Relationships Make the Student

Powerful research and scholarship need not be exotic to have an impact. Sometimes a close look at the familiar can be surprisingly powerful.

Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College, an accessible and informative book by Peter Felten and Leo M. Lambert, does just that. The authors examine something that we who work in higher education readily recognize – interpersonal relationships matter to students – and they explain how they have an impact. We sense the influence of relationships from our day-to-day and research confirms it. A major Gallup study, for example, spells out what supports truly make a difference to students: “having a professor who made students excited about learning, professors who cared about them as a person, and a mentor who encouraged their goals and dreams.” Felten and Lambert’s book, which ranges across higher education, including community colleges, baccalaureate institutions and graduate universities, presents a wide range of programs, initiatives, individuals and case studies that reinforce and explain this phenomenon. It’s a compendium of examples, well-written and encouraging, and studies of challenges when it comes to institutionalizing relationship-rich education. The overall message points in a clear direction: a student’s successful higher education experience is a relationship-rich journey.

Felten is the Executive Director of Elon University’s Center for Engaged Learning. Lambert is Elon University’s emeritus president. Under his leadership, Elon grew tremendously, as did its effectiveness as a learning institution. This book, though, is not focused on Elon. It looks at what is happening in many places, effectively changing students lives, and it does so informed by data. The authors reached out to 236 thought leaders, received 84 responses, and followed up with many more interviews and visits. They talked with students, faculty, administrators and scholars. The book concludes with practical suggestions for individual and institutions.

The heart of the college experience is the classroom. Unfortunately, all too many classrooms do not prioritize relationships. The reasons are manifold, from training to staffing to priorities to understanding what constitutes effective teaching and learning. Culture, at the department and school levels, plays an extremely important role. Furthermore, we measure what we value and we value what we measure. Relationships can prove to be a tricky assessment tool and a difficult thing to count. It’s a subject we can learn more about, too, as we all know that there are some meetings with students that make a difference and others that do not. Determining what is and is not a “meaningful” interaction is no simple task.

Acknowledging all of this, the authors share example after example of how committed faculty, administrators, programs and institutions have made a high-quality relationship-rich education as their priority. Different mentoring programs and models are highlighted, as are intensive student research opportunities. These and related efforts do not necessarily lead to improved rankings or status. Their consequences are far more valuable: successful students. This is a message of vital importance to all of us within higher education and the public at large. The quality of an education and an institution is not about the percentage of applicants rejected, the size of the endowment, or the research awards netted by faculty. The quality of an education is about students’ learning and students’ experience.

David Potash

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