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The Power of Relationships in Undergraduate Education | Inside Higher Ed


A Gallup and Purdue poll of 30,000 college grads from 2014 found that students who had a rich, robust relationship with a faculty member were twice as likely as peer graduates to report high levels of well-being.  But only 14 percent of graduates said they had experienced such a relationship.

Two books that appeared in 2020 – which were mainly written pre-pandemic — speak to an issue that campuses need to take more seriously:  The centrality of interpersonal relationships to students’ learning, retention, and psychological well-being.  

In Relationship-Rich Education by Peter Felten and Leo M. Lambert of Elon University argue persuasively that bricks-and-mortar colleges and universities need to remember that the main justification for the education they offer and the tuition they charge is rich relationships between faculty and students and among classmates.  As the authors demonstrate, having a mentor, an advisor, and close connections with classmates helps drive academic success, especially for first-generation college students and those from low-income backgrounds.  

All campuses, the authors maintain, not just the wealthiest, can create a welcoming campus environment, encourage supportive relationships with faculty and staff, and foster a sense of belonging through a series of simple, affordable steps: 

  • Make sure that faculty and staff recognize that concern for students’ well-being is necessary to optimize learning and raise retention and graduation rates.
  • Encourage instructors to make their classes warm and welcoming; to that end, faculty should explain the objectives of their assignments and activities, integrate students’ backgrounds into their classes, relate the skills and knowledge they convey to real-life and future careers, and give students active roles in the classroom as planners, active participants, and partners in the learning process.
  • Make it possible for instructors to provide more individualized feedback and to participate in more student engagement activities (like student-faculty lunches or co-curricular activities), by, for example, shifting from 3 to 4 credit hour classes and giving faculty access to modest student engagement funds.
  • Hire undergraduates to serve as peer mentors, learning assistants, study group leaders, and classroom consultants (to conduct classroom observations and make recommendations).
  • Place more students in first-year seminars, learning communities (including learning-living communities), freshman interest groups, and honors and research cohorts.
  • Do more to encourage students to participate in co-curricular and extracurricular activities, including field trips and engagement activities, clubs and campus organizations, intramural athletics, and community service.
  • Recognize and reward faculty and staff who do an exceptional job of mentoring and supporting undergraduates.

Expensive?  Yes.  Effective in cultivating a sense of community and enhancing a sense of belonging and raising retention rates?  Yes, too.

Relationships, inside and outside the classroom, the authors argue, are what make college what it should be: a transformational experience that addresses fundamental issues of meaning, purpose, and direction in life.  Rather than depending on a single mentor, the authors recommend, create webs of significant relationships that include peers, faculty, staff, and others on and off campus.

In the authors words: “relationships are the beating heart of higher education and … learning and well-being are intimately, inseparably connected.”

Absolutely true.  And yet, I worry that a relationship-rich college experience is a pipedream, what with teaching delivered, in large part, by adjuncts, post-docs, and graduate students, faculty torn between their teaching, research, and family obligations, support services severely understaffed, and mentoring largely unrecognized and unrewarded.  

Elon University, the North Carolina school where Fenten and Lambert work, bears scant resemblance to the 4-year institutions that teach the vast bulk of undergraduates.  Its student body (currently numbering 6,791), is, according to the College Scorecard, 80 percent white with 97 percent of students attending full-time.  The overwhelming majority of undergraduates are traditional-aged and, given the institution’s cost, most come from relatively comfortable economic backgrounds.  Four of the top five majors are business related (in finance and financial services, public relations and advertising, marketing, and business administration) not in STEM.  

Even though it’s far easier to envision a relationship-rich education on a relatively small, predominantly residential campus like Elon, I do think Felten and Lambert are right when they assert that most institutions could offer something similar if they were to make meaningful relationships central to their functioning. But this is impossible if they rely heavily on large lecture courses and treat the instructor role and various support and service responsibilities separately.

In The Cost of Inclusion: How Student Conformity Leads to Inequality on College Campuses, Blake R. Silver, a George Mason sociologist, paints a bleak portrait of efforts to forge deep and lasting relationships in college. This book shows how easy it is for undergraduates to become typecast in rigid, prescribed, one-dimensional roles: as “’the cool guy,’ ‘the nice girl,’ ‘the funny one,’ ‘the leader,’ ‘the intellectual,’ or ‘the mom of the group.’” He, like Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura Hamilton in Paying for the Party, also shows how social life on campus tends to reinforce racial, class, and gender stereotypes and inequalities.

As Silver’s book reveals, the actual college experience bears scant resemblance to the racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual utopia portraited in campus brochures.

This volume underscores how ill-prepared most undergraduates are for the diversity they encounter on campus.  The book details the intense pressures for conformity that students experience, the complexities of same-sex, cross-gender, and interracial relationships, and the ways that women and non-traditional and underrepresented students are often pushed to the margins. Then, too, identity issues, involving sexuality, religion, and ethnicity, are much more highly charged than in the past.

For those of us with rose-colored, nostalgia-laden memories of college as “the best years of our life,” Silver’s book offers a shocking reminder that for all too many students, the undergraduate experience is very different than what it was when student bodies were far more homogeneous and the white, heterosexual male experience was privileged.  Today, campus life is much more stressful, fraught, time-stressed, and anxiety-ridden. Compared to high school, college is far more academically rigorous, and represents the very first time that many students have ever earned less than an “A.” Because of gated majors, merit fellowships that hinge on grade-point averages, and pressure to get into highly ranked graduate and professional schools, college has become more competitive. Grade grubbing, I can attest, is far more prevalent.

That’s not all.  Many, perhaps most, undergraduates view the future with dread.  Silver’s book also exposes how little most campuses do to help them navigate a social environment very different than those that they previously encountered or to prepare them for their likely future. 

Today’s college campuses juggle numerous priorities: athletics, enrollment, fund-raising, research, teaching, and much more.  But to have numerous priorities is, of course, to have none at all.  Campuses need to make it clear that their Number 1 priority is student learning and development.

If campuses truly did make student learning and development their lodestar, much would change. There’d be fewer large lecture classes and more small classes where faculty could actually get to know their students.  The administrative silos that divide campuses into various fiefdoms would be breached.  Faculty would broaden, deepen, and connect the curriculum.  Institutions would offer more broad-based courses that address issues of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, equity, and inequality head-on; they’d provide more opportunities for students to study global problems, embed ethical reasoning in courses across the curriculum, provide more opportunities for students to engage with existential issues, such as identity, intimacy, and loss, and do more to help students develop leadership and interpersonal skills and explore major and career possibilities and chart a realistic path into the labor market.  

Campuses would also blur the boundaries between academic life and student life and treat these domains as synergistic and mutually supportive.  They’d offer more opportunities for students to develop rich, supportive relationships with faculty, provide more workshops to help students develop skills not offered in existing courses, help students acquire more practical experience, and expand participation in recreational and athletic activities.

And yet, even if campuses did all these wonderful things, there is another barrier that has proven largely intractable. I think it’s fair to say that many undergraduates regard the college experience as essentially transactional.  I don’t know about you, but I am astonished by how resistant most of my students are to the high impact pedagogical practices that promote deep learning.  I am also struck by how few undergraduates attend office hours or remain after class to discuss various topics or personal issues. 

We know why this is the case.  Many students prefer lectures to active or team-based learning because passive listening seems easier.  Many feel awkward and uncomfortable meeting with professors, especially those, like me, who are much older and unlike them in ways small and large.  In addition, non-traditional students, in particular, can’t find the time for such meetings.  

But the underlying reason for the reluctance to engage lies in a fundamental shift in students’ view of the purpose of an undergraduate education.  College isn’t a time for self-discovery and exploration, nor is it about developing deep and lasting relationships with faculty.  It’s about acquiring a credential and preparing for a job.

If meaningful relationships are the key to student success and well-being, I fear that most undergraduates haven’t yet gotten the message. Which is why we need to integrate mentoring and increased peer interaction into existing classes and why we must make the high impact practices that involve rich relationships – like mentored research, supervised internships, clinical experiences, studio courses, and service learning – more central to the academic experience.

If we want something done, we must find a way to achieve it.  

In a 1625 essay, Francis Bacon, the English philosopher and Lord High Chancellor, told a story (probably based on an Ottoman proverb) to illustrate this point.  He wrote: “‘Mahomet cald the Hill to come to him. And when the Hill stood still, he was neuer a whit abashed, but said; If the Hill will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet wil go to the hil’.”

It’s incumbent upon faculty to figure out how to create the purposeful, relationship-rich education that Peter Felten and Leo Lambert call for.  It may not be precisely what students want, but it is exactly what they need.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.



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