Student Success Rests on an Institutional Culture of Support

It wasn’t long into the pandemic closures of March 2020 before faculty began to rethink practices long upheld as essential ingredients of a rigorous pedagogy. Instructors reconsidered the purpose, design, and utility of exams, the nature and value of the grading system, and the most equitable way to treat late work. As the pandemic rolled on, taking a mounting toll on student mental health, faculty – themselves steamrolled by the shift to online teaching and need to manage their own lives – were challenged to take onboard the complexity of their students’ lives, and not view them only as learners whose identity was defined by the subject of the course being taught.

Confronted with Zoom screens in which a quarter of the cameras might be turned off, teachers were hard pressed not to wonder what was going on behind those blank boxes. Were students drowsing off, watching videos, completely uninterested in what we had to say? Were they unwilling to reveal themselves parked outside a McDonald’s in order to grab a bit of the Golden Arches’ bandwidth that they lacked at home? Were they embarrassed about what their homes revealed about them?  

Now colleges are back and faculty – to the extent that they have the time for it – are examining the importance of face-to-face teaching and the residential campus with fresh eyes. Even for those instructors who best met the challenges of online teaching and learning, the impact of not being able to develop or sustain multi-dimensional relationships with students was unmistakable. Faculty certainly lost the ability to interact with students in complex ways in the classroom, but the loss was felt even more deeply in other arenas. We no longer saw our students playing sports, performing music, or hanging out at the local coffee shop. We couldn’t share a meal with them in the dining hall. The more that students were squeezed into their Zoom boxes, the more faculty came to miss (and cherish) the human relationships and social interactions that are critical to student learning and the overall success of the academic enterprise.

A Relationship-Rich Education

These thoughts were on my mind as I read Peter Felten and Leo M. Lambert’s Relationship-Rich Education How Human Connections Drive Success in College (Johns Hopkins Press, 2020). (Full disclosure: I’ve known Peter for many years and consider him one of the most insightful minds working on higher education today.) Felten and Lambert (who was president of Elon University between 1999 and 2018) argue that relationships – peer-to-peer, student-faculty, and student-staff – are the necessary foundation for learning, belonging and achieving in college. Given the importance of these meaningful relationships, according to the authors, the entire campus, from senior administrators to custodians, must fully commit to creating the kind of community that can sustain and inspire a “relationship-rich education.”

Let me put their argument in a slightly different way. For most students, success at college and later in life will not be assured by building fancy dorms with private bathrooms, adding prestige factors that hike a college’s rankings, or creating majors that respond to immediate market pressures. Their success ultimately will be determined by an institution’s ability to help students create and sustain significant and multiple relationships while at college. In other words, by offering a “relationship-rich” education. And, as Felten and Lambert conclude, this kind of an education rests on the support of a community  in which each of its constituents, from presidents to groundskeepers, from faculty to students, feel that they belong and are able to derive meaning from being a part of that community.

The premise that meaningful relationships underlie student success in college has been supported by literally decades of research. To cite just one example – I have included other references at the end of this article – Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs (How College Works, Harvard, 2014) conclude on the basis of their research that “satisfactory personal relationships are a prerequisite for learning”; that personal connections “are often the central mechanism and daily motivators of the student experience”; and that the “pervasive influence of relationships suggests that a college – at least insofar as it offers real benefits – is less a collection of programs than a gathering of people.” Or, as they summarized, “what really matters in college is who meets whom, and when.”

Felten and Lambert extend this argument on the basis of their extensive interviews with hundreds of individuals at 29 higher education institutions across the country. They contend that while individual relationships can be transformative for a student’s education, “a network of overlapping relationships is more likely to meet a student’s evolving needs than any single mentor can.”

Lorenz Stoer, Geometria et Perspectiva (1567)

Although published just as the pandemic was closing college doors, the book’s focus on the critical importance of multiple human relationships in the learning process carries particular significance at a moment when campuses have re-opened to in-person learning. Having experienced the social isolation imposed by the pandemic, having witnessed the attenuation of the webs of relationship that knitted together many colleges during pre-pandemic times, will institutional leaders understand more clearly the value of supporting a relationship-rich education? Or will they conclude that building community and maintaining financial sustainability are competing interests in a zero-sum game?

As expected, the evidence so far suggests that while some have taken the lessons of the past two years to heart, others have decided to return to a more familiar path, one that emphasizes students as consumers, prestige over purpose, and competition over community. Kevin McClure, an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, had the opportunity to talk with a number of college leaders during the last two years. Many, he reported, hoped that “If we can just get on the other side of [the pandemic], then things will improve.” But, as McClure observed, “there is no other side of this. This is kind of it.”


What would a relationship-rich education look like? Among the various factors that Felten and Lambert develop, two seemed manifestly important at the present time. In an institution that aspires to be “relationship-rich,” every student must experience genuine welcome and deep care, and every student must be supported in developing a web of significant relationships. (One would hope that all students are able to experience what it means to be welcomed and cared for in all their classes, but I won’t discuss here what that would entail, having examined this question in other posts.)

Among the most significant relationship that a student can develop in college is the mentoring relationship. Most often mentoring emerges in the context of a class and is then extend to other domains. For Chambliss and Takacs, mentorship entails a “significant personal and professional connection, lasting more than just one course or semester.” I’m quite sure that you can name those students you have mentored over the years, a considerably smaller number than those you have advised, and certainly smaller than the students you have taught. You remember them because of the quality and significance of the relationship. Faculty may be assigned a student to mentor, but mentorship is not actually something that can be assigned. Rather, it is an ongoing exchange that develops over time and only by mutual agreement. Meaningful mentoring takes time to develop and attentiveness and care if is to persist.

Oberlin College Commencement

Nonetheless, the first thing about mentoring at most colleges (certainly the ones I’ve been associated with) is that while appreciated, it is rarely rewarded in any form of serious academic “currency.” Mentors may receive certificates they can put on their office walls; they might see their accomplishments touted in campus bulletins and alumni magazines. But mentorship will largely be ignored come tenure time or during salary review – even though an instructor’s painstaking mentoring may have been the determining factor in a student’s persistence to graduation, and even though faculty are reminded often that student success is the “primary mission” of their institution.

Further, if you multiply this unrewarded labor by a factor of ten, you arrive at the situation of many women and faculty of color who take on a disproportionate share of the labor in this area, for reasons we all know well and often at a heavy cost to their professional advancement. If colleges and universities were truly interested in creating the kind of institution in which all students were welcomed, cared for, and given what they needed to succeed, why aren’t they supporting and rewarding those instructors who actually make this possible?

The answer, according to John Zubizarreta, author of The Learning Portfolio: Reflective Practice for Improving Student Learning (Jossey-Bass, 2009), is that most colleges and universities place other priorities above this, even if they take pride in being student-centered and place a priority on teaching and learning. For Zubizarreta, words alone just don’t cut it. “An institution needs to commit – I mean whole hog commit – to the importance of mentoring as an institutional cultural priority.” If they are not “whole hog” committed to this, he suggests, colleges will not search for or hire hiring faculty and staff who are dedicated to fostering deep mentoring relationships with students. Nor, I would add, will they make an effort to retain faculty who have built a practice of mentoring over many years of service.

Given the current job market, with dozens if not hundreds of well qualified applicants searching for jobs, it is probably not difficult to find a sociologist or physicist with solid research credentials to replace a faculty member who has, for whatever reason, left. But what cannot be replaced are the mentoring experiences and personal histories of care that vanish along with the departing faculty members. Similarly, while visiting or adjunct faculty may sincerely care for the well being and education of their students, they are unlikely to have the time or experience, and certainly lack the needed continuity, to build substantial mentoring relationships with students.

Kevin McClure, from UNC-Wilmington and a leading authority researching faculty “burnout,” worries that institutional leaders have created a “kind of an Amazon warehouse model where people leave and we just replace them and replenish them.” And yet we know that these relationships will determine, in the end, a student’s success in college.

A Campus Culture of Support

But faculty don’t, and should not, carry the responsibility of mentorship by themselves. Felten and Lambert argue that, “The institution should encourage a climate where everyone on campus, from professors and custodians to deans and office support staff, models mentoring and support for students.” The reality of this is often more evident from a student’s perspective than a faculty member’s as students are likely to have experienced welcome and care from individuals far removed from the classroom. In an earlier post I explored the ways that custodians, for example, often form important mentoring relations with students living in the dorms they care for. Not only do custodians keep the dorms safe and clean, but they often provide advice and support that others won’t offer. The same is true for cafeteria staff, administrative aides, and those who supervise student workers.

Because this is the reality of college campuses, it is vital that all employees understand and believe in the higher purposes of their work. They need not just to understand, but to feel that they are all responsible for shaping an environment that leads to student success. But for this to happen, as Felten wrote in an earlier book, “Every person on a college campus” must be “supported by strong institutional expectations and commitments” [The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most (Jossey-Bass, 2016)].

What does this mean in actuality, particularly given that colleges frequently highlight the importance of community even as their practices might suggest otherwise? The current president of Elon University in North Carolina provided one answer. According to Connie Ledoux Book, “what initially stages a culture that values relationships is the welcome you provide,” a culture that doesn’t just say “We care about each other at this place,” but one that actually lives it.

Rutgers-Newark Honors Living and Learning Community

How might that play out in practice? Felten and Lambert visited the Newark campus of Rutgers University and found one example. When students apply to the Honors Living-Learning Community at Rutgers-Newark, literally everyone on campus is invited to participate in a large group interview process, “from the chancellor’s office team to faculty, staff, groundskeepers, police officers, community members, and alumni…” Students are applying to enter a competitive program but, they wrote,  it “feels like a welcoming community…”

Felten and Lambert, McClure, and others stress the importance of creating a cultural model that offers a welcoming community that can promote student success. “It’s possible for folks to be engaged in the work,” McClure argues, “but to not feel included and to not have a sense of belonging or that the work is meaningful.” He suggests that what is required is a culture in which all members of the community “can bring their true selves and have that type of not just physical safety, but social safety as well.”

Felten and Lambert concluded in a similar vein. The institutional culture which best can support students, they maintain, values community over competition. It has moved from a culture that esteems “prestige” (those factors which get students admitted to institutions) to one of “engagement” (those factors that help students to connect and succeed at institutions). Who shapes that culture? As Felten and Lambert point out, an institution’s culture rests in the hands of its leadership. Their argument is worth quoting in full:

The ultimate test of institutional leadership — they argue — whether by faculty, staff, trustees, or administrators – is the stewardship of institutional culture. Institutional cultures are both precious and fragile. It takes years to build a strong, positive culture, but culture can be seriously damaged in the span of a few months by a sudden veering of direction in pursuit of ill-considered priorities or a lack of attention to the small details of institutional life that signal that people care and are paying attention. To build the culture of a relationship-rich campus requires the buy-in of hundreds, if not thousands, of caring, committed people; constant reinforcement of the message that relationships matter and reward and recognition of the efforts of faculty and staff who do the everyday work of connecting with students.

These are conclusions we would be wise to take to heart as we reimagine our post-pandemic futures.


* Other studies include Matthew J. Mayhew et al, How College Affects Students: 21st Century Evidence That Higher Education Works, Vol. 3 (Jossey-Bass, 2016); Peter Felten et al, The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most (Jossey-Bass, 2016); Adrianna J. Kezar, ed., Recognizing and Serving Low-Income Students in Higher Education: An Examination of Institutional Policies, Practices, and Culture (Routledge, 2011); Alexander W. Astin, What Matters in College: Four Critical Years Revisited (Jossey-Bass, 1993); Richard J. Light, Getting the Most Out of College (Harvard, 2001); and George D. Kuh, “The Other Curriculum: Out-of-Class Experiences Associated with Student Learning and Personal Development,” Journal of Higher Education 66:2 (1995): 123-155.

2 thoughts on “Student Success Rests on an Institutional Culture of Support

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