Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College

relationship rich education BostonPeter Felten and Leo Lambert have worked together for years at Elon University. Dr. Felten is a professor of history at Elon and also serves as the assistant provost for teaching and learning. Dr. Lambert is a professor of education at Elon and is also president emeritus, having served as president from 1999 through 2018.

Their beliefs in the value of relationships as part of the undergraduate experience led them to interview nearly 400 students, faculty, and staff at 29 colleges and universities across America to evaluate best practices in building relationships through formal and informal programs. This research eventually led to the creation of the book Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College.

In the book’s introduction, Felten and Lambert set the foundation by reminding the reader that today’s undergraduates are vastly different than the typical college undergraduate pinned in our memories. Late-night discussions among peers in the dorms and lazy afternoons on the quadrangle are now infrequent occurrences, given that more than 50 percent of all undergraduates live at home, almost 40 percent attend community colleges, and 25 percent are full-time students and work full-time.

Felten and Lambert write that “decades of research demonstrate that peer-to-peer, student-faculty, and student-staff relationships are the foundation of learning, belonging, and achieving in college.” While the importance of these relationships is known, it’s far more important and difficult to create a relationship-rich environment where “students will have frequent opportunities to connect with peers, faculty, staff, and others.”

Chapter One provides examples of successful campuses where relationships are nurtured with students from the moment that they set foot on campus. Felten and Lambert point out that far too often, college is reduced to a series of transactions instead of a relationship-rich experience. They note that relationships should be inescapable, available to all students instead of a few in select programs.

In their research, Felten and Lambert uncovered four principles that guide effective programs and cultures at colleges and universities:

  1. Every student must experience genuine welcome and deep care.
  2. Every student must be inspired to learn.
  3. Every student must develop a web of significant relationships.
  4. Every student must explore questions of meaning and purpose.

This advice sounds like common sense, but the authors back up their principles with specific, successful examples from the colleges and universities that they visited as part of their research.

If you’re not so convinced that building relationships is difficult, Chapter Two “Why is This So Hard,” provides a hint. Isolation and imposter syndrome are situations experienced by many students new to college, and not every college does a good job of educating their faculty and staff on the importance of changing their speech and their actions to minimize these emotions experienced by new students.

Entrenched structures in higher education work against relationship-rich environments. These structures include the facts that some classrooms do not engage students meaningfully in learning or human connections; pathways through the course curricula can be uninspired and isolating; and institutional reward systems often do not value relational teaching or interactions with students outside of the classroom. Citing another author, Cathy Davidson, “the overall ecosystem of higher education does not reward good teaching in the same way it rewards (and requires) measurable ‘outputs’ – peer-reviewed articles, books, professional paper, and grants.”

Felten and Lambert write that “the central question is how can institutions be strategic about maximizing opportunities for their students to experience meaningful relationships with faculty, staff, and influential peers.” Chapter Three provides a number of examples of institutions that have intentionally shifted their cultures to embrace the creation and nurturing of relationships.

Felten and Lambert also state that five factors are crucial for an institution’s culture to enable meaningful relationships:

  1. The culture should value students.
  2. The culture should value the efforts faculty and staff put into relationship building.
  3. The culture should value high-quality teaching.
  4. The culture should value webs of human interactions.
  5. The culture should value engagement over prestige.

They further add that stewarding campus culture is a long-term initiative, not a quick fix.

Rich relationships have to begin in the classroom because it is the primary point of contact between undergraduates and institutions. The authors write in Chapter Four that the classroom is “the single most important site for students to experience welcome and care, to be inspired to learn, to build webs of relationships, and to ask questions of meaning and purpose.”

Again, Felten and Lambert note that scholars have written about the importance of student-faculty interaction for more than five decades. At the same time, they observe that many higher education labor practices do not reflect the role of faculty in achieving student learning goals.

More institutions need to embrace change. Faculty members need to take responsibility for creating classroom environments that encourage meaningful interactions with students. While many institutions look at the first-year experience in college because that may be the most impactful for reducing student dropout, Felten and Lambert note that the college experience is punctuated by a series of firsts, including the launch of each new term. Thanks to their research, more examples are provided of colleges establishing rich classroom relationships.

Chapter Five provides examples of campuses implementing programs building relationships beyond the classroom. Felten and Lambert write that these examples highlight four essential themes about relationship-rich experiences in college:

  1. Student leadership is a force multiplier.
  2. Individual and small-scale initiatives can take root and spread.
  3. Technology and data can facilitate relationship building.
  4. Broadening access to relationship-rich experiences means rethinking basic structures.

It would be nearly impossible to have a discussion about relationships between faculty and students without having a conversation about mentoring. The authors provide that discussion in Chapter Six. Notably, they provide examples about mentoring situations that are shorter in duration than the sustained relationships that are frequently discussed.

Mentors of the moment, just-in-time mentoring, and mentoring on the run are examples of less-sustained mentoring situations that occur on campuses that embrace a relationship-rich culture. The authors identify five essential characteristics of meaningful mentoring conversations:

  1. Mentoring conversations create space for students to be heard and to be human.
  2. Mentoring conversations include “nitty-gritty” guidance and knowledge.
  3. Mentoring conversations include “warm handoffs” that facilitate yet more relationships.
  4. Mentoring conversations are especially important during low moments in students’ lives.
  5. Mentoring conversations leave legacies.

Again, examples for each of these characteristics are provided from the institutions visited during the research for this book.

Felten and Lambert conclude with 10 steps that need to occur for a relationship-rich environment to thrive:

  1. Institutions must act and take the lead in creating meaningful relationships.
  2. Institutions must recognize that relationships matter, especially for those who are marginalized.
  3. The classroom remains the most important place on campus for meaningful relationships.
  4. Students should have meaningful and natural conversations everywhere across campus on a daily basis.
  5. Relationships are everyone’s job.
  6. Look beyond your peer institutions for examples of good practice.
  7. Institutions already have a foundation upon which to build.
  8. All faculty are important to the relationship-rich campus, not just full-time instructors.
  9. Stories about the relationship-rich campus are powerful, so tell them.
  10. Students want faculty and staff to know them.

As with many recently published books, the conception, research, and writing of Relationship-Rich Education began before the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the disruption of the campus experience due to the pandemic, the identified characteristics and examples provided by Felten and Lambert are even more vital for institutions seeking ways to build stronger relationships between their students and their institutions.

The next few years will be very tough for many higher ed institutions. Developing a relationship-rich culture could be the difference between surviving and thriving. I recommend the book for any higher ed leader seeking to improve learning outcomes and student retention at their institution.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence