Relationships Matter in Student Affairs — But So Do Data and Strategy

Opinion | Higher Education

Relationships Matter in Student Affairs — But So Do Data and Strategy

By Jeff Doyle     Aug 1, 2022

Relationships Matter in Student Affairs — But So Do Data and Strategy

I grew up as a self-described math and science nerd. I took Calculus I, II, and III in high school at the local college, and when I enrolled at the University of Virginia, my courses included honors chemistry and physics for physics majors—although I did not major in physics.

As an achievement-minded young man, I “knew” that my worth was predicated on my grade-point average. I studied for hours every day, rarely going out to do anything fun. It reached the point where I was depressed and in serious need of some help. It was not until my third year in college that I discovered there was life outside of classes (the reverse of most students). That year, I tried out and made the men’s club volleyball team and I joined the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Soon thereafter, I began to experience the power of honest and caring relationships. This shifted my focus on career prestige to one focused instead 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 my focus on results backed by evidence often led my coworkers to see me as more head than heart. Student affairs staff are typically some of the most caring and supportive folks you can find at a college. I also cared, but expressed that through thinking rather than feelings.

In my doctoral research about the nationally recognized Principles of Good Practice in Student Affairs (1999), I used a factorial analysis to discover that the seven principles were grouped in two major variables. The first I termed “Building Relationships with Students.” It includes active involvement in students’ lives, a focus on building relational community, and efforts to be inclusive through supportive relationships. The second factor I called “Building an Organization for Students,” and it focused on using resources effectively, assessing outcomes systemically, and partnering with other units in an effort to impact more students.

The results of my research revealed that the large majority of staff in student affairs were focused on “building relationships with students,” and a much smaller percentage of student affairs staff were invested in “building an organization for students.” Yet 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.

Building a High-Performing Organization

This played out during my nine years as a dean at Baylor University. My friend and former supervisor, Kevin Jackson, and I, used this analogy: If the approximately 180 full-time student affairs staff at Baylor were each able to personally get to know and positively impact 25 students in a year, we would have reached 4,500 of Baylor’s 18,000 students. However, our divisional vision was to be a transformative presence in the lives of all our students. A model focused primarily on strong staff relationships with students would not reach this goal. On the other hand, if we could design a system that was less staff-to-student focused, we would have the potential to impact many more students at Baylor.

One of the ways we achieved this was in markedly expanding the number of student leader positions and investing in these students’ training and guidance for their influence. In addition to the standard resident assistant roles at most universities, our division’s staff created partnerships with multiple departments to hire and educate 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 these 7,000 students would not be double-counted. We reduced this overlap by using a database that allowed for us to document meaningful interactions with students and also to identify other students who were performing poorly, generally because their academic and social integration were lacking. We could tell what they needed academically through their grades. Our most effective measure of social integration came through an early-semester survey of first-year students. The most effective survey prompt—four to seven times more predictive of first-year retention than every other measure—was how a student responded to the statement, “I feel like I belong at Baylor University.”

Once we had identified the approximately 10 percent of students who did not think they belonged at Baylor, we were able to put our student-support networks on alert and prompt outreach from student leaders and staff. This outreach was admittedly much more challenging than working with the students who came to us, because now we were attempting to contact and involve students who in many cases were subconsciously or consciously avoiding any positive influences.

Admittedly, any system has flaws, but our model, during my time at Baylor, resulted in an increase of first- to second-year retention from 82 percent to 91 percent. A jump of 9 percent in 10 years was extraordinary for Baylor because of the size of our student body, making jumps of more than a few percentages quite rare.

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

  1. In the past decade, Baylor has averaged around 3,400 new students per year.
  2. If 9 percent more of these students are retained, that's 306 additional students persisting at Baylor.
  3. The rough average net price that a student pays at Baylor is $40,000 per year.
  4. These 306 students provide, on the average, four years of additional net tuition revenue.
  5. 306 students X four years in college X $40,000 in net tuition/year = $48.96 million.

Results like this demonstrate that in spite of the many joys that come from meaningful student-staff relationships, student affairs teams might benefit by spending more time articulating their goals, processes and overall impact.

I have worked with colleagues over the past 30 years to offer more of this strategy mindset to our work. In general, I found most colleagues to be open to the concept of designing and leading high-performing organizations vs. only working with students who emailed, called, or showed up at their offices each day.

Busyness, meetings, and relationships alone are not going to be the best determinants in supporting students. If, instead, we focus on purposeful work for a high-performing organization, at the end of the day, we will be able to influence more students than we thought possible.

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