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During a time in which the value of a college degree is being called into question and the work readiness of graduates is highly doubted, it’s vital that we all understand, celebrate and promote the single most important ingredient of college success: mentorship from faculty member.

In the inaugural 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index (now the Strada-Gallup Alumni Study), “a mentor who encouraged your goals and dreams” was found to be the single most important correlate to success in work and life for college graduates. Having such a mentor more than doubled a graduate’s odds of being engaged in their work and thriving in their overall well-being. The latest findings from the fourth year of the study should serve as both a celebration of the amazing lifelong impact a mentoring faculty member has on students as well as a wake-up call that we need to make faculty mentoring a bigger priority in higher education.

Those findings tell us that the vast majority of mentoring relationships that take place on college campuses involve the faculty. Among graduates who said they had a mentor who encouraged their goals and dreams, 64 percent reported that mentor was one of their professors. Other college and university staff, friends, family members, extracurricular advisers and sports coaches -- combined -- account for only 28 percent of mentoring sources.

Remarkably, these graduates report still having frequent contact with their faculty mentors after graduation. In fact, nearly half (46 percent) say they last communicated with their mentor within the last three months, and nearly three-quarters (71 percent) reported communication with their mentor in the last year. These are indeed relationships that last a lifetime and have lifelong impact. If a university wants to know what its greatest marketing campaign and value proposition is, it need look no further. Faculty who mentor students are the lodestone in higher education.

True mentorship is about more than simply making students feel cared about and supported. Strong evidence suggests it involves challenging students and making them work hard, too. Graduates who strongly agree they were academically challenged in college are 2.4 times more likely to say their education was worth the cost and 3.6 times more likely to say they were well prepared for life after college.

It turns out academic rigor is good for “customer satisfaction” in higher education. And, not surprisingly, graduates who had faculty mentors were considerably more likely to say they were academically challenged.

Many faculty members doubtless chose their profession because they care deeply about students and learning and want to make an important impact on their students’ lives. For those faculty members, this research validates and reaffirms the amazing contributions they make every day. And for faculty whose career motivations might be more geared toward research and academic publishing, it’s important to know that any time you invest in mentoring students will be time very well spent.

Colleges and universities have room for improvement in two important respects, however. First, only a quarter of graduates strongly agreed they had a mentor. And, second, far fewer minority graduates report they had a faculty mentor. It also turns out the rate of faculty mentoring differs substantially according to major. For example, arts and humanities faculty are nearly five times more likely to be mentors to students than business professors.

“Publish or perish,” the well-known expression for how faculty members get promoted and tenured in higher education, is a nod to publishing research in peer-reviewed journal articles. But while society and science benefit from this research, it should not be allowed to substitute as the value proposition for the undergraduate student. In fact, one of the most surprising findings from the Gallup-Purdue Index is almost a nonfinding: for undergraduates, at least, there is no relationship between doing a research project with a professor and later success in life or work.

Contrast that finding with the fact that having a faculty mentor who encouraged their goals and dreams more than doubles a graduate’s odds of being engaged in their work and thriving in their well-being throughout their lifetime. In other words, the evidence suggests that a certain kind of interaction with the faculty is highly beneficial to students, but other kinds of activities (in and of themselves) may not be. These nuances are important to understand, as they have crucial implications for instructional practices and academic policies.

If we pause to examine the typical research project that an undergraduate student gets involved in -- such as entering data into a spreadsheet or cleaning out petri dishes in a lab -- it may not be the most beneficial learning opportunity. Graduate student research is, of course, a very different ball game -- and often involves everything from hypothesis development to publication authorship. Current studies suggest there is more to understand about the nature and quality of the typical undergraduate research project with a professor.

But one thing is already clear: if a student feels faculty members care about them as a person, encourage their goals and dreams, and challenge them academically, it has a positive lifelong impact. Colleges and universities need to encourage mentoring as a core value and provide the right incentives to do more of it. Perhaps we can create a new pathway for faculty success that we might refer to as “mentor or meander.”

Faculty mentors: you matter more than you know! This author would be remiss in not thanking Alma Blount, Tony Brown and Joel Fleishman for being my lifelong faculty mentors. And yes, I’ve seen them all in the last three months despite graduating 20 years ago.

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