Home Career Relationships matter in student affairs, but so do data and strategy

Relationships matter in student affairs, but so do data and strategy


I grew up a math and science nerd. I took Calculus I, II, and III in high school at a community college, and when I entered the University of Virginia, my courses included honors chemistry and physics for the physics majors, even though I didn’t take physics.

As a young achiever, I “knew” that my worth depended on my GPA. I studied for hours every day, rarely going out to do anything interesting. It got to the point where I was depressed and in serious need of help. It wasn’t until my third year of college that I discovered there was a life outside of class (the opposite for most students). That year I tried out for the men’s club volleyball team and joined the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Soon after, I began to experience the power of an honest and caring relationship. It shifted my focus from career prestige to a focus on students like me who are looking for life-changing relationships in college.

As soon as he discovered it, he became interested in student affairs. However, I also quickly realized that I was not like my colleagues. My personality and my focus on evidence-backed results often led my colleagues to see me as more brain than heart. Student affairs officers are usually some of the most caring and supportive people you will find at a college. I cared too, but I expressed it through thinking, not feeling.

In my doctoral research on nationally recognized Principles of Good Practice in Student Affairs (1999), I used factor analysis to find that the seven principles were grouped into two main variables. The first one I called “Building Relationships with Students.” This includes active participation in student life, an emphasis on relational community building, and an effort to be inclusive through supportive relationships. The second factor I called “Building an organization for students” and it focused on effective use of resources, systematic evaluation of results, and collaboration with other departments in an attempt to impact more students.

The the results of my research found that a significant majority of student affairs officers were focused on “building relationships with students” and a much smaller percentage of student affairs officers were invested in “building an organization for students.” However, my 30 years of experience in higher education, particularly in student affairs, has taught me that the latter is just as, if not more, important than the former.

Creating a high performance organization

This happened during my nine years as dean of Baylor University. My friend and former supervisor, Kevin Jackson, and I, used the following analogy: If Baylor’s approximately 180 full-time student affairs officers could personally meet and positively impact 25 students in a year, we would reach 4,500 of Baylor’s 18,000 students. However, our divisional vision was to transform presence in life everything our students. A model focused primarily on strong staff-student relationships will not achieve this goal. On the other hand, if we could develop a system that was less student-staff oriented, we could impact many more Baylor students.

One of the ways we achieved this was by greatly expanding the number of student leadership positions and investing in training these students and mentoring them to influence them. In addition to the standard roles of resident assistants at most universities, our department has partnered with multiple departments to recruit and train at least five different types of peer leaders. With at least 700 paid or elected student leaders, each invested in just 10 other students, we were able to reach at least 7,000 more 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 as well as identify other students who were underperforming, typically due to insufficient academic and social integration. From their grades, we could understand what they need in their studies. Our most effective measure of social integration was obtained through a survey of first-year students at the beginning of the semester. The survey’s most powerful prompt—four to seven times more predictive of first-year retention than any other measure—is how a student responded to the statement, “I feel like I belong at Baylor University.”

Once we identified the approximately 10 percent of students who did not feel like they belonged at Baylor, we were able to mobilize our student support networks and quickly connect with student leaders and staff. Advocacy was much more difficult than working with the students who came to us because now we were trying to reach out and engage students who in many cases subconsciously or consciously avoided any positive influences.

Admittedly, any system has its flaws, but our model during my time at Baylor has increased freshman and sophomore retention from 82 percent to 91 percent. A 9 percent jump over 10 years was extraordinary for Baylor because of the size of our student body, which makes jumps of more than a few percent quite rare.

We could easily argue that an increase of this size is equivalent to a savings of about $50 million. Here’s the math:

  1. Over the past decade, Baylor has admitted an average of about 3,400 new students per year.
  2. If 9 percent more of those students stay, that’s 306 additional students who will stay at Baylor.
  3. The approximate average net price a student pays at Baylor is $40,000 per year.
  4. These 306 students provide an average of four years of additional net tuition income.
  5. 306 students X four years of college X $40,000 in net tuition per year = $48.96 million.

These findings demonstrate that despite the many joys that come from meaningful student-staff relationships, student affairs teams can benefit from spending more time articulating their goals, processes, and overall impact.

I have worked with colleagues for the past 30 years to introduce more of this kind of strategic thinking into our work. In general, I have found that most colleagues are open to the concept of designing and leading high-performing organizations, rather than dealing only with students who email, call, or show up in their offices every day.

Busyness, meetings and relationships alone will not be the best factors in student support. If we instead focus on purposeful work for a high-performing organization, we will ultimately be able to impact more students than we thought possible.

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