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3 research-based antidotes to loneliness on campus

Julia Freeland Fisher
September 29, 2021

Loneliness, a precursor to more serious mental health issues, is on the rise among teens and young adults. This troubling trend begs the question for colleges rolling out their reopening plans and COVID-19 protocols: As most campuses return in person, will a reprieve from social distancing translate to social thriving? 

Unfortunately, it’s not guaranteed. Even before “social distancing” became part of the vernacular, 61% of Americans reported being lonely. Among Generation Z Americans, a staggering 73% reported sometimes or always feeling alone. 

Lack of connection, in other words, was a pandemic long before COVID-19 came along.

In turn, when it comes to fostering connections on campus, colleges can’t just rely on reopening as an end in itself. Rather than assume that meaningful relationships will flourish when students are physically proximate again, colleges should build a more deliberately and equitably networked campus experience -- both in person and virtually. A robust relationship strategy that nurtures plentiful, positive relationships across faculty, peers and industry can ensure students not only survive the pandemic, but thrive long after it runs its course. 

Relationships yield a return on investment

It’s not news to anyone that relationships matter to college students. But the degree to which they matter -- both to students’ own satisfaction and to colleges’ bottom lines -- is worth repeating. 

A 2015 Gallup poll found that access to relationships had the single greatest effect on graduates’ belief that their education was worth the cost. In retrospect, students rated the value of their college experience nearly two times higher if they’d encountered professors whom they felt cared about them as a person or if they’d found a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams. 

Other research confirms the premium that peer relationships command on campus. In their book How College Works, a detailed sociological study of the day-to-day lives of college students, Daniel Chambliss and Christopher Takacs found again and again that relationships dominated students’ narratives. “[Relationships] are the necessary precondition, the daily motivator, and the most valuable outcome,” they wrote. These weren’t just relationships with professors or mentors. “Alumni frequently told us that friendships were the most valuable result of their undergraduate years, overshadowing even treasured academic gains.”

Unfortunately, colleges haven’t reliably delivered on the promise of relationships at the rates we might hope. In another Gallup poll, half of all students said they didn’t graduate with a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams, and nearly one in five graduates strongly disagreed that they’d found a mentor during their time on campus.

If focusing on friendship and mentorship for students sounds distracting or sentimental compared to academic pursuits, colleges should also bear in mind how relationships shape enrollments and, ultimately, their bottom line. According to a recent ACT survey, first-year students who said their schools reached out to check in on them during the pandemic were more likely to report plans to return this fall. As Association of American Colleges and Universities President Lynn Pasquerella told the Christian Science Monitor, driving retention requires that colleges function as “places of welcome and belonging.”

Research-based practices to foster campus connections

In other words, even before the global pandemic struck, networks were a desirable but tenuous value proposition wrapped up in a college degree. Now, amidst precarious enrollment rates, it’s clear that many colleges can no longer afford to get by without deliberate attention to nurturing and strengthening students’ networks. To get there, here are three research-based steps that colleges can take this year:

1. Nurture student-faculty relationships

According to a Gallup Purdue poll from 2014, only 14% of college graduates reported having had a professor who cared about them as a person, made them excited about learning and encouraged them to pursue their dreams. Those who didn’t were half as likely to be engaged in work and experience well-being. Research by Alexander Astin, professor emeritus and founding director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, suggests those students probably weren’t all that happy about their college years, either. “Student-faculty interaction has a stronger relationship to student satisfaction with the college experience than any other student involvement variable,” Astin wrote in his book Why College Matters: Four Critical Years. 

Building stronger student-faculty relationships needn’t be overly complex, according to the research. Although faculty may feel overwhelmed at the prospect of deeply mentoring every single student, researchers from the University of San Diego have found that a “flash mentorship” approach, where faculty connect with students for one-time meetings on specific topics they’re well-suited to advise on, is appealing to students. Research also suggests that professors can foster familiarity through a few very simple steps. Researchers at Arizona State University found that by learning students’ names and conducting check-ins at the start of class, professors can boost engagement. Peter Draus and his colleagues also found that students perceived increased value in courses taught by faculty who created their own get-to-know-you video content, such as a video biography and prerecorded check-ins.  

2. Take the chance out of chance peer encounters

Faculty aren’t the only source of relationship capital that colleges should invest in. According to research, positive peer connections support prosocial behavior and impact student outcomes. But there’s a second reason schools shouldn’t give peer networks short shrift: Students already rely heavily on each other for support that their institutions -- in theory and in practice -- already purport to provide. Peers exert a significant influence on students’ academic and career decisions, and first-generation students especially seek help from peer networks of the same ethnicity more reliably than institutional services. Even campus mutual aid networks, often founded and run by students, demonstrate the extent to which students turn to each other for support: Many students receiving $100 for car repairs or $50 for medical bills are accessing it not through their colleges’ aid offices, but through their social networks.

Colleges can start by rejecting the assumption that students’ chance hallway encounters will naturally result in robust and diverse peer networks. Deliberately designing peer cohorts, either within affinity groups or across lines of difference, can speed up trust-building. Learning models matter too. For example, University of Oregon professor Mark Van Ryzin’s research has shown how designing small-group peer learning with various forms of “interdependence” can incentivize students to collaborate -- and to form relationships. Cristiane Damasceno further demonstrated that peer learning can surface latent expertise and create group cohesion. Faculty can take steps toward these kinds of peer learning environments by encouraging student-led online Q&A forums and offering students leadership roles as they develop expertise that can benefit their peers.

3. Scale access to diverse industry connections

Strategies to curb loneliness and grow campus connections can offer professional benefits as well as emotional ones. For colleges promising students employability after graduation, a deliberate strategy to nurture students’ networks must include industry connections. Networks shape career exposure, which in turn shapes career ambitions. But as demonstrated by researchers in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, broad exposure to diverse careers isn’t equally distributed. Furthermore, pursuing greater equity in career exposure and job success doesn’t require forming strong, deep relationships in every instance. Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter’s research has shown that when it comes to job-getting, there’s surprising strength in weak ties, or relationships characterized by relatively less time, emotional intimacy and reciprocity (as compared with strong ties). Indeed, even brief chats with industry experts among younger students have been shown to lead to wage premiums decades later.

There are a few strategies that, if colleges build them into their career services and advising workflows, can yield dividends in terms of students’ professional networks. Students across the socioeconomic spectrum will already show up with a network of some kind, so schools should first take stock of whom students already know working in various industries. In academic classes, faculty can embed outside experts into assessment processes to provide authentic, real-world feedback, as well as assign students to lead interviews to spark or deepen connections with individuals working in industry. Lastly, to lean into the powerful intersection of students’ skills and their networks, colleges can prompt students to regularly reflect on and document who knows what they know, as part of building a portfolio of professional connections that can vouch for -- and hire for -- their emerging skills.

Fostering students’ networks both online and off

Even as most campuses reopen this fall, the pandemic’s persistence will necessitate some form of ongoing hybrid or remote learning, even if only to accommodate quarantines after possible COVID-19 exposures. Luckily, many of the strategies described here can translate both online and off, especially with the help of technology tools and platforms that make connecting more feasible. 

Platforms designed with relationships in mind, such as some of those described in our recent report on nurturing peer networks, can enable schools’ relationship-building strategies to be more data-driven and thus less likely to perpetuate current inequities. They can help scale interactions to occur anytime and anywhere, even outside of the normal hours advising or counseling offices are open. And they can help students access connections that are otherwise out of reach, such as professionals and alumni in other states or peers on commuter campuses who live far apart.

Troubling rates of loneliness have plagued college campuses during and even before the pandemic. But like learning, relationship-building is a science, and a host of research-based practices can yield more reliable and positive connections for more students. This year more than ever, fostering connection will be core to students’ wellness and success -- and critical to institutions’ sustainability.

 

Julia Freeland Fisher is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. Her work aims to educate policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. 

 

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