Climbing Walls and Talking Turkey: A Holiday Conversation About College

Much has been written about how technologically connected college students are. They have the whole world--or at least all they think they need of it--in their hands.

At the same time, we hear about the loss of community on campuses. Upon arrival, it is frequently known, many college students become their own community of one. Overscheduled since middle school, under years of surveillance by their legendary "helicopter" parents, they now find new freedom in not answering to anyone or joining anything.

This is probably a slippery generalization, certainly as it applies to small, residential colleges. My institution, Virginia Wesleyan College, offers a vast array of activities, organizations, clubs, volunteerism, and leadership options that enrich the student experience. So do most of the other nationally prominent, liberal arts colleges with which I'm familiar. Our students sign up eagerly for these extra dimensions in experiential learning, or simply to have some old-fashioned fun. As a result, many institutions have invested heavily in recent years in more elaborate student centers, recreation and fitness facilities, and much more to accommodate student interest and energy.

As our first-year students begin their climb to graduation, they often do so--quite literally--on a climbing wall. Virginia Wesleyan's rises conveniently just inside our student-center complex. Programs for experiential learning--and we have those as well--pave the way for enhanced personal and career growth.

Whether students are externally or internally focused, fully engaged in campus life or still developing their social skills, I often wonder how they're really doing. Is their college experience meeting their expectations? Are they discovering, as we often promise them, new life-defining experiences that justify the cost of college today?

As the holidays approach and we prepare to send most of our students home for a respite, I wonder if there isn't a conversation that needs to take place, one that seeks to answer what the college experience adds up to, and whether it is as meaningful as all parties hoped at the outset. The answers might offer valued information for student recruitment and retention, but more importantly, could reveal what campuses should be doing to enrich the lives of their students.

I have always looked at students and their families as consumers. It is important for colleges and universities such as ours to provide amenities that students expect. Moreover, as we serve new populations including first-generation students, those with learning disabilities and other special needs, we have all hired more counselors and social workers, added advising and counseling centers, expanded campus job opportunities, created bright new food courts, reworked the residence-hall experience, and funded other initiatives to meet the challenges.

For today's comparison-shopping students and families, with their pursuit of high-end living and unique, exciting student life experiences, there is a clear expectation of return on tuition investment. I get that. But what else should we be doing to increase their satisfaction and to help them grow?

Thanksgiving break might be a great time to take stock. And it is well within our responsibilities as educators, working with parents, to facilitate that discussion.

I encourage parents and families to explore with their students something beyond roommate issues, choice of majors, internships, even job prospects--though all are important and all do impact the college experience. Beyond all of that, what's the value-added of the campus experience?

The cost of college alone, coupled with substantial student debt, drives much of the need for this conversation. The second Gallup-Purdue Index, released in September 2015, surveyed over 60,000 national college alumni during a two-year period, revealing that nearly two-thirds of 2006-2015 college graduates relied on student loans. In a September 29 media release on the survey, Purdue University noted that "experiential learning opportunities (such as) an internship related to their studies, active involvement in extracurricular activities or a project that took a semester or more to complete" increased graduates' responses that "their education was worth the cost."

Parents should join in the satisfaction of knowing that a student's professors and other mentors play a critical role in their son's or daughter's success. When they were in college, I often asked my own daughters who their most important role models were, who influenced them the most, who guided them selflessly and effectively toward reaching their goals. Despite the popularity and availability of online learning, flipped and interactive classrooms, new knowledge bases, and other innovations, one factor that has not changed significantly in college life is the importance of personal mentors who invest their time and experience in their students' development. The constant theme I have heard at alumni events for over 30 years at multiple institutions is how professors, coaches, or administrators made a profound difference at just the right moment in the life of a student.

I also think it's important to students' satisfaction to be reminded that college life is not an end in itself. Summer orientation speakers are fond of pronouncing the undergraduate experience as the best four years in one's life. I'd rather our students think of them as four of the best years in preparation for continued, lifelong learning, deepening intellectual growth, and attaining more knowledge. I continue to be amazed at the relevance of my own undergraduate experience, at West Virginia Wesleyan College, to my career and life perspectives. After the last tuition check is written, the real value of one's education remains as a perpetual dividend.

So, parents, we educators invite you to take a few moments, perhaps this very Thanksgiving season, after the turkey and dressing and accounts of climbing walls and other campus adventures--edited suitably for parental consumption, I'm sure--to ask your students what they think of it all. What is this huge investment of time and money in a formal education adding up to? Is it serving them well? Were the sacrifices of the family worth it?

And we, back on campus, would do well to listen to the answers. Student satisfaction is driving much of the future of residential college life as we know it. We need to have as much information about our students as possible--before they enroll, during their campus experience, and after they cross the commencement stage. It's the key to ensuring their future, and ours.

Dr. Scott D. Miller is President of Virginia Wesleyan College, a national liberal arts college located in Norfolk/Virginia Beach, Virginia. Now in his 24th year as a college president, he serves as a consultant to college presidents and boards, and edits "Presidential Perspectives," a higher education leadership series written by college presidents for college presidents.