I grew up a self-proclaimed math and science nerd. I took high school calculus I, II, and III at the local college, and when I enrolled at the University of Virginia, my classes included chemistry and physics with a major in physics, although I didn’t don’t specialize in physics.
As an achievement-oriented young man, I “knew” that my worth was based on my GPA. I studied for hours every day, rarely going out to do anything fun. It got to the point where I was depressed and badly needed help. It wasn’t until my third year of college that I discovered there was life outside of class (unlike most students). That year I tried out and made the club’s men’s volleyball team and joined the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Soon after, I began to feel the power of honest and caring relationships. It shifted my focus from the prestige of my career to a focus on students like me seeking transformative relationships in college.
As soon as I discovered it, I fell in love with student affairs. However, I also quickly realized that I was not like my colleagues. My personality and focus on evidence-backed results has often led my colleagues to see me as more head than heart. The student affairs staff are generally some of the most caring and supportive people you can find at a college. I cared about it too, but I expressed it in thought rather than feeling.
In my doctoral research on national recognition Principles of Good Practice in Student Affairs (1999), I used factor analysis to find that the seven principles were grouped into two broad variables. The first one I called “Building Relationships with Students”. This includes active involvement in students’ lives, a focus on building relational community, and striving to be inclusive through supportive relationships. The second factor I called “Building an organization for students”, and it focused on the effective use of resources, systemic evaluation of results and partnership with other units in order to have a impact on more students.
The results of my research revealed that the vast majority of student affairs staff were focused on “building relationships with students” and that a much smaller percentage of student affairs staff were invested in “creating an organization for students “. Yet my 30 years of experience in higher education, particularly in student affairs, have taught me that the latter is just as important, if not more so, than the former.
Building a High Performing Organization
This happened during my nine years as dean of Baylor University. My friend and former supervisor, Kevin Jackson, and I used this analogy: If Baylor’s approximately 180 full-time student affairs staff had each been able to personally know and positively impact 25 students in one year, we would have reached 4,500 of the 18 000 Baylor students. However, our divisional vision was to be a transforming presence in the lives of everything our students. A model that focuses primarily on strong staff-student relationships would not achieve this goal. On the other hand, if we could design a system less focused on staff and students, we would have the potential to impact many more students at Baylor.
One of the ways we’ve done this has been to dramatically increase the number of student leadership positions and invest in training and mentoring these students for influence. In addition to the standard resident assistant roles at most universities, our division staff have partnered with multiple departments to hire and train at least five different types of peer leaders. With at least 700 paid or elected student leaders each investing in just 10 other students, we were able to reach at least another 7,000 students.
Ideally, most of those 7,000 students would not be counted twice. We reduced this overlap by using a database that allowed us to document meaningful interactions with students and also identify other students who were performing poorly, usually because their academic and social integration was lacking. We could tell what they needed academically from their grades. Our most effective measure of social integration came from a survey conducted at the beginning of the semester among first-year students. The most effective survey prompt—four to seven times more predictive of first-year retention than any other measure—was how a student responded to the statement, “I feel like I belong at Baylor University.
Once we identified the roughly 10% of students who didn’t think they belonged at Baylor, we were able to put our student support networks on high alert and quickly notify student leaders and staff. This outreach was admittedly much more difficult than working with the students who came to us, as we were now trying to contact and involve students who, in many cases, were unknowingly or consciously avoiding any positive influence.
Granted, every system has flaws, but our model, during my time at Baylor, resulted in an increase in first-to-second-year retention from 82% to 91%. A 9% jump in 10 years was extraordinary for Baylor due to the size of our student body, which makes jumps of more than a few percentage points quite rare.
One could easily argue that an increase of this magnitude equates to savings of approximately $50 million. Here is the calculation:
- Over the past decade, Baylor has welcomed an average of approximately 3,400 new students per year.
- If 9% more of these students are retained, that’s 306 more students who persist at Baylor.
- The approximate average net price a student pays at Baylor is $40,000 per year.
- These 306 students provide, on average, four years of additional net tuition income.
- 306 students X four years in college X $40,000 in net tuition/year = $48.96 million.
Findings like this demonstrate that despite the many joys that come from meaningful student-staff relationships, student affairs teams could benefit from spending more time articulating their goals, processes, and overall impact.
I have worked with colleagues over the past 30 years to bring more of this strategic mindset to our work. In general, I found most colleagues to be open to the concept of designing and leading high-performing organizations rather than just working with students who emailed, called, or showed up at their desks every day. .
Activity, meetings and relationships alone will not be the best determinants of supporting students. If instead we focus on meaningful work for a high performing organization, ultimately we will be able to influence more students than we thought possible.