With on-campus activities curtailed or canceled, is college worth the price?

That question is not only up for debate on social media or in newsrooms—it’s actually gone to court. On the heels of a spring semester suddenly thrust online, students around the country have joined a host of class action lawsuits demanding tuition refunds and discounts. More are likely to follow this fall.

Many of the complaints center on the social experiences students are missing out on: face-to-face interactions with professors and peers, extra-curricular activities, intramurals, and of course, networking and mentorship opportunities. A plaintiff in one suit against UNC Charlotte put it bluntly to Newsweek: “Part of the value in being an in-person college student is being able to build relationships that last forever with the students who are sitting around you,” he said. “When we went online, I lost connections with other students, as well as the faculty.”

While courts will be weighing whether colleges are in fact legally obligated to deliver these social goods, students and institutions alike are facing much bigger, existential questions: Is college really college without relationships? And relatedly, do colleges actually provide these myriad social experiences reliably enough to justify the high price of tuition? 

The value of relationships

Although it’s hard—and a bit gauche—to put a price on relationships, some data confirms the extent to which students value connections. A 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 relationships command on campus. In 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.”

Whether colleges do a good job of delivering that valuable outcome, however, is a different question. Based on slim data, the notion that students are buying a network appears to be some mix of reality and myth. In another Gallup poll, a staggering half of all students said they did not 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.

In other words, even before the global pandemic struck, networks were a desirable but tenuous value proposition wrapped up in a college degree. Now, campus closures have shed new light on both the immense value students attribute to networks and the acute lack of targeted approaches that colleges have put in place to deliver on those networks.

Three ways to deliver on social connections

In the year ahead, colleges will have a choice: they can be merely reactive, disputing legal claims about how many of these relationships students are owed. Or, they can be proactive—acknowledging the importance of relationships as key to the college experience—and start deliberately investing in designing and brokering connections for their students. Where might they start to pursue the latter? 

First, colleges can double down on offering on-demand and frequent student supports, both on campus and online. For colleges equipped to build their own student support structures, platforms like Mentor Collective and PeopleGrove can help administrators streamline mentorship and supports that can flex online and offline. For institutions short on staff to offer these supports, colleges can partner with programs like Beyond 12 and UStrive that offer virtual coaches and mentors. Colleges can also borrow inspiration from their peer institutions that have long offered online mentorship and support, such as Western Governors’ University. These various approaches, even in modest dosages, all have research in their favor: as Chambliss and Takacs found in their study, “even a tiny bit of high-quality human contact, applied at the right moment in a student’s career, can noticeably raise motivation.” In other words, these investments are win-win. They can not only meet students’ social demands, but also support colleges’ bottom line by driving retention.

Second, colleges can urge faculty to take more relationship-centered and networked approaches to teaching. Some, like Northeastern professor Lisa Feldman Barrett, have suggested that colleges consider a modified tutorial model in which professors dedicate more time to small-group instruction and discussion. Others could take smaller steps to create better channels for students to access their professors, such as reimagining how virtual office hours could prove more accessible to more students.

And a more relationship-centered approach to instruction doesn’t just have to depend on faculty—it could also include bringing more employers into the classroom. For example, Riipen partners with colleges to help faculty integrate employer-designed projects into their curriculum, leveraging industry experts to coach students and offer them feedback on real-world projects. Another effort, the recently-launched BridgesAlliance, consists of a group of colleges offering experiential learning opportunities and projects contributed by alumni, families, corporate partners, and supporters from across the cohort of schools.

Third, colleges can create even more intentional structures that support peer-to-peer connections. These may consist of long-standing models that foster connections, such as forming cohorts of students—for both learning and guidance—to build a sense of community and belonging among tight-knit groups. In addition, colleges can leverage technologies like NearPeer and Knack, built to unlock peer-to-peer mentoring and tutoring across campuses.

These efforts will prove most fruitful if colleges not only provide these supports and connections but also start to collect data on how well these approaches build and strengthen students’ networks across different metrics like the quantity and quality and connections brokered. From there, colleges’ ability to build—and sell—networks will only improve over time. 

Although college students may not enjoy the same face-to-face and ad hoc connections they were hoping to this fall, a more deliberate and data-driven approach on the part of institutions could actually take the chance out of chance encounters. All three efforts—to bolster supports, broker faculty and industry connections, and foster stronger peer networks—could go a long way toward ensuring college students that the price tag is still worth it.