a great college education has become even more valuable today than in the recent past, given the escalating rate of change in our science- and technology-driven global economy.

Every country’s prosperity and peace will be defined by the intellectual capabilities and mindsets of its citizens. This matters especially as we enter an era where, thanks to artificial intelligence, every job that can be automated will be—everything from accountants to truck drivers.

But what can’t be automated is the mind.

While selective colleges and universities aren’t the answer to every national need, they play a critical role in helping talented young people build the intellectual abilities and mindsets to take on the defining challenges of our day, like:

  1. Coping with and reversing climate change;
  2. Wrestling with the implications of dramatically new technologies like AI and CRISPR;
  3. Conducting diplomacy in an ever more fraught geopolitical horizon; and
  4. Helping our country adapt to historic demographic change: the “greying” of our seniors, combined with the “browning” of our population—especially the young.

These aren’t challenges that we can outsource to another generation later. We need to prepare our citizens today. There is no substitute for an active, engaged population taking on the challenges that define our generation.

The challenges require citizens who can think, research, write, compute, and create new knowledge. We are crazy if we think America can lead in an information and technology age without a deep reservoir of intellectually empowered young people.

That’s where college comes in. There’s no better tradition or system to help 18-22-year-olds develop the knowledge, skills, habits, and, most importantly, the mindsets that provide the agility needed to tackle constantly changing challenges for which training alone is insufficient.

I believe this argument needs to be made effectively and strongly because the continued erosion of public support for higher education will diminish the capabilities of our people—and thus threaten our democratic way of life.

If people are America’s greatest natural asset, we need fresh and informed arguments about the value of investing in their intellectual and personal formation of the young.

That’s what my book is about. It will be called Involve: The Value of College For Today—and Tomorrow and here’s what I hope will make it distinctive…

First, my thesis, which is that an underrecognized benefit of college, with its abundance of faculty mentors and opportunity-rich campus ecosystems, is that it fosters the development of five empowering mindsets in 18-22-year-olds.

By mindset, with gratitude to the research of Carol Dweck, I mean attitudes, dispositions, beliefs, or experiential life lessons so firmly held that they consistently shape one’s choices and behavior.

Another distinction of this book, I hope will be my vantage point, which is that of a professor and college president who was highly engaged with the student body and helped galvanize my institution, and, I hope, in some ways, my sector, to enroll more talented students from the full American mosaic.

And, finally, my method, which is not brain research, but a more anthropological, humanistic approach—which is to provide compelling, thick description of how dozens of promising students developed the mindsets I’m talking about.

What I’m doing in this book is providing a form of pattern recognition concerning early adult development, which I hope might catalyze further research in this topic and some changes in our college system to place our emphasis more squarely on the cultivation and activation of talent.

The title of the book comes from a Ben Franklin quote:

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn.”

I think there is no substitute for caring adults involving ourselves in the lives and formation of the young.

This quote leads to what I hope will be a key takeaway of the book, which is that if we value the development of mindset, then America’s best colleges must re-prioritize day-to-day, week-to-week mentoring of students by faculty and other educators. The individual touch is essential to the formation of these five mindsets.

So, what are these mindsets?

First: The mindset to become an active and lifelong learner—the creator of one’s education, in contrast to being a passive consumer of information.

Why is this important?

Because the mindset for active learning means that the individual takes responsibility for understanding and interpreting the world.

Who embodies this?

My book will profile a range of representative students who become the authors of their education through mind-to-mind engagement with faculty.

Here’s just one story:

Eddie Alsina from Miami who is now in a Ph.D. program in clinical psychology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. I met Eddie when he was a senior in high school accepted to Franklin & Marshall College with a strong interest in science both because he had good grades in those subjects and because a family member had come down with cancer.

The short version of Eddie’s college experience is that intensive engagement with faculty and increasingly more personalized mentoring kindled a fire within him to chase after discoveries others hadn’t known to look for.

Four specific aspects of his education created this mindset:

  1. During his first year of college, even before he had completed one science class, a professor brought him into his lab to start doing research on genetic conditions;
  2. His intense science classes his first two years taught him that even more important than getting the right answer was understanding the methods and reasoning that delivered that answer;
  3. Every summer he held research positions on topics as disparate as heart enlargement in mice and depression in senior citizens—broadening his understanding of how scientific concepts are enmeshed in all aspects of society and life. This also allowed him to witness in his faculty mentors their restless and searching intellectual mindsets and envision that for himself; and
  4. He took exciting classes outside of science and had an endless stream of faculty from all fields available to talk with him as his science interests changed from lab-based work to research that would have clinical applications.

This kind of “involved” education creates the mindset of an active learner.

Passive learners answer questions; active learners ask the hard questions no one’s ever posed.

Active learners read signals of change and adapt quickly to the shape-shifting frontiers of knowledge.

Active learners hunt down answers and think around the bend.

Active learners show the imagination to connect ideas or fields; the ability to integrate thought and personal experience; the ability to build the foundations of future knowledge; the independence to offer one’s own interpretation; the yearning to engage a new book or problem or field with nothing but your own intellectual faculties and to know that, working freely and independently, you can succeed, again and again, because that is your mindset.

Second: the mindset to invent, innovate, and make a direct impact on one’s surroundings—which is practically the default culture on opportunity-rich college campuses where many students are seeking to create a club or a cause or a work of art or a small business.

This mindset for making is important because it’s part of the vital creative center of a society. Invention and innovation are the crossroads where people meet and make the world in which they want to live. Innovation demonstrates the fact that we can act upon our surroundings, that we have agency. I see innovation as hope in action—and education should equip young people with this mindset.

Who embodies this?

Alejandra (Alex) Zavala, a Mexican-American student from Pennsylvania who majored in French and Psychology and minored in Studio Art while also studying abroad.

Going into her senior year of college, Alex had the choice of whether or not to do a senior project in art and talked with her mother about what she might make. Their conversation strayed to a terrible tragedy that had occurred in Mexico the year before when a bus of 43 college students Alex’s age had been abducted and killed by a drug cartel.

Alex began to wonder if she could make a work of art that would educate people in the United States about an atrocity that was barely known here. She reflected upon the courses she had taken in language and anthropology and psychology and the reading she had done on migration. Somehow, it all came together.

She assigned herself the task of making portraits of 43 different F&M classmates who were born in Mexico and then assembling those portraits in juxtaposition with photos of the 43 murdered students. She used an advanced layering technique that combined evocative photos with both maps of the provinces where her F&M peers had lived and icons from their current U.S. communities—Los Angeles, Houston, Philadelphia, and more. She called it “Hasta la Raíz” or “Down to the Root.” Two faculty worked with her tirelessly on the concept, the composition, the printing, and the display. At the end of her senior year, she presented it to the campus. Hasta la Raíz was so monumental, that the college’s museum purchased it for its own collection.

This is what I mean by the mindset to create—whether work of art or a venture or a play or a solution: the relentless human desire to stamp one’s own personal tattoo on the landscape, make an impact that would never happen but for one’s own unique will and skill. This fire to create is the engine of any great college campus and it activates a mindset society needs in our citizens.

Third: the mindset to collaborate as teammates and to tackle challenges no individual can solve alone.

This mindset is so important because—whether in research, entrepreneurship, government, or national defense—the biggest challenges require people work in teams. Great groups that draw upon the complimentary talents, training, and experiences of their members will bring more resources to problem-solving. Life demands that we can work productively with others.

While students may apply to colleges as individuals and collect diplomas that bear their name alone, the teammate mindset prevails on campus because much of their work occurs in collectives aided by educators—in classes, clubs, labs, casts, teams, and friend groups.

Take Katrina Wachter. Even before she started her first year of college, she was invited by the faculty don of her residential community—which we called College Houses—to join a team that was writing the constitution by which the House would be governed.

Katrina called in for weekly meetings and added suggestions and revisions to the draft constitution via Google Docs. She was a part of a great student debate, moderated by a professor of ancient political philosophy, about whether the constitution should set general standards for student conduct or enumerate specific rules and rights.

It was amazing to Katrina that she had a voice in building a model of governance and she loved the way the older students deferred to her regarding her judgements about what incoming students might want in their College House. Midway through the summer, Katrina proposed that the constitution include an honor code in order to secure students’ commitment to live by community standards. She wrote up her ideas, sent them to the full committee, and was overjoyed to see her ideas in the constitution’s final draft, which was approved by a full College House vote that fall.

All this happened as Katrina was starting college. She went on to excel in brain research and in music and drama. She was commissioned as an officer in the Army two weeks after graduation on her path to medical school. A major catalyst for her extraordinary college career was that first experience being an equal partner on a team whose work required visioning, listening, philosophizing, proposing, debating, compromising, and learning together with steadfast purpose and good will.

This is the sausage-making of democracy. And it taught Katrina the power of teammates and teamwork—which she’s using every day as an Army doctor.

As with the mindsets to learn actively and to create something new with one’s work, Katrina’s acculturation to the mindset of teamwork didn’t occur by reading about this concept but through the exhilarating feelings and epiphanies coming from actual college experience. One of the greatest values of a college education is the immediacy and intensity of feeling that comes from breakthrough work and thus becomes a desirable mentality for life—a mindset.

Which leads to the fourth mindset: the mindset to mentor—to pass on critical skills, to invest in one’s successors, and to foster success in others.

College culture sustains itself because students are constantly passing on to their younger peers the skills and knowledge needed for success. The annual cycles of college experience, where new students enter and returning students advance, builds a practice in which students are always passing onto the class beneath them what they need to know to run a club or work in a lab or compete on the field. And that mentality of mentoring is critical to later adult life because the real successes of our communities, our families, and our workplaces require relationships and the person-to-person transfer of valuable knowledge.

This may sound grand, but a civilization can only sustain itself if its members pass forward knowledge and traditions to others. The mindset to mentor reflects a service ethic that holds a campus or a community together.

One student who I saw develop this mindset was Cristina Diez who came to Franklin & Marshall College as a cohort of 10 first-generation college-goers from Miami all interested in the STEM fields.

Cristina and her cohort were mentored by a thoughtful chemistry professor who went the extra mile in helping build up within them practical knowledge about college that he sensed they might not have. The group met each week to ask questions and process their early college experience. It gave Cristina a profound feeling of gratitude to know that a professor and a group of students were there for her, ready to give her useful information or a caring ear if she was encountering a difficulty.

This experience of being cultivated and cared for made her want to do that for others—and so she became a peer advisor of new students in her sophomore year, a residential advisor the year after that, and a founder of a new sorority focused on women’s leadership and achievement. Over the summers she helped run a program for 70 high-achieving, lower-income students to support their development of knowledge and enthusiasm for success in college.

This may not seem like a remarkable story because Cristina didn’t create a brilliant work of art of write a constitution. What she did was activate a powerful yearning within herself to engage empathetically and productively with others as their resource, as their mentor. I watched her change over several years from a student who wanted support to one whose mindset was relentlessly other-centered toward the goal of helping high-promise people do what they came for.

It hasn’t surprised me that in the years since graduation, Cristina has worked to provide college opportunity for high school students, one achiever at a time, while also working to identify the structural impediments that her mentoring has allowed her to see.

We often hear people in society talking about the benefits of national service programs before or after college, but my experience with hundreds of students like Cristina is that emphasizing service through mentoring in college is of tremendous value because it inculcates service as a way of being in community—as a mindset.

Finally, fifth: the mindset to strive—to push forward relentlessly to develop one’s promise, to achieve one’s goals, and to explore growth for its own sake.

Striving students are the life force of a vibrant campus culture. They leap at rare opportunities. They embrace the resources and possibilities of college in and out of class. They persevere when times get tough. They personify the joy, labor, and love needed for any breakthrough endeavor—and they inspire other students with their example.

Like the other four mindsets, this one can be fostered and modeled, but not mandated. Those who have it will squeeze the most out of life.

One example of this mindset is Carolina Giraldo, who came to college in 2012 with an intense desire to succeed as a pre-med student.

Carolina’s parents, immigrants from Colombia, fled the country to give Carolina and her brother Luis stable and safe lives. Carolina once told me, “My parents brought me up to work hard. Nothing would be given to me except the love, support, and example of my family. The rest would be on me.”

This young woman came to college wanting growth opportunities, and the college offered them at every turn. Her science professors taught her how to study advanced material differently than the way she had learned in high school, and she became an honors student. The crew coach invited her to walk on to the team, and she became all conference. An arts professor was willing to teach her on Saturdays because her labs conflicted with her class, and she ended up winning the campus prize that year for best student drawing. She was the force that fed her growth—it came from within.

When Carolina’s beloved father died suddenly, faculty and friends rallied around her. I thought she might transfer colleges so that she could return to Miami and support her mother—but, in fact, that wasn’t the family’s mindset. Her mother called me a month after the funeral and said, in no unspoken terms, that the only circumstances under which Carolina would leave Franklin & Marshall College would be if she were holding a diploma.

Carolina wasn’t just goal-oriented, and she wasn’t just resilient or “gritty.” Over four years she stretched so hard for opportunity that reaching became her rule. And every time she felt her heart calling for a new form of growth, a professor or the College itself was there saying, “you go for it.”

Make no mistake, supporting strivers is vital for higher education and for America.


First, an old answer: because true education is about prompting the greatest flourishing in each student.

But there is a new reason, too. Today’s shape shifting society can’t thrive without people everywhere who can learn fast and often, who can handle disruption and sometimes lead it, and who embrace change in how, where, and with whom they work.

In other words, America needs strivers—and thinkers and creators and teammates and mentors.

And college campuses are the only systems in our country, that I know of, that are resourced and organized with a mission of promoting exactly those mindsets in our young.

That is the true value of undergraduate education in a democracy—to build the capacity of the people and ensure that each generation of Americans can meet the demands of their time. And, today, in an era of escalating change and profound technological breakthrough, those demands still include knowledge and skills, but many knowledge and skills will become dated or irrelevant. Mindsets matter more and power the development of new knowledge and new skills over a lifetime.

I think that many colleges build empowering mindsets well, but we have an obligation to do better—and we could get worse if colleges become shells of their former selves because the public gives up on them.

That’s why I think four reforms are necessary. I won’t describe them in depth here today except to say:

  1. We need more full-time faculty to spend more time directly teaching and mentoring students—involving themselves in their lives.
  2. We need more project-based learning so that students can create the experiences that catalyze the mindsets that serve them and society;
  3. We need to expand opportunity to high-striving talented students from the full American mosaic who add so much to the ecosystem of a campus but who are frequently factored out because they cannot afford to pay; and
  4. We need to both improve K-12 education dramatically so that more students are educated and equipped for breakthrough college learning, and link college learning and the development of mindsets to early professional opportunities, giving students the chance to use the mindsets they’ve developed.

If we can do these things, the enduring benefits to our young people and our society will be profound. Investing in the young is our human calling.

Thank you for listening.