Given all the debate over the value of a college education, it is curious to me that very little attention has been paid to the value of campus life. The data are very clear — the impact of higher education increases dramatically when students are enrolled in a college that engages them in a robust campus life program, especially in a college where they live on campus and are constantly interacting with a range of people and ideas.
For example, the Gallup organization has done extensive longitudinal research on the connection between college and success in life. That research is compiled and presented in the Gallup-Purdue Index. They find participation in an activity outside the classroom (what I will call a co-curricular activity) to be one of the most significant predictors for success. Students who were highly engaged in a co-curricular activity are 1.4 times more likely to report thriving in all aspects of their lives and 1.8 times more likely to be thriving in their careers.
Perhaps the clearest statement of the importance of campus life is a recent book, Making Decisions in College, by a group of faculty from Wellesley College and Bowdoin College. The authors pull from a five-year study that followed more than 200 students to argue that, just as in life, the college experience is shaped by the decisions we make and don’t make on a daily basis. While in college, students have the opportunity to develop skills, values and habits they will need as adults. They write:
Colleges create spaces (both physical and metaphysical) in which students must make these decisions, often in the face of new and ambiguous situations. Some of these decisions are formal and happen only once or twice during college: what to major in, whether or not to study abroad, who to choose as an advisor, where and with whom to live next year. Others occur once or twice a semester: which classes to take, organizations to participate in, or lectures to attend. And still others arise every day: whether to invest time, with whom to hang out, whether to meet with professors outside of class.
While much of this work happens in classrooms, colleges that have a purposeful and mature campus life program do this in powerful and life-changing ways. Let me give you examples from our work at Denison University.
-Integrative Learning: The deepest learning happens when classroom learning is followed by opportunities to practice what is being taught. At a liberal arts college, campus life becomes a design lab for students to practice the liberal arts values, skills and habits they are being exposed to in the classroom. William Cronon outlined these well in his classic piece “Only Connect,” while more recently Jeffrey Selingo identified a similar list by talking to employers about crucial job-related skills. These capabilities learned through the liberal arts include:
Cronon: Liberal Arts Attributes
- Listen and hear
- Read and understand
- Write clearly and persuasively
- Solve problems
- Respect rigor as a way of seeking truth
- Have respect and humility
- Act with tolerance and self-criticism
- Understand how to get things done
Selingo: Job Skills
- Curiosity to be life-long learner
- Willingness to take risks and have grit
- Digital awareness
- Ability to deal with ambiguity
- Humility to learn from peers and mentors
The learning happens everywhere in formal and informal ways. For example, residential halls become places where students take what they are learning in classrooms and use it to learn to live and work with a diverse array of people in an ever-changing environment. For many of our students, residential halls may be the first place they have lived in a racially and ethnically diverse community. Hence, daily life becomes core to learning as they develop relationships with roommates and hallmates. Students learn to voice views, hear others, and understand how to work together to create the communities they want to live in.
The same can be said for student organizations. College campuses are filled with student-run organizations. At Denison, we have over 160, ranging from social organizations and political groups to a gaming guild and a coffee house run by students. Students who take on a leadership role in a campus organization (at Denison the figure is about 75 percent) face all the usual management challenges in the workplace and in civic life — endeavors that include aligning and focusing groups of people who have different talents, personalities and levels of commitment.
-Co-Curricular Learning: Students need to develop a broad array of soft and hard skills. No single curriculum can do it all. There is too much to learn and too few classes and courses to teach it all. Campus life is crucial to closing the gaps between what we teach in the curriculum and what students need to succeed.
For example, we recently have launched the Knowlton Center for Career Exploration with some interesting initiatives. One program called OnBoard is an online platform that delivers eight instructional modules. The goal is to enable students to develop the “Day One” skills that most employers find lacking in their entry-level applicant pools: using spreadsheet programs, managing projects, reviewing financial statements, understanding basic accounting, and writing professional documents.
Another example is in our Campus Leadership and Involvement Center, where students have access to a range of personal and organizational leadership programs that help them develop the skills of good management as well as ethical leadership qualities. Workshops that employ “design thinking” challenge students to apply their creative talents and knowledge to the problems of civic life (which explicitly includes campus life). Effective leadership programs teach the values and skill sets of social changemaking.
As a result, 52.2 percent of Denison students report they sometimes or often engage in social change behaviors, compared to the national average of 30.5 percent, according to the Multi-Institutional Study of Leadership (MSL). Individual involvement on- and off-campus empowers students to apply leadership frameworks in real world environments.
-Mentorship: A number of studies have found that relationships, especially mentorship, are pivotal to a college experience. In their book How College Works, Dan Chambliss and Christopher Takacs present research from a ten-year study of 100 students to learn what makes a successful college experience.
They write, “(r)elationships are central to a successful college experience.” In particular, “mentors, we found, can be invaluable and even life-changing.” Relationships and mentors “shape in detail a student’s experience: what courses they take or majors they declare; whether they play a sport or join an extracurricular activity; whether they gain skills, grow ethically, or learn whatever is offered in various programs.” Simply put, mentoring relationships “raise or suppress the motivation to learn.”
Mentorship matters perhaps more than anything else, and students are much more likely to find it at colleges that focus on relationships with faculty, staff, coaches and peers. The Gallup Data suggest that about 22 to 25 percent of college students find a mentor. At Denison that figure is about 92 percent.
Student development staff spend a large part of their days as mentors. From the professional and student staff members who cultivate community in our residence halls, to campus safety officers, deans, health and counseling professionals, staff spend lots of time connecting and catalyzing students. The staff push students to get outside their comfort zones, to listen and hear other students, to reflect on their own world views and choices, and to learn. This happens when students come into their offices, when they supervise student employees, in meetings with student organizations, and when they bump into students walking around campus or in the student union.
Very often, this mentorship happens because a student has stumbled or is in crisis. This means two things. First, students get support in those key moments, making it possible for them to persist in college and move forward. And, second, those moments of struggle and crisis become learning moments.
-Life Skills: College is a place where students will develop life habits ranging from simple daily choices around nutrition, exercise and sleep, to larger habits around the kinds of relationships they will create and the ways they will deal with challenge and failure. These become moments to engage in conversations and to help students develop good life skills. Some of this is small and informal. For example, a group of students has been working on nutrition and exercise issues as a way to help their peers develop habits that will decrease the odds of developing health issues later in life. And some of this is more formal. For example, mental health is an issue that this generation is determined to surface and de-stigmatize. We have an amazing group of students working to help those who struggle with mental health issues. All of this is supported through the mentorship of a wide range of student development staff.
-Conflict: College campuses are filled with conflicts. Roommates sometimes do not get along. Campus organizations have competing interests. An event blows up into a major campus controversy. These are normal. Of course, conflict is also a normal part of any work environment or family, and it is a crucial component of living democratically. We are focused on helping students learn to see conflict as normal and positive and how to turn conflict into those proactive and positive moments that lead to forward momentum. We want our students to be the people who, by constructively harnessing conflict and difference, can help companies to create better strategies, communities to create more effective public policies, and families to surface issues that can get resolved.
We want to expose students as often as possible to the challenging conversations of our time. 74.7 percent of our students report that they very often or often engage in socio-cultural conversations compared to the natural average of 57.8 percent, according to the MSL data.
This is particularly true right now, as many of the big social issues are playing out on college campuses, from issues of racial tensions to sexual assault and economic opportunity. If we get this right, the next generation of solutions will emerge from our campuses knowing how to frame issues, build alliances and move issues in ways that strengthen communities. We have huge opportunities through the work we are doing with resident assistants, and with student conduct, leadership programs and other spaces throughout campus life.
Excellent campus programs rest on a few starting principles that are not often heralded.
First, there is a shared commitment to the importance of the liberal arts as a set of skills, values and experiences. There also is a belief in and respect for students. Excellent campus life programs provide strong mentorship, helping students to connect the lessons learned in the classroom with their day-to-day lives and the myriad of tiny decisions that comprise them. At the same time, excellent campus life programs give students lots of autonomy, space and opportunity to explore different aspects of their identities, to learn from successes, mistakes and failures, and to reflect on how their decisions, successes and mistakes affect others. When this happens, the learning is magnified in ways that not only improve the student experience but also the lives they will lead.