What does it mean to create a ‘holistic’ student experience?

Seven experts—including Randy Bass, Georgetown University’s vice provost for education—gathered recently at the Washington, D.C., offices of The Chronicle of Higher Education for a roundtable discussion about the concept of a “holistic” student experience and how colleges can facilitate it. The resulting discussion, detailed in a new report and an accompanying video, explores why educators are focusing on both academic and personal success, and the steps institutions are taking to help all students thrive.

The roundtable brought together a variety of perspectives, including representatives from Achieving the Dream, a national network of community colleges; Morgan State University, a historically Black research university; the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University; Georgetown University; the University of Virginia; NASPA, the national association of student-affairs administrators; and the Association of American Colleges and Universities.   

Defining the ‘holistic student experience’

Noting that the term holistic “has become something of a buzzword,” the Chronicle asked participants to share how they’re approaching the challenge of “focus[ing] not only on access, or enrolling a diverse population of students, but on their success academically and personally, in college and beyond.”

One hallmark of a holistic approach is understanding and meeting students’ challenges—for instance, “with their health, families, financial circumstances, housing, food, safety, relationships, mental health,” said Tiffany Beth Mfume, assistant vice president for student success and retention at Morgan State University, an HBCU. If institutions aren’t able to achieve that alignment between what students need and experience and what the university provides, then “students’ experiences may feel more transactional,” added Amelia Parnell, NASPA’s vice president for research and policy.

‘Finding ways to reimagine the educational experience’

To better meet the needs of today’s students, many colleges and universities are using data to pinpoint obstacles and redesign programs and services accordingly, the experts said. They mentioned the learning and engagement benefits of mentored research projects, the importance of a comprehensive advising process, and the emergence of a hybrid academic-student-affairs mentality when it comes to students’ development.

“Part of the challenge of the next phase is to think about how to better integrate the curricular and the co-curricular,” said Bass.” Not just helping students do that themselves, but actually finding ways to reimagine the educational enterprise.” Team teaching is central to that vision, Bass said, pointing to the “team-designed, team-delivered, experience-based, community-based, applied learning” models emerging in places like entrepreneurship hubs and centers for social justice.

Related: $20M gift for educational innovation aims to make experiential learning ‘the new norm for every Georgetown student’ >

‘It’s challenging work’ 

Many of the most effective strategies for creating a holistic experience—such as summer bridge programs—“have high price tags,” noted Mfume, adding that the increased focus on student success means that, fortunately, “there’s more money out there than there’s ever been.” Pointing out that Morgan State has been serving underrepresented students for 152 years, Mfume said, “I want to tell everybody who’s just getting on board with what the needs of students are, how institutions have to meet those needs, and how to handle accountability: It’s challenging work.”

Ultimately, “if we’re really committed to upward mobility… we need to understand who our students are, where they come from, and how they experience the institution—and then be responsive and proactive to remove systemic barriers that don’t need to be there,” said Shauna Davis, an executive director at Achieving the Dream.

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