Are college students getting the attention they deserve?

JulieWollman
Julie E. Wollman, president, Widener University.

It’s easy for college leaders to complain about overly involved “helicopter” parents, but frankly, I understand parental anxieties. In fact, I am a college parent. I want to know that my children are safe and cared for, although I also recognize they need to learn to deal with problems on their own. When my daughters got pneumonia or had roommate issues, I was very worried.

I never would have called the president’s office, as some families do, but there are admittedly times when I have wondered if “the person at the top” knows about the class where work is never returned on time or about the adviser who fails to answer multiple email messages. I understand the occasional question, borne of worry and frustration: “What am I paying for?”

Above all, I understand that parents and caregivers want their children to attend schools that are distinguished by caring and committed faculty and staff so that students have the support they need to thrive. That’s why I think the quality of attention and commitment to students should be central in the college decision-making process.

My 10 years as a college and graduate school parent have reinforced that the level of personal attention to students’ learning, personal development, and success in college and beyond varies enormously across institutions — everyone says they provide it, but only a small number really deliver on that promise.

What is most important in choosing a college? Personal attention that grows from a fundamental commitment to students and their success. Commitment and caring are evidenced in various ways. Now that college decision time is here for fall 2017, here are some tips on signs that personal attention is a priority:

  • Look for faculty and staff, including the president, who know undergraduate students. They should know who they are, where they’re from, and what they do outside of class. You will hear them greet students by name and chat with them easily.
  • Look for faculty and staff spending time with students in the dining hall, in building lobbies or lounges, and at campus events, especially student-run events. Watch how they interact when you visit campus for admissions office events.
  • Find out how many students have an opportunity to engage in mentored research and other projects with faculty. Are students encouraged to do this work beginning in the freshman year? What are the products and how and where are they presented? Committed faculty engage students in their work and help them develop a professional identity that will position them well for jobs and graduate school. They take students to conferences and give them opportunities to present their work.
  • Is there a vibrant and accessible and widely used Career Services office? Does this office assist students to find the best possible shadowing opportunities, internships, and other hands-on experiences throughout their time in college? Is career development integrated into coursework from the fall of freshman year through graduation?
  • What happens to students after they graduate? You should be able to easily find statistics on success in graduate school admissions, finding great jobs, and earning strong salaries.
  • Are students satisfied with their experience at the college? Colleges should be eager to share results of independent, national surveys that document student satisfaction.

Does it really make a difference to attend a school where you find these qualities? Yes, research suggests that it does. A 2014 Gallup-Purdue University study of college graduates demonstrated that those undergraduate students who had experienced personal attention and strong support of professors and others on campus were, after graduation, much more likely to be thriving – to have jobs they liked, to be more engaged in their work, and to be happier overall.  Colleges that provide personal attention and support are better for our children and for our well-being as parents.

Julie E. Wollman is president of Widener University in Chester. jewollman@widener.edu

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