Much of the attention in higher education circles focuses on getting more vulnerable students to and through college. We have finally acknowledged that access to and entry into post-high school education not enough; we need to focus on graduation – whether from a certificate program, a community college or a four-year college or university. We have targeted improving graduation rates as a goal that symbolizes success, enabling some to claim victory when those rates rise.
But we are mistaken. We are claiming success too early. This point – which had been gnawing at some of us for months as we have watched and listened to our current seniors – was brought to the fore in Jeff Hobbs' new book, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. The story of Robert Peace is poignant, examining how a kid from Newark graduated from Yale with a degree in molecular biology and ended up murdered in a drug-related crime. The lost potential is agonizing; the pain of Peace’s mother is staggering.
Robert’s story is not unique. Of course, the individual stories are not identical nor necessarily as tragic. But consider the plight of many first-generation, low-income students who leave their homes and land on college campuses (whether elite or not) where some excel academically and then graduate. Normally, we stop the story there and celebrate success. Since graduation rates are so low for vulnerable students, we assume that the awarding of a degree is the crowning achievement.
In this book and through our lived experiences, certain questions recur: What more could have been done to save Robert? Could he have been saved if colleges saw their responsibility as extending beyond the moment a degree is awarded? Think about how many high schools consider their jobs done when students get accepted to college and complete high school. Check the box. Move on. But do these high-schoolers actually get to college and graduate? High schools are cutting short the scope of their work.
We think that colleges like the one where we work now have a greater obligation than we realize. We offer our first-generation students a career-launching liberal arts education but we do not address with enough deliberateness how our students will transition from our institution into employment or graduate school. Where will they live? Should they return home? How can they navigate their friendships from before and after college? What about their families back home?
Yes, we have career services offices. Yes, we match academic programs with careers. Yes, we have graduate fairs and job fairs. Yes, we have résumé-writing workshops. Yes, we do mock interviews. We do GRE prep. But what we are missing is what would have helped Robert Peace: an effort to focus on the transition from college to graduate school or the workplace in terms of its psychological dimensions. In the toolbox of skills we provide our first generation, low-income students who are graduating, we have failed to give them the skills to “crosswalk” effectively and smoothly between their past and their present and their future.
We should know better. We have experience with our younger veterans now returning stateside. Many of these veterans understandably struggle to navigate effectively from military life to civilian life. Settling into and then succeeding in college are mighty challenges. This reinforces the need to pay attention to our college seniors – preparing them not just for graduation and a career. We need to help them transition from college back to the “outside” world. Robert Peace was left to figure that pathway out on his own and he failed. Interventions from friends and family did not help.
We recognize that there is no magic pill here. But, here are two strategies that can help.
First, if student success has been accomplished on campus by helping students believe in themselves and believe they belong in college, then the mentors who have enabled this to occur need to keep in touch with these students post-graduation – in person, online, via Skype. This is part and parcel of the workload of these mentors. These new graduates need to know that their supporters’ belief in them was not time-delimited and did not end with graduation. Distance does not change, then, the commitment mentors have to their mentees even when those mentors themselves move on to different positions. An online set of modules could be created to achieve this end – engaging graduates and their mentor on a go-forward basis.
Second, it is worth adding the following quasi-mandate for vulnerable students who graduate, outlined to them at the get-go: a commitment that they return to campus and develop a mentor/mentee with a new student who was similar to them? This accomplishes several goals. It gets graduates back to campus, back to a place where they experienced success. It creates an expectation at the beginning that with success comes a commitment to pay it forward. But here is the key: in paying it forward, graduates can appreciate how far they have come, and that in and of itself can shed light on their comfort with their own pathway into the future. Both the graduates and their mentees benefit.
Perhaps there was nothing that would have saved Robert Peace. But whether or not that is true, there is now one college president, one program director and one campus reflecting on how future Robert Peaces could be helped and what is it we can do on our campuses to improve the odds that that difficult post-college transition can be navigated more effectively.
Getting a degree is a major accomplishment; using that degree and finding a place outside the protections of academia where one can flourish and contribute meaningfully to society and handle the complexities of the different worlds in which we all move would be a success. Sadly, this is a victory denied Robert Peace.
Karen Gross is president of Southern Vermont College. Ivan Figueroa is director of diversity and the Mountaineer Scholar Program at the college.
A few months after Gallup released findings from the largest representative study of U.S. college graduates, there is much to ponder. The Gallup-Purdue Index surveyed more than 30,000 graduates to find out whether they are engaged in their work and thriving in their overall well-being. In simple terms, did they end up with great jobs and great lives?
We learned some stunning things. But one of the most important is that where you went to college matters less to your work life and well-being after graduation than how you went to college. Feeling supported and having deep learning experiences during college means everything when it comes to long-term outcomes after college. Unfortunately, not many graduates receive a key element of that support while in college: having a mentor. And this is perhaps the biggest blown opportunity in the history of higher ed.
Six critical elements during college jumped off the pages of our research as being strongly linked to long-term success in work and life after graduation. Three of these elements relate to experiential and deep learning: having an internship or job where students were able to apply what they were learning in the classroom, being actively involved in extracurricular activities and organizations, and working on projects that took a semester or more to complete.
But the three most potent elements linked to long-term success for college grads relate to emotional support: feeling that they had a professor who made them excited about learning, that the professors at their alma mater cared about them as a person, and that they had a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams. If graduates strongly agree with these three things, it doubles the odds they are engaged in their work and thriving in their overall well-being.
When we looked at these three elements individually, we found that about 6 in 10 college graduates strongly agree they had a professor who made them excited about learning (63 percent). Fewer than 3 in 10 strongly agree the professors at their alma mater cared about them as a person (27 percent). And only about 2 in 10 strongly agree they had a mentor who encouraged their goals and dreams (22 percent) — which means that about 8 in 10 college graduates lacked a mentor in college.
Given how profound the impact of emotional support can be, it’s thoroughly depressing to learn how few college graduates receive it. A mere 14 percent of all college grads strongly agree that they experienced all three elements of emotional support.
Gallup has talked with many higher ed leaders about these findings, and it has been heartening to learn how many leaders are energized by having fresh insights about the importance and value of mentoring relationships in college. But it has also been frustrating to hear how many believe it’s too costly or unreasonable to ensure that every college student receives mentoring.
How is it possible that some leaders feel this kind of experience is more expensive or less practical than building and maintaining multimillion-dollar athletic facilities or high-end residential complexes? Or that it’s more difficult to provide mentors for students than to commit significant amounts of human and financial resources to eke out a few extra students in their admissions yield or create a massive machine to fund-raise from alumni?
If your college or university wants to get serious about finding mentors for its students, it could start by looking at is own alumni base. Assuming your institution has been around for 10 years or more, your alumni are one of the greatest human capital assets it has — not just as donors, but also as potential mentors.
Let’s use my alma mater, as an example. We have about 6,500 undergraduate students. There are more than 140,000 members of the alumni association. If just 10 percent of alumni agreed to serve as mentors, we would have a pool of 14,000 alumni for the 6,500 undergrads. That’s more than a two-to-one mentor-to-student ratio.
Imagine what would happen if your college applied just a portion of the staffing and budget for its development office toward recruiting alumni to mentor a current undergraduate. This relationship doesn’t have to be complicated — all that’s required is two to three calls, Skype meetings, or Google Hangouts between an alumnus and an undergrad each year for one-to-one coaching, plus some basic framework for how they engage one another. How many of your alumni might take you up on this offer if you made a concerted effort to recruit them? As an alumnus, would you be willing to mentor a current undergrad a few hours a year?
Within just one year, it’s completely conceivable that a college or university could achieve a 100 percent mentoring experience rate for its undergraduates. It’s simply a matter of valuing it and making it happen. For example, in a recent study Gallup conducted of Western Governors University alumni, fully 68 percent strongly agreed they had a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams. That’s three times higher than the national average of college graduates across all institutions – and accomplished at a fully online, adult-learner institution nonetheless.
At WGU, rather than conducting class, faculty members serve as mentors, working with students one-to-one. Upon enrollment, each WGU student is assigned a mentor who stays with them until graduation, meeting regularly by phone and in touch via email and text constantly. WGU mentors provide a wide range of support, from help with time management and finding learning resources to tutoring students on the course materials. It’s possible for all institutions to do this kind of mentoring in many different ways, and it doesn’t have to be costly. And as a side benefit: Imagine how much donations might rise among alumni who have a one-to-one relationship with a current undergrad.
Higher education has never tapped one its greatest human capital assets — its alumni — to provide a service its students might value most. According to Gallup research, it could be one of the most important changes a college or university could make toward supporting the success of its future graduates — or the biggest blown opportunity in its history.
Brandon Busteed is executive director of Gallup Education.
Apartment-style dorm rooms are the Hot New Thing at some colleges nowadays. Single rooms instead of doubles or even quads, exterior doors instead of crowded hallways, private bathrooms instead of gang showers and those icky shared toilets, even mini-kitchens instead of the noisy dining hall – all have an undeniable appeal for incoming freshmen looking to maximize the more adult features of undergraduate life.
Many contemporary students grew up with their own bedrooms, and perhaps even their own bathrooms, and may recoil from sharing their personal spaces with that mysterious stranger, the roommate or hallmate. So colleges and universities, particularly sensitive to the preferences of full-pay students, are starting to move away from traditional long-hallway dorms to more individualized rooms, some with generous amenities. Prospective students seem to love the idea.
They shouldn’t. Apartment-style dorms can be deadly for a student’s long-term success in college, isolating newcomers at exactly the moment when they most need to be reaching out and making friends. Early connections, made when students are most available for meeting new people, are a crucial first step to the community integration that scholars have long known is crucial to student retention and success. When my former student and current doctoral student Chris Takacs and I followed nearly 100 students throughout college and afterward in researching our book How College Works, we found that “high contact” settings such as traditional dorms – featuring long hallways, shared rooms and common bathrooms, where students have no choice but to meet lots of peers – are the single best device for helping new students to solve their biggest problem: finding friends. And dorms are especially valuable for students who are shy, unusually nervous about coming to college, or otherwise feel excluded. Finding one buddy to pal around with is all that’s needed to ensure a positive first-year experience.
Of course dorms aren’t the only place that students make friends. Extracurricular groups that convene frequently and include a couple dozen members are a great source of potential companions (smaller groups don’t work as well). Greek letter societies, sports teams, campus newspapers, and larger musical ensembles serve the purpose. At the college we studied, the choir -- with over 70 members, a dynamic director, rigorous auditions, and frequent rehearsals and performances -- offered a marvelous opportunity for its members to form close bonds, which in turn helped them become, in our network analysis, some of the most socially connected students at the college.
Still, dormitories are different: they are open to everyone. You don’t need any special talent or athletic ability or an outgoing personality to live in a dorm and thus benefit from meeting a variety of peers. Dorms aren’t exclusive. After that first year, a student will likely have made friends and found his or her niche, but until then, broad exposure seems to be the best pathway to success.
So how can admissions and student affairs staff convince incoming students to live in those overcrowded rooms and share their showers with people they may not even like? And how can college presidents be convinced not to engage in the housing arms race of catering to the students who seem to favor luxury and privacy over the group experience? Apartments are appealing, after all, and colleges need the money that full-pay students will pony up for their own little pad.
Try anything. Tell students the odds are they will have a more successful and happy first year at college in this kind of dorm. If you have any money, recarpet the long hallways, improve the shared bathrooms, and upgrade the dorm rooms in that big old building. Try to keep the showers clean. If the rooms can’t be quads, at least make them doubles; if they are singles, at least keep the common bathrooms. Point out that you charge less for the old-fashioned dorm rooms.
Tell prospective students that they’ll meet more people in a dorm; give dorm residents priority in getting sophomore housing. Focus your programming efforts on the early part of the first year, when students are socially available – and often looking for friends. Remember, when more students have repeated, obligatory exposure to a sizable group of other students, more of them will find the one or two buddies who see them through their first year.
Ten years ago this August my wife and I drove our youngest daughter Rebecca down to New York City, to help her move into a freshman dorm at Fordham University. We arrived amid a sea of parents, siblings, RAs, and energetic young women hauling those loaded duffel bags and laundry baskets up big institutional stairwells to the fourth floor. The scene at the top was unforgettable: scores of people, crowded into a long hallway, with 20 rooms – all quads, bunk beds stacked up – lined down a long hallway, girls laughing and talking, helping each other out, and making introductions all around. A young faculty couple with a baby lived in an apartment at the end of the hall, and a priest had a room on the floor below. It was a scene of gentle pandemonium.
Becca stood there, her mouth hanging open in amazement, not yet realizing that four of her best friends in life would come from that hallway. My wife and I, both professors, smiled at each other. “This,” we thought, “will be great.”
Daniel F. Chambliss is Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hamilton College. He is the author, with Christopher G. Takacs, ofHow College Works(Harvard University Press).
In his commencement speech last weekend at Haverford College, the former president of Princeton University, William G. Bowen, attempted to shame some students at Haverford for challenging the invitation to the former University of California at Berkeley Chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, to deliver the commencement address and receive an honorary degree. Bowen did not scold us for protesting, but rather for protesting incorrectly. As a new alumnus involved in those efforts as a then-senior at Haverford, I stand by our actions. Bowen should too.
In his much-discussed commencement speech, Bowen said, “Let me be clear at the outset that I am not judging the controversy over Bob Birgeneau’s handling of unrest at Berkeley. I have neither the facts nor the inclination to do so.” And yet, Bowen did feel that he had the facts and the inclination to address our methods of challenging Birgeneau.
On November 9, 2011, while Birgeneau was still chancellor, police beat and injured Occupy Cal protesters at Berkeley. Birgeneau supported UC Berkeley police in the use of extreme force against nonviolent protesters, asserted that linking arms is not a form of nonviolent protest, and suggested that the protesters got exactly what they were looking for. While Birgeneau did eventually apologize and claim to accept responsibility for the actions of his police, it reads like a half-hearted apology and does not address his point about protesters being “not nonviolent,” and the report he commissioned about the incident notes that not enough steps have been taken to make sure that such an attack does not happen again. Birgeneau’s role in and response to these protests do not fit with Haverford’s values expressed values of mutual trust, concern and respect.
I and other students and faculty were deeply disturbed by those beatings as well as Birgeneau’s response to them. We questioned the wisdom of awarding an honorary degree to Birgeneau at this time, unless he could show us that he was working to make amends. We decided to write Birgeneau a letter.
We wrote to him, “When trust is violated in our community, we seek to restore our bonds through restorative, not punitive, processes. Restoration involves a full accounting of one’s violation, and, ultimately, we return to wholeness through action. In the spirit of these restorative processes, before you are honored by our community, we believe it is necessary for you to do more than offer a brief apology. We ask you to use this opportunity to take responsibility for the events of November 9th not just by apologizing with words, but by taking substantive action.”
Our letter has been characterized in the press as a list of demands, but what we were trying to do was suggest ways that Bowen could make amends. If Birgeneau did not do at least some of the things we urged him to do or show us that our claims against him were mistaken, we, with no power to make an actual decision on the matter, would ask Haverford to rescind his invitation.
It became clear that Birgeneau would not do as we had hoped and Haverford would not rescind his invitation, and we began plans to protest during commencement. The protest would be nondisruptive and largely symbolic. We did not want to ruin commencement for our families or other students. We ordered buttons that said, “Ask me about Robert Birgeneau” and considered turning our backs when Birgeneau spoke. Before we could decide on a final plan of action, Birgeneau withdrew from the event.
Bowen went on to call us “arrogant” and “immature” for our methods: Writing Birgeneau a letter to suggest possible remedies to our concerns about his receipt of an honorary degree, noting in the letter that we were considering asking Haverford College to rescind his invitation, and telling Haverford College President Dan Weiss and the press that some students and faculty would protest at commencement in a nondisruptive manner if Birgeneau did receive an honorary degree.
Bowen cited two shining examples of “better” protests of honorary degree recipients. First was the case of George Shultz at Princeton in 1973, when Shultz was President Nixon’s secretary of the treasury. The other was President Obama at the University of Notre Dame in 2009.
As Bowen tells it, many Princeton students objected to having Shultz as that year’s honorary degree recipient, and they expressed that view during commencement by standing up and turning their backs to Shultz. A nonviolent, silent protest. Bowen concluded, “Princeton emerged from this mini-controversy more committed than ever to honoring both the right to protest in proper ways and the accomplishments of someone with whose views on some issues many disagreed.”
But that’s not the whole story. Like Haverford students, many Princeton students also wanted to rescind their speaker’s invitation. They held a vote of the student body, with over 60 percent of voters saying that they did not want to hear Shultz at commencement. Representatives of the student body took that vote to Princeton’s Board of Trustees and urged them to reconsider the invitation. Clearly, students only protested as a last resort when the university declined their request to rescind Shultz’s invitation.
In the case of Notre Dame, Bowen focused on how a retired president of the university spoke out in defense of awarding Obama an honorary degree and noted that Notre Dame showed itself to be a place where people could “discuss controversial issues and learn from each other.” There, the majority of protesters were not students or faculty. Most students were supportive of Obama’s presence. The administration sided with the will of the students, and some of the minority who disagreed disrupted the ceremony with heckling.
At Haverford, students were not in consensus on Birgeneau’s invitation (we try to do things by consensus at Haverford). Our president held an open forum where over 100 people from all sides came together to peacefully discuss the Birgeneau controversy with one another, and those of us who disagreed with the invitation promised not to disrupt the ceremony. The situations at Notre Dame and Haverford are apples and oranges, and I can’t figure out why Bowen brought up Notre Dame in contrast to Haverford except to applaud a case where protesters were unsuccessful.
Bowen seems to have a selective memory. Our situation was quite different from Notre Dame’s, and we acted essentially the same as students and faculty at Princeton, except we gave Birgeneau a chance to prove us wrong before condemning him, we never ended up asking Haverford to rescind Birgeneau’s invitation and we did not have the chance to protest silently because Birgeneau decided not to show up.
Bowen misses the point of commencement protests: Honorary degrees are essentially awards, and commencement protests are about asking that the award go to someone who deserves it. We hoped that either Birgeneau would show us he was worthy of receiving an honorary degree, or that he would not receive one. Our goals were to defend the honor of Haverford College and act in solidarity with the Occupy Cal protesters. Protesting during commencement itself was a last resort to achieve just one of those goals.
Dr. Bowen, where did we go wrong? Is it our success that offends you? Perhaps you would have been happier with our methods if we had failed.
Michael Rushmore is a recent graduate of Haverford College.