THE BLOG

The Meaning of (Student) Life

11/11/2013 10:59 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

As American colleges and universities scramble to cut costs, hold down tuition, and support academic programs, the parameters shaping student life remain at best undefined.

What role does support for student life play in an academic setting?

At residential campuses, most of the energy and financial support is appropriately directed toward the academic program. Student life translates as a value added to provide a student with choice but little coordinated direction. Finding yourself as a first year student means knowing where to begin to look. On the administrative side, student life represents added costs within a comprehensive fee charged to families. At some institutions, the amounts charged in fees, room and board are calculated primarily to balance the annual budget. There's little that is strategic about it.

While the media often confuses tuition with the comprehensive fee, families effectively not only pay tuition but also fees, room and board costs when they write out the check.

There are, of course, exceptions to this kind of residential experience. Some institutions shape student life by "principle," like Washington & Lee University with its self-administered exams and honor code or through integrated programming at many religiously affiliated schools. But for most of American higher education, a tug-of-war exists between the classroom and extracurricular experiences.

It's time to recognize the role that student life plays in American higher education. Students come to an institution to learn. They do so in the classroom but also in the thousand teachable moments that occur outside of it.

How can higher education institutions differentiate themselves by creating a residential learning experience that more broadly defines the definition of how students learn?

College leadership -- especially administrators, trustees and faculty -- must recognize that students come to them learning differently, impacted by technology, working in group settings, and building knowledge through experiences beyond the seats they warm in the classroom. They live in a world shaped by Facebook and Twitter.

They must rethink the institution's strategic plan. College strategic plans must go beyond support for the academic program. The best strategic plans must now ask: "Who are we? Who do we wish to become"?

There are important reasons to pay close attention to student life.

While students leave college or university for many reasons, they typically withdraw either because they sense they are a bad fit for the campus or the college community neglected the daily dynamic ebb and flow that supports academics, losing the student in the chaos of opportunity and change. For many colleges and universities, offering more choices alone may not be enough. In an undifferentiated residential setting, sometimes more is just more.

If student life is to compete in budgets constrained by tuition caps and internal cost increases, its leadership must insist on three non-negotiable points.

First, student life staff must be better respected for the critical role that they play in the life of the college. Very often they feel underappreciated among senior administrators and tenured faculty who can sometimes treat them dismissively as junior staff and nuisance administrators who draw down on available institutional resources. Student life staff must make a better case for themselves.

It starts by arguing that the combination of academic and extracurricular life defines a college education.

Second, student life staff must be much more effective in defining residential life. In the end, it's not about crunching housing numbers or providing vegan options across the campus. They must ask themselves critical questions. Rather than focusing on inputs and options, how do these outcomes strengthen persistence and support higher graduation rates?

Is the purpose in a residential setting to move first-year students into a communal environment, provide them with increasing living and learning options in the middle years, and prepare them to live in a global community as newly minted graduates? Arguably -- yes.

If so, this approach should drive the capital, facilities, staff and programming that support this outcome. Further, this policy -- if well differentiated -- should mute the consumerism that puts students at elite institutions into plush student housing to accurately reinforce a public perception about what drives high tuition costs in America.

In the end, it's about the educational program and not the bells and whistles that create the noise around it. The social contract with the student best answers the question: "Who do we wish to become?"

Finally, college leadership must look at student life itself as a teachable moment for the college community. College leadership must rethink how they approach and fund student life. If the social contract drives the desired outcome, should colleges and universities be using bond capacity and comprehensive campaigns to remain in the hotel business? In this example, should the money be put into the social contract instead of the building that houses its execution?

It's not rocket science. American colleges and universities will not achieve the level of persistence and graduation rates possible without recognizing that attention to and support for student life may help them get there.