Lambert and Felten explore the power of ‘relationship-rich education’ in new book

The new work draws from a nationwide survey of college graduates and hundreds of in-person interviews with students and faculty to look at how human connections contribute to academic success.

President Emeritus Leo Lambert and Professor Peter Felten know firsthand from their well-established careers as educators that relationships matter when it comes to student success in higher education. It’s one of the concepts they explored with their co-authors in their 2016 book, “The Undergraduate Experience.”

Now with their latest work, “Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College” they’ve gone deeper, bringing forward the personal stories of hundreds of students, faculty and staff along with survey responses from thousands of U.S. college graduates. It’s a book that makes a new and compelling case for the importance of personal connections on college and university campuses while providing guidance in how to foster those relationships.

“We thought this would be a great opportunity to look at how this is manifesting itself in this new century and with a new population of college students,” Lambert said about the motivation behind the book, published recently by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Felten said while many know that relationships matter in higher education, the question remains as to why many colleges and universities aren’t organizing their courses, curricula and programs as if those relationships matter. “Part of what we sought to do was to visit programs, institutions and individuals who really do center their work on relationships,” said Felten, executive director of the Center for Engaged Learning and assistant provost. “We wanted to demonstrate that this is possible, and it’s possible at all different kinds of institutions—not just selective and well-resourced places.”

Central to the book are nearly 400 interviews with students, faculty and staff at 29 higher education institutions across the country and with different distinct profiles. The qualitative lessons and information drawn from those interviews was supplemented with research data collected by the Elon University Poll with Associate Professor Jason Husser through a survey of 1,600 college and university graduates.

Among the findings of that survey was that the more mentors a student has — both with the faculty and staff ranks — the better. “Students with seven to 10 mentors are going to be more satisfied with their college experiences and more apt to say that their college experience has been worthwhile,” Lambert said. “But even one mentor made a big difference. Get that first one, and you’re well on your way.”

Elon President Emeritus Leo M. Lambert and Peter Felten, assistant provost for teaching and learning, executive director of the Center for Engaged Learning, and Professor of History

The survey findings underscored the idea that relationships that are established and mentors that are identified during the first year of college can make the most difference, and that most of those relationships were seeded in classrooms. “When institutions are thinking about placing relationships at the forefront, they need to know that which faculty members in the classroom with first-year students is really important,” Lambert said.

That is no way diminishes the role relationships with a broad range of staff members can play in a student’s experience during college. “Staff relationships with students are critical, and here I am including dining hall workers, staff who clean resident halls, gardeners, office assistants and more,” Lambert said. “These folks know students’ names, sense when they need support and often are major influencers in their lives.”

But Felten and Lambert emphasize the importance of an institutional culture to support the individual efforts by students, faculty and staff to connect with and support one another. Establishing that culture does not necessarily require the use of extensive resources or specially qualified faculty and staff, but does rely upon intentionality, high expectations, and a high level of support.

“Institutions need to commit to this work,” Felten said. “At too many colleges and universities, including many we visited in our research, the policies and structures of the institution do not align with relationship-rich education. That means often faculty and staff are not supported or rewarded for mentoring and advising students. Faculty and staff shouldn’t have to choose between mentoring students and professional advancement.”

Fostering relationships cannot be left to chance, and the importance of relationships must also be made clear to students, who can often think about higher education from a transactional standpoint, focused solely on completing coursework and earning good grades. “We have to be much more explicit with all of our students about why relationships matter in their education, and that they should prioritize building those relationships,” Felten said. “These relationships aren’t an obstacle to getting through college, or a fun byproduct of college — they are a core component of your education.”

Lambert pointed specifically to interviews with first-generation and students of color who may bring great capacity to college but who often are weighted down by feelings of shame or that they are an imposter on campus. These students often are less familiar with the “academic codes” that another student from a family with many generations of college students; relationships with faculty, staff, and peers are essential to unlocking those codes and to helping students thrive.

“That’s why programs such as the Odyssey Program at Elon are intentional about forming these relationships and creating scaffolding for students to enter the institution with this perfect blend of both challenge and support,” Lambert said. “If you leave all of that to chance, it’s terribly, terribly risky for students, and you don’t want to do that.”

“Relationship-Rich Education” was published during the COVID-19 global pandemic, a time when personal connections and relationship development are even more challenging. Many college students interacted with each other, their faculty members and staff members via videoconferencing rather than face to face or over a cup of coffee.

But many have responded to the challenges the pandemic has posed for higher education and created innovative ways to support relationship development even when students, faculty and staff are physically apart, Lambert and Felten said.

“I think we have all gained an appreciation for how much we lost on campus due to the pandemic and have pledged never to take so much for granted again,” Lambert said. “We have learned a great deal about making online and hybrid classroom experiences much more relationship-rich and I believe we will continue to use these new pedagogies and technologies going forward.”

Felten said it’s important to recognize the trauma that so many have been through during the pandemic and acknowledge that it will take more than a vaccine for individuals and communities to bounce back.

“This will be hard, long-term work,” Felten said. “The pandemic has underscored inequities in our society and also how important human connections are in our lives. We all miss both being together to celebrate important events and also having the daily interactions in the hallway or after class that can bring joy into our lives – and that can be vital for student success. The pandemic has been a powerful reminder that relationships matter.”