The most important factors in college success

So getting the right people together at the right time is key. And that goes for faculty contact with students, but also with students meeting other students. These apartment-style dormitories that are now coming up—it’s a terrible idea. Students think they want it, but what happens is they don’t make any friends. They’re isolated. It’s much better to be in a dorm they don’t like that has long hallways and shared bathrooms. …

When you interview the students, a lot of times they’ll say that the crucial thing for them was sitting down for a one-on-one with a professor. One time in their college career! It was this thing about a single conversation that really struck us. And it’s not technical information. It’s literally just the idea of taking it seriously and saying, “Let’s look at this,” and then the kid starts working on it with someone sitting there and they think, “I can do better,” and they have this revelation.

Q: Hamilton is a particular environment. It’s a small, selective, and expensive (about $55,000 a year) private college. What implications do your findings have for community colleges or state schools that aren’t as selective and have a lot more nontraditional students?

A: Part A is we don’t know, because we haven’t done that research. Second, I think we would say—I have a co-author—the processes probably work in somewhat the same way in other places, too. In some places, like a big university, you’re never going to have that kind of personal contact with faculty. But a little bit goes a long, long way.

That’s part of the message. Even in a place like that, people would be as appreciative of literally a single meeting with a professor. We did this one thing at Hamilton, and I think the logic transfers. We do these senior surveys, and we keep all this data in databases. And the sheer fact of ever having been a guest in a faculty member’s home has this big impact on a student’s reaction to their entire college experience.

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