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No pandemic-era discussion of whether students feel seen and understood by their higher ed institutions would be complete without pointing out one fact: the pivot to virtual learning resulted in students literally being seen more.
“Faculty could see the background where students were on a Zoom call,” says Delana Gregg, director of academic learning resources, assessment and analysis with the Academic Success Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. A professor might ask a student if he’s at work and learn he needs to attend lecture while on a break.
“We all became like we were in each other’s homes. That gave us a sense of connecting with students in a more holistic way,” Gregg says.
Thanks to the 2015 report on the Gallup-Purdue Index, higher ed leaders and educators know college graduates who have achieved success in work and life were more likely to have been personally engaged with a faculty member during college. “The belief that someone at the institution knows them, gets them and is rooting for them … matters, not just now but for years to come,” says Kristine Goodwin, who has worked in public and private higher education and recently began a role at Western New England University as vice president of student affairs.
The latest Student Voice survey from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, presented by Kaplan, found a significant percentage of students agree at least somewhat that employees, especially faculty members, at their college or university “see” them, defined as understanding personal challenges they face due to race, gender identity, socioeconomic class or childhood experiences. Among the findings:
- Nearly two-thirds of 2,003 students surveyed feel at least somewhat that professors see them.
- When asked about student services office employees, that number dips to 56 percent.
- Even fewer students, 43 percent, feel seen by university administrators (with president, provost and dean given as examples).
Conducted Jan. 5 to 10, the survey also asked students to select the types of campus professionals and other employees who understand them best, with professors and academic advisers identified the most. That list also included some job functions rarely thought of in terms of having an impact on student success, such as security guards, janitors and dining hall workers. (Spoiler alert: More students feel dining hall workers understand them than deans, and janitors and deans emerged with a tie.)
An analysis of survey results by demographics such as first-generation college goers, students who experienced specific childhood traumas and students with learning disabilities found that these groups are more likely than others to disagree that their college understands the connections they have to family and their home communities. Only 12 percent of the full survey sample strongly agreed with that statement. Similar demographic factors influenced the percentage of students who have recently experienced issues with time management, anxiety and financial insecurity as well.
In other words, helping students through challenges they’re going through now requires a deep understanding of where they’ve been. Read on for a glimpse at trends related to individual students’ stories and what faculty, staff and administrators need to know about those stories to better support students in their learning and life journeys.
Whom Students Feel Seen By
Professors can feel good about being the group that students feel most understands them and their personal challenges, says Julie Park, an associate professor of education at the University of Maryland at College Park. “We make an effort to notice and care about [students], but we wonder if they’re picking up on it; it’s hard to tell. Students are paying attention to us in this way. They’re not just concerned about how we’re providing content.”
But approaching the beginning of COVID year three, should educators who are feeling overwhelmed worry about the need to do more? “I don’t think this is a call to overexert yourself,” says Park. “It is a reminder that what you do do can make a difference.”
Two-year-college students (250 of the full survey sample) were more likely than their four-year counterparts to feel seen by professors, as were arts and humanities majors compared to students studying other disciplines, particularly the sciences and social sciences. Those feeling less as if their professors get them were the two-thirds of students who reported having experienced one of nine adverse childhood events listed (see box), as well as students identifying as lower class socioeconomically.
Adverse Childhood Events Asked About in Survey
(In order from most to least selected, with students asked to identify having experienced themselves or within the immediate family)
- Depression or other mental health issues
- Emotional abuse
- Being unemployed for an extended period
- Alcoholism/excessive drinking
- Food insecurity
- Witnessing violence near home
- Physical abuse
- Housing insecurity/homelessness
- Drug addiction
Black and Asian American respondents were also less likely to feel seen by professors. Park, whose research areas include racial equity in higher education and Asian American college students, says Asian Americans generally have lower rates of interaction with faculty, with actual or perceived racism being factors.
University of Utah junior Victoria Nguyen, whose parents are Vietnamese refugees, says she has found that “professors don’t fully understand where I come from, or they make assumptions about me.” The term “model minority” makes her cringe, and that stereotype, she believes, is why “higher ed will not care about Asian American representation … My hard work doesn’t stem from my ethnicity but from me being a person,” says Nguyen, a marketing major attending Utah on full scholarship who is also employed by three campus departments so she can help with household bills.
Administrators and faculty must ask themselves this: “Who are we serving well, and who is not benefiting from our practices?” says Estela Mara Bensimon, a university professor emerita and founder of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. “I’m talking about that from a racial equity perspective. No matter what, institutions of higher education are underperforming for Black, Latinx and Indigenous students in particular.”
Asked whether campus leaders understand them, just 17 percent of Student Voice respondents strongly agree, with Black students being the least likely racial group to respond in that way (12 percent).
Nguyen, who has been advocating for a joint resolution in support of Black students and the Black student union at her university, acknowledges that its leaders have put resources into equity, diversity and inclusion. However, she adds, “They only tend to step in when there’s a racial incident.”
First-generation college students who also consider themselves part of the lower socioeconomic class are most likely to disagree at least somewhat that administrators see them—45 percent compared to 26 percent of all respondents (with an 11 percent margin of error).
“Sometimes class differences outweigh racial differences,” says Anthony Abraham Jack, an assistant professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students (Harvard University Press). Black students from wealthy backgrounds, for example, can have similar experiences as other wealthy students.
Democratic and Independent survey respondents were less likely to strongly agree their institutional officials see them, 13 percent and 17 percent, respectively, compared to 24 percent of Republican students (73 percent of this survey’s Republican students were white).
While college president demographics may well explain Republican students’ comfort with campus leadership, Sarah Whitley from NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education says this finding is interesting because of higher ed’s liberal reputation. “There’s such a narrative that institutions are these liberal-leaning, brainwashing places where students have reported they can’t actually tell people they’re Republicans,” says Whitley, assistant vice president for NASPA’s Center for First-Generation Student Success.
Shaya Gregory Poku of Wheaton College in Massachusetts is not surprised that students over all feel less understood by administrators than by professors and staff. “A wider disconnect exists with those who have the most power authority,” says Poku, associate vice president for institutional equity and belonging. “It’s not just being aware of student experiences, but also about having empathy for and responsiveness to those experiences. You need to do all three,” she adds.
When asked about feeling seen by student services office staff, survey respondents are more likely to agree at least somewhat if they fall into the upper socioeconomic class. “The offices cater to them,” says Jack. “When you feel a sense of entitlement to offices anyway, and you go and they work with you on what you want to work on, there’s no moment of disconnect.”
Nguyen believes academic advising could be strengthened for marginalized students, such as by having counselors who specialize in aiding first-generation students. Services to aid refugees or international students are also needs she sees.
Nguyen has settled into her routine as a train commuter, spending time on classwork or job-related work during the hourlong commute from the vicinity of West Mountain to Salt Lake City. Sometimes supervisors suggest she join an 8 a.m. meeting, and she needs to explain she’s still on the train and can’t arrive before 9. Or someone will ask why she works so much, especially with a full scholarship. “They don’t get that students have external things outside of school to pay for,” she says. Besides her personal bills, she pays property taxes on her parents’ house and salon business.
When looking at the Student Voice data, Goodwin from Western New England advised not getting too excited about “the good numbers. Look at the bad numbers and imagine those percentages equal real-life students. Humanize the data.”
What to Know About Students’ Present and Past
The Student Voice survey asked respondents to rate how much they’ve personally struggled with several challenges in the past four months, with time management and feeling overscheduled emerging as the top issue—affecting nearly three-quarters of students at least a fair amount.
“This is one place where variation is very slight. Everybody would benefit from some time management help,” says Goodwin.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone in campus disability services that those with a learning disability or condition that makes learning more difficult (n=351) struggle “a great deal” with time management—41 percent compared to 30 percent of students over all. Ideally, academic services and disability services offices are working together “so they can refer students back and forth as needed, to make sure students know supports exist” for scheduling and other executive functioning challenges, says Elisa Laird, associate executive director for professional development at AHEAD, the Association on Higher Education and Disability. Students feeling overscheduled may not be aware, for example, that someone could help them organize their time.
Anxiety and depression have been another big challenge for Student Voice respondents in the past four months, with two-thirds saying it’s an issue at least a fair amount and one-third saying a great deal. That jumps to over half for students with learning disabilities and 43 percent for those who have experienced childhood trauma personally or in their household. White or Latinx students also stand out for struggling with mental health, as do LGBTQIA+ students compared to straight-identifying students.
Gregg from UMBC has had a lot of students seek help with issues around anxiety and time management, and then “once you give them the space and time to tell their story, other things come up,” she says.
Financial difficulty is a standout “other thing.” One in four Student Voice respondents have struggled with financial insecurity a great deal recently, and the same percentage is very worried about their family’s finances. More than half have been struggling with finances at least a fair amount. Whitley had expected these numbers to be even higher. “People are sometimes hesitant to select ‘a great deal.’ That doesn’t make them feel good,” she explains.
Despite COVID surges, just one in 10 respondents have struggled with poor physical health in the past few months. Lower-class and working-class students are more than twice as likely as upper-class students to say they have struggled a great deal, however—which Goodwin says may be a health insurance access issue. In addition, women report struggling more than men, and Democrats and Independents more than Republicans.
When asked whether their colleges “understand the connections I have to my family and home community,” one in four Student Voice respondents disagreed at least somewhat. That percentage increased for first-generation students and students who experienced childhood trauma, and the type of trauma matters. Standing out are those who had witnessed violence near their home (n=305, with 37 percent disagreeing their home connections are understood), who had experienced food insecurity (n=409, with 32 percent disagreeing) or who had lived with housing insecurity (n=219, also with 32 percent disagreeing).
“Those kinds of traumas do something impossible. They travel with you even as they stay put. You have a security team around you that’s protecting you, but your family does not. And your campus does not understand what that means to you.”
—Anthony Abraham Jack, Harvard University, on students who have witnessed violence or experienced food or housing insecurity during childhood
The violence connection may relate to students feeling safe and secure on their campuses and that feeling being so different from home. “It’s almost like there’s a barrier up around the institution, and there may be some truth to that. People see college campuses almost like a compound,” says Whitley.
Jack says witnessing violence or experiencing issues with food or housing are adverse childhood events that tend to linger. “Those kinds of traumas do something impossible. They travel with you even as they stay put. You have a security team around you that’s protecting you, but your family does not. And your campus does not understand what that means to you.”
Goodwin was reminded of a boys’ basketball program she ran with her husband so that kids in urban Worcester, Mass., could connect with peers in a neighboring suburb, where her family lived. As a child from Worcester took off his shirt to play “skins,” Goodwin’s son asked where he got the scar on his chest, and the nonchalant answer was “Oh, I was stabbed.” Her son just had to know why an awful, violent incident like that hadn’t made the news. It probably would have gotten headlines in their town, but “when this happens in Worcester, nobody cares,” she replied.
As Park from the University of Maryland explains the issue and the higher ed call to action, “it’s not that our students leave their past at the doorstep when they come to college. They’re still part of these communities, part of their family, and these are things we need to honor, recognize and support in different ways.”
Who Makes Up Students’ Village
When asked to consider interactions with a wide variety of employees at their institution, students most frequently identified professors and academic advisers as understanding them. While students are most likely to also think of a professor as the single type of employee who knows them best, many respondents feel seen by employees such as dining hall workers, campus job supervisors, facilities staffers or security officers.
“The people who make up [students’] village are not always those who are thought of,” says Jack. “It’s truly important to think about stuff outside the classroom, especially how students are seen. … It’s the perfect time to talk about unrecognized work on college campuses. They’re not assigned to students—they’re assigned to dorms or dining halls or walkways.”
Professors, advisers and teaching assistants are natural campus supports, but a custodian may feel like the best person to talk to when a student misses home. “I had done that work myself, and I knew where they were coming from,” says Gregg, whose experiences include being a first-gen student at a public institution. “I didn’t know what an associate provost was!” And while she wasn’t afraid to reach out when she needed help, she didn’t know to whom.
Gregg advises UMBC students working through college to look toward on-campus jobs. “It’s the kind of job where they understand you’re a student first. You can say, ‘I have a test—can I change my hours?’”
Thirteen percent of students over all said they felt understood by a dining hall worker, and 9 percent by a janitor or other facilities staff member, but about twice as many first-generation private college students related to either of these employee types.
Jack sees this finding as “a moment to uplift and recognize the role of janitors, those unsung heroes who are often unseen and very rarely heard from.”
Fran’Cee Brown-McClure, vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Union College in New York, makes a point to have conversations with housekeeping staff and dining workers. A housekeeping employee may share about a student who likely has an eating disorder, or a dining employee may be aware of a domestic violence situation.
Brown-McClure knows firsthand that when “familial background is the same as those particular workers, there is a level of comfort there,” she says, adding that a colleague once noticed her speaking a lot to the staff during a conference. “I said, ‘Yes, because they look like me.’”
Perhaps dining hall workers “feed your soul,” says Jack. “Sometimes what you need is not a tutoring session but some dumplings. Sometimes you need a taste of home to remember why you’re putting up with everything, why you are pulling an all-nighter, why you are taking this hard class or why you are turning down this party so you can take a [work] shift or so you can study.”
Two particular Wheaton dining hall workers (one who recently passed away) were, in Poku’s words, “some of the most beloved people at our institution. They know how students want their sandwiches.” That’s a comfort to any student rushing to eat between classes.
Deans may not see much comfort in the finding that only 9 percent of students feel understood by them—even while recognizing that difficult disciplinary decisions and actions taken to support students’ educational journeys “may not be felt as caring,” says Poku. Park from the University of Maryland suggests this survey finding “could be a wake-up call to deans about the image they’re projecting, and maybe how accessible they are to students.”
Which Students Are Seeking Help
With all the focus placed on communicating with students about available supports, at least educators, campus leaders and staff can rest assured that they’ll find out which students are struggling and can offer to help.
Not so fast. Only 28 percent of students who identified recent struggles with time management, anxiety, physical health or financial insecurity say they have shared their struggles with professors or other professionals at their institutions.
“We at institutions invest so much time in creating these support centers, and they’re underutilized,” says Poku, adding that the problem could involve not feeling psychologically safe.
Nguyen describes herself as “an open book,” but she “can understand where a lot of students would typically push it away, especially when it comes to academic stressors. They want to keep grinding and keep going,” she says.
Students are more likely to have shared struggles related to physical health compared to other challenges. Whitley believes this might be because poor health is an equalizer that anyone may be dealing with: “Sharing that we have family issues feels harder than sharing, ‘I have COVID.’”
In a climate where faculty and staff members are encouraged to speak up about struggling students, they may get help without making the first move. Gregg saw staff referrals to UMBC’s Academic Advocacy services, for example, increase 50 percent between fall 2019 (pre-pandemic) and fall 2021 (return to on-campus learning).
A year ago, the first Student Voice survey covered whether students feel “heard,” if they feel comfortable speaking up in class or on campus and how faculty members and administrators can encourage students to share their viewpoints.
One might expect students with learning disabilities and related challenges to be reaching out much more, since they are responsible for communicating with professors about disability-related accommodations. But only about 10 percent more have done so than students over all.
Lingering stigma over disabilities could be the reason behind that, explains Laird. Disabilities services staff aim to “help students see beyond that”—a tactic that could work in building trust with any student. “If a student feels safe disclosing personal information, they will be much more likely to do so,” she says. “That relies on having trust. If students feel more seen, they will be more likely to seek support.”
Additional coverage of this survey: 10 ideas for strengthening connections with students.