Elon Poll: Relationships with mentors, friends have powerful impact on college experience

A new Elon University Poll finds of more than 4,000 college graduates finds that building relationships is key to positive perceptions of the undergraduate experience.


College graduates are significantly more likely to describe their undergraduate experience as rewarding when they have multiple meaningful relationships with faculty and staff during their time in school, a new Elon University Poll has found. Thousands of graduates responding to the survey also said that friendships with their peers made their college years as “very rewarding,”

The results of this most recent survey by the Elon Poll comes at a time when thousands of new college and university students are arriving on campuses and beginning their higher education. The Elon Poll examined how the relationships students develop impact their opinions about the quality of their college experience

Accompanying the release of the Elon Poll survey results is the publication of an article examining the impact of peer and mentor relationships on the college experience by Elon University President Emeritus Leo M. Lambert, Assistant Provost Peter Felten, the director of the Center of Engaged Learning, and Elon Poll Director Jason Husser.

“Some might find it obvious that making friends and finding mentors is important in getting the most of out the college experience,” said Husser, an associate professor of political science. “However, our survey shows that millions of Americans could have a much richer undergraduate education if they would intentionally cultivate a network of peers, faculty and university staff.”

The poll found that among those who built strong bonds with faculty or staff members while in college, nearly two-thirds began those relationships during their first year in school. The same held true for those close friendships that developed in college, with 79 percent saying that they first got to know their closest friend in college during that first year.

The largest segment of college graduates (43 percent) said they had between three and six faculty and staff relationships that were influential in their college experience. Asked to choose one person who was not a peer who had the biggest impact on their college experience, nearly two-thirds of graduates said that person was a faculty member.

Similarly, 42 percent of graduates said they had three to six friends who were influential during their college experiences. Asked to choose one close friend who had the biggest impact, 30 percent said they met that person in a classroom setting while 27 percent said they met that person in a residential setting. Eight-six percent said they stayed in touch with that closest friend after graduation.

The online survey of 4,006 adult residents with bachelor’s degrees or higher from around the country was conducted July 30-31, 2018. For the survey, the Elon Poll used an online opt-in sample, with respondents receiving small amounts of compensation in exchange for their opinions. Of the 4,006 surveyed, 2,047 were asked the questions regarding peer relationships and 1,959 were asked the questions about faculty-staff relationships.

The survey was conducted in collaboration with the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University. The poll’s complete methodology, including credibility intervals for the survey by metro, is available within the full report.

The more relationships, the better

The survey found a correlation between graduates’ overall opinion of the college experience and the number of relationships they had with faculty and staff members while in school. The more such relationships students had when in school, the more fondly they recalled their overall experience.

Overall, 59 percent of respondents reported having a “very rewarding” college experience. Among those who said they had no strong faculty or staff relationships, only 23 percent reported that their college experience was “very rewarding.” In contrast, 77 percent of those with more than 10 such relationships said they had a “very rewarding” college experience. The percentage of those reporting a “very rewarding” experience rose as the number of close relationships they had with faculty and staff increased.

The likelihood of saying that college “was worth it” also increased as the number of strong faculty and staff relationships increased. Seventy-five percent of those with more than 10 strong relationships said it was worth it, compared to 48 percent of those with no such relationships. Overall, 65 percent of those surveyed said college was worth it.

Among those reporting they had no close faculty or staff relationships, 10 percent said college was “not rewarding at all,” compared to the 1 percent who had that view overall.

The survey found similar links between the number of strong friendships students had in college and their perception of the experience. Those with more than 10 close friends said the college experience was “very rewarding” (75 percent) while 26 percent of those with no close friends reported that the college experience was “very rewarding.”

The same trend held true when it came to saying whether college was a worthwhile investment. The more close friends a graduate reported, the more likely they were to say that the money and time spent and the benefits they received from the college experience were worth the investment.

When and where students found mentors, friends

The survey also asked respondents a series of questions about the one faculty or staff member who had the largest impact on their college experience. Sixty-seven percent said that person was a faculty member. By comparison, 12 percent said that person was a professional staff member (excluding student life staff members), 9 percent said the person was a student life staff member and 6 percent said that person was an administrator.

More than three-fourths (78 percent) said their primary relationships was were “very” or “extremely” important to their overall college experience, with 84 percent describing their most important relationship as a person serving as a mentor. Forty percent said they got to know the person within a class setting, and 21 percent said they got to know the person as an adviser or tutor.

Among these graduates, 15 percent said they intentionally sought out a mentor relationship with this influential person, compared to 85 percent who said it developed on its own. Asked when the relationship developed, 60 percent reported that it was during their first year of college, with 36 percent saying it was during the first semester, and 24 percent said during the second semester.

“We found the early semesters in college to be critical for developing relationships that support long-term learning and career outcomes,” Husser said. “This provides clear evidence in support of advice many students entering college this fall will hear- take advantage of your first year to get to know professors and friends. Forming academic connections with only a few key people can make a tremendous positive difference.”

Turning to their closest friend, 87 percent said that that relationship was “very” or “extremely” important to their overall college experience. A close friend was much less likely to serve as a mentor than a faculty or staff member, with 53 percent saying a close friend fell into that role.

​Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) said their closest friend started college at the same time they did, with 26 percent saying that person started before they did and 11 percent saying they started after. Seventy-nine percent said they met their closest friend during their first year of college.

Those surveyed were much more likely to stay in touch with closest friend after college (87 percent) than those faculty or staff members they were closest with (55 percent).