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College with a Human Touch
August 21, 2012 - 10:18am

In recent years the higher education community has focused more on the role institutions’ play in student success. For a long time the blame for failure has been laid squarely at the feet of students.  If a student dropped out of college it was assumed that they were unmotivated, under-prepared, or lacked the aptitude required to be a college graduate.  The fact that dropouts were admitted meant that they somehow fell through an admissions crack undetected.  Today, higher education leaders are much more conscious about how institutional policies and practices influence a student’s ability to succeed in college — thanks in part to some good research.  They are also more mindful about the thin margins of error afforded to many of today’s students. They are equally aware of thin operational margins on their own campuses.  Many students do not have the resources to repeat or take additional courses that don’t lead to a degree.  In the same way, many institutions no longer have the luxury of offering obsolete programs or expensive support services that are ineffective.  This has led to a more intense focus on what actually matters for student success and degree completion.

As institutions recalibrate polices and educational practices, it is important to remember that the execution and implementation of such is done with a human touch.  Education, if considered a process, involves human interaction that develops and inspires young people to achieve their personal best.  If this contains any truth then we must also remember that humans have the potential to discourage and impede student achievement.  I am particularly mindful of student populations that will arrive requiring a good deal of help if they will ever graduate from college. They won’t have money, “cultural capital”, or family support to solve problems encountered along the way. In other words, their hopes and dreams rest with the institutional policies and practices executed by the people they engage on campuses around the country.  As Fall creeps into the air on many college campuses around the nation faculty and staff will encounter the personification of these hopes and dreams—students. We must all be reminded that our policies, practices, and interactions with students matter to worthy individuals and have consequences for their lives.

Eighteen year olds who arrived on campus this Fall were born in 1994.  Just four years ago they were 14 years old and relatively unaware of the world we purport to know so well.   They were not born when President Bill Clinton took office, they were seven on 9/11, and probably have never used a compact disc (we all thought was so revolutionary) to listen to music.  They look different, think different, and access and process information differently.  In many institutions, students now represent every economic strata of American society.  Consequently, their orientation and approach to education, career, and society varies significantly.

The high calling to teach and serve students requires a genuine interest in who they are as people, as well as their lived-experiences.  I recently encountered a faculty member who made a damning judgment about a student’s commitment to earning a degree based on how he looked and his inability to purchase the required books for her course. She did not know he was homeless.  Faculty and staff cannot impose their notions of intellect or what a college student should look like.  Neither can we foist antiquated polices that ignore new realities. One university staff person recently put her job on the line over a policy that prohibits food in a library already experiencing dramatic declines in student traffic and despite recent efforts to expand active learning space on campus.

As a faculty member and advisor, I would occasionally get an unexpected email or card from a former student thanking me for making a positive difference on their educational journey. As gratifying as those notes were, it made me think about the many students we never hear from again.  Students rarely send notes saying, “I dropped out because of you.” In the same way, students who show up to class, to a faculty member’s office, or to a student service unit will not be wearing a t-shirt that says “my future depends on how well you do your job.” They will not send an email before arriving that warns: “this appointment will determine if I decide to withdraw.”

Working on a campus with thousands of students it might be easy to forget how important each student is individually. In these first few weeks of the term I hope that the higher education community remembers to embrace the human elements of teaching, learning, and service in ways that intentionally makes a positive difference for students.


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