By Daniel F. Chambliss
Under fierce pressure to do more with less, colleges today need improvement strategies that are simultaneously reliable, powerful, available, and cheap. Such methods should consistently work well, clearly repay the effort they require, be usable by almost anyone on campus, and require little time and no additional money (since there probably isn’t much lying around). These are strict criteria, but they are achievable. In particular, there is one step colleges can take right now to engage students, without spending a cent or creating a new program: They can encourage more face-to-face human contact. Such human contact, with its power to grab students’ attention and motivate them, may be the key to workable improvement strategies.
In a 10-year longitudinal study of students at a small college, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Christopher G. Takacs and I found that personal relationships with both peers and faculty members, starting from direct contact, were fundamentally important to undergraduate success and could readily be facilitated by institutions. The influence of friends, teachers, and mentors on students’ careers can be truly pervasive, running from start to finish. Especially for traditional-age students at residential colleges, research has shown that friendships are a necessary prerequisite for retention and integration. Research has also shown that peer and professor connections are the central daily motivators for exploring, discussing, studying, and learning, and that relationships of all kinds are often tied to a major positive result. What matters most in college, then, is who meets whom, and when.