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The Accidental Mentor*

I first heard about Nancy a couple years ago at a Saint John’s senior dinner.  At the dinner, seniors that are so moved, get up and share the things that they are most thankful for about their SJU experience.  The lists usually include what you might expect: friendships, the monks, social times, great academic experiences, study abroad and relationships with faculty.

But on this particular evening, a senior included an unusual appreciation: “I am thankful to have met Nancy, the custodian on my freshman floor.”  Shortly after this dinner, I heard about a custodian in a frosh dorm who had purchased a dozen haircuts from the old Razor Hair Styling shop in Mary Hall and asked that they be given to random students, ideally freshmen, who seemed to need a little emotional pick-me-up gift–not necessarily because they were looking shaggy.

I realized this was the same woman the senior had praised.

I decided I needed to meet this woman.  It turned out Nancy was nearing the end of her time at Saint John’s, with a long-planned retirement coming this past spring, but we had coffee this summer, and I got to hear her story.

She told me that a number of years ago as she was preparing for her annual performance review she decided to add a new goal: to get to know the students on her floors better.  Nancy did just that during her remaining years at Saint John’s.

There was a young man from Bosnia whom she befriended who shared a Bosnian family wedding video with her.  Another young man visited her family farm where Nancy’s husband taught him to drive a skid loader.  The couple subsequently got to know this student’s hockey teammates and took a group of them out for dinner.  There were multiple students whom she helped with textbook costs, and she even chipped in on an airfare to a New York job interview.  Some of her Johnnies told their young brothers to look Nancy up when they matriculated, and she has attended several Johnnie-Bennie weddings of students she got to know.

Nancy had a policy that if you needed her to unlock your door after you wandered down to the shower without your key, you had to commit to saying “Hi” to her whenever you saw her.  Nancy was eating at a restaurant in St. Cloud with her family when an unfamiliar young man came up the table and greeted Nancy.  She did not immediately recognize him, as he was now 7 or 8 years older than when she knew him at SJU, but he told her she had let him into his room back in the day, and he was fulfilling his part of the bargain.

Most improbably, she developed a relationship with a Chinese student who was often awake in the lounge when she arrived early in the morning.  He told her of his loneliness and complicated relationships with his parent.  He surprised her by making Chinese tea for her one day.  She gently admonished him when he started skipping classes.  He took Nancy and her husband out for Chinese food.  In the end, this young man decided he needed to return home, but Nancy insisted that he text her when he got to Beijing to assure her he was safe.

In some ways Nancy is clearly exceptional—caring deeply for the young men on her floors and making the effort to reach out to dozens of them during her time at Saint John’s. But in other ways, Nancy is just like everyone in this room.  Each of us is capable of being a mentor to the students in our care, students who are all in need of human connections as they make their way through these important formative years at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s.

Nancy did not use the term mentor, and I suspect she would not characterize what she did as mentoring, but I would beg to differ.  A mentor is one who cares about an individual student in the present and is concerned about that student’s future.  Research has shown that this simple human interaction is exceedingly important for the well-being of students on campus and for their thriving in the future.

I would hope that each of us recognizes our ability to be a mentor, but I worry that this is not always the case.

After a presentation on mentoring at the Liberal Arts Illuminated conference this summer I overheard a young staff person say, “I had not thought of myself as capable of being a mentor to students.”  In another context, when discussing our increasingly diverse student body, I have heard faculty wondering about the challenges of teaching and guiding these new students on our campuses.  One senior faculty member noted, “My experiences are so different than those of this generation’s students.”  Students themselves sometimes believe they must find an adult whose experiences have paralleled their own in order to connect.

We can sometimes think of mentoring too narrowly, focusing on the guru model which has students at the feet of an academic master.  While I certainly do not want to diminish our students’ academic needs, young people’s needs are typically broader and require only empathy and wisdom from a caring adult.

Fr. Don Talafous, Mary Hall, ca. 2001

Though they may sometimes be hesitant to reach out, all students want a connection to another person and to a community.  Faculty and staff at CSB and SJU have done this for years, and even with an increasingly geographically, racially, religiously and culturally diverse student body, we can all continue to provide that invaluable human connection, as Nancy did for so many students.

Clearly our 21st century student body is different, and they bring new and unique life experiences to campus, but that is true of every generation.  Yet for many of us in this room, we found mentoring, guidance and connection from what we surely thought at the time were unlikely sources.

S. Margretta Nathe, 1976

If the Benedictine monks and sisters, who publicly made a more counter cultural life choice than any faculty or staff member today can boast of, could serve as powerful and long lasting mentors for earlier generations of students, everyone of us is capable of connecting just as deeply with today’s students.

 

As you meet our students in your classes or offices or elsewhere on campus, just ask yourselves, “What would Nancy do?”  You might be surprised at the relationships you will develop.

Best wishes for the beginning of the school year.

*Presented at the CSB/SJU All-Community Forum on August 21, 2018.

By |August 30th, 2018|Categories: Higher Education|0 Comments

Technology and the Value of Community*

Student with laptop in classroomLike most truly revolutionary changes, technology is changing the world and the institutions in it. This is at least as true in higher education as in any other part of society.

Probably the most noted change is the ability of technology to affect how and where students learn. Until very recently, the history of higher education has been the movement toward a more community based educational experience. The earliest European universities began as collections of scholars who settled in one geographic location for the efficiencies this provided students to gather for lectures and tutorials. Learning in community was begun.

As economies grew and the need for higher education expanded, universities became more centralized. They also began concerning themselves with their students’ needs beyond pure academics. Dormitories were built, cafeterias began offering meals, extra-curricular activities were added to campus life. Learning AND living in community became a more efficient way to educate great numbers of students.

In recent years, technology has provided a way of educating that does not require either living or learning in community. Distance learning, most commonly in the form of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), allows for the possibility of educational content to be delivered across great distances and asynchronously to individual learners. A good internet connection, in theory, can replace some – if not all – of the bricks and mortar campus experience. This technological reality has led some to speculate that soon the online world may literally cause the disintegration of traditional universities. Students will be able to pick the time, place and pace of their post-secondary education.

As distance learning has grown and developed, most of the debate about its merits versus traditional models have focused on economics and pedagogy. To me, however, there is an important and under-appreciated strength of traditional residential education that, ironically, is enhanced by the very forces that have given rise to distance learning. The technological revolution which has made MOOCs possible has also brought about changes in our lives and social interactions, especially among young people, that make continuing to learn and live in community more important than ever.

Students in control roomAs an educator, I see three developments that convince me that having our students live and learn together is of growing importance.

First, the social interactions of people, especially the young, are increasingly mediated by technology, leading to fewer personal interactions. We see children and young adults in virtually every public setting, walking or sitting side by side while texting, or in groups pulling out their phones every few minutes to check their social media accounts. We see it in college students gaming in their dorm rooms and bringing their media to classes. Simple conversations are often interrupted by the stream of information that flows from technology.

Second, technology allows and encourages young people with similar interests, social concerns, politics and worldviews to connect. Some of this ability to reach beyond one’s local geography is surely good—electronic pen pals around a shared passion. Yet it can also be provincial and narrowing. Technology allows all of us to be in self-reinforcing echo chambers, where we hear our own ideas and views repeated and reinforced, rather than tested and challenged, a process that is especially important as young people are developing their moral foundations. We begin to see those outside this circle, however defined, as “the other” and alien. We start to emphasize our differences rather than what we share as humans.

Third, there is growing evidence that millennials (loosely 23-38 year olds) and Generation Zs (loosely early teens to 23) are experiencing more isolation, loneliness and depression than older generations. The exact causes need further study, but Blue Cross Blue Shield researchers have found that depression diagnoses are growing rapidly among teens and millennials. A recent widely reported survey by Cigna found that young people were the loneliest among all the groups surveyed.

Graduates taking selfieAll these issues certainly need more research and those of us older than Generation Z and the millennials are hardly exempt from these concerns, but for educators, the focus is naturally on the experiences of recent graduates, current and future students.

I believe that the current model of undergraduate education which emphasizes learning and living in community (think institutions like Saint John’s, the College of Saint Benedict and St. Cloud State University), though developed for other reasons, offers some hope for those concerned with the social interactions and mental health of young people.

To end on a hopeful note, the Cigna survey reported that, “People who engage in frequent, meaningful in-person interactions have much lower loneliness scores and report better health than those who rarely interact with others face-to-face.”

Social beings benefit from social interactions and a residential university experience can provide a community to foster those interactions—in and outside of the classroom. It is not, as they say, rocket science.

*Published in the St. Cloud Times “To a Higher Degree” column on June 24, 2018

Financial Aid Confusion

Sexton Commons, Saint John's University

Among the complexities of higher education, the private college financial aid model is often the least understood, as it varies among schools, and many schools, like Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s, offer both need-based and merit-based aid.

Below is a column written to try and clarify some of these issues, written in response to an earlier opinion piece in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that was critical of the Minnesota private colleges for their financial aid policies.

Counterpoint: Yes, ‘The Price is Right’ for higher education – and it’s not at all unfair*

For typical Minnesota private colleges like Saint John’s, there’s no “cross subsidization” among students. Still, it’s a tough balancing act.

The economics of higher education are quite complicated. College leaders struggle with these issues every day, including by trying to make them understandable to students and families. “Are you the next contestant on ‘The Price is Right?’ ” touched on these important and complicated issues but in ways that were ultimately misleading.

The article focused on private, nonprofit schools in Minnesota. As an economist by training and president of Saint John’s University in Collegeville, an institution typical of hundreds of small, private, liberal arts colleges around the country, I hope to bring some clarity to this confusing topic.

At Saint John’s, we are selective, but not elite. Our students generally come from the upper quarter academically of their high school classes. We have 1,700 students and a very typical campus with dormitories, classrooms, laboratories, athletic facilities, administrative buildings and, atypically, a world-famous church set amid the lakes, forests and prairie of central Minnesota.
We are, alas, not particularly rich; nor are we especially poor. Our endowment is in the middle of the pack among small, private, liberal arts schools.

At one level, our economic story is very simple. Our revenues come from tuition, alumni gifts and endowment income. Our economic costs are, foremost, compensation for faculty and staff; annual operating costs such as energy, books, journals, copying, etc.; and capital expenses including the costs associated with buildings, land, equipment and technology.

Comparing revenues and costs results in an important, possibly surprising, and little understood fact about our economic model. If every single one of our Johnnies paid our full tuition of $43,000 a year, which almost none do, we would still not have enough revenue to cover the full cost of providing our students the exceptional education they receive.

The economic reality is that every one of our students receives a subsidy, regardless of what they pay. That subsidy comes from Saint John’s alumni and friends, past and present. It does not, as some believe, come from higher-paying classmates.

At Saint John’s, as is true of virtually every higher education institution I know, there is no “cross subsidization” between students. Every additional dollar necessary to cover the true cost of the students’ education beyond the sticker price comes from nonstudents: either from many decades of investment in our campus facilities and endowment or annual fund gifts in the current year or through future fundraising that will cover wear and tear on facilities used by current students.

Quadrangle Building, Saint John's UniversityThis fact may be hard to believe, but the compensation of highly educated faculty and staff and the capital embodied in extremely expensive and high-tech buildings that makes the American model of higher education so exceptional also explains the high per-student cost of America’s best-in-the-world education.

The second part of the economic model for schools like Saint John’s is much harder to navigate and understand. The reality is, of course, that most of our students cannot pay our full tuition without financial aid. Then the question becomes how to use our limited financial-aid resources and discounts to further subsidize the tuition costs for our students.

There are two basic choices. If the school is what might be called an elite institution, enjoying excess demand for the limited number of seats in its entering class, it is very likely to provide only need-based financial aid. Families submit financial-aid forms and then, using federal government formulas, an expected family contribution is calculated. Those students whose families have the economic resources to pay the full sticker price are asked to do so and those families who demonstrate financial need in order to cover tuition receive financial-aid packages commensurate with their need. These elite schools are very limited in number but include the usual suspects such as Harvard and Stanford.

The second financial aid model is the one Saint John’s and the vast majority of private schools use. When we package financial aid for each of our students, we consider both financial need, as described above, and student merit, which is based on the applicant’s academic record.

Why would we choose to use some of our precious financial-aid dollars and limited discounts to reward students from well-off families who could pay our sticker price? Because, for non-elite institutions like Saint John’s, it is valuable to all of our students to maintain a certain academic standard. By attracting a stronger overall academic class through the use of merit aid, the educational experience for all of our students is enhanced.

This is what economists refer to as a positive externality. Stronger students will raise the overall academic level for their peers and improve the performance of the whole cohort.

It is certainly true that every dollar we spend on merit aid is a dollar we cannot spend on need-based aid, so there is most definitely a trade-off. A further complexity is that many students get both kinds of aid.

Because of this trade-off, one can debate the equity of a financial-aid system that includes both need-based and merit-based aid. Yet for non-elite schools — like the vast majority of Minnesota private colleges — that don’t have multiple equally qualified applicants vying for every spot in an entering class, it is certainly a defensible choice to offer somewhat less need-based financial aid in exchange for the benefits to all students of attracting a stronger overall academic class.

This difficult balancing act, however, does not result in a subsidy from financially needy students to academically strong students — neither of those students pays the full cost of their education, as described above, but the amount of subsidy each individual student receives does depend on how a school chooses to allocate need-based and merit-based financial-aid dollars, both of which discount the cost of tuition.

It would be great if every school had the financial resources and applicant pool that elite schools have, but that, of course, is why they are elite.

At Saint John’s, as a selective but not elite school, we work hard every day to provide an exceptional and affordable education for students from a full range of economic circumstances, subject to our resource constraints. We also strive to honestly educate students and families about the complex economics of higher education that are understandably confusing.

I can also say with complete confidence from having worked with and competed with my Minnesota private college peers for years, every Minnesota private, nonprofit college does the same.

*Published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on May 21, 2018