What It Means to be Student-Centered

April 4, 2018

Over the course of this semester, we have engaged in a series of discussions about our next strategic plan. These discussions have often focused on how we can become more student-centered as a College. During the process, we have established that "student-centeredness" must be one of our core values. 

While no one disputes the importance of serving our students' best interests, there have been some questions from members of the community such as "What specifically does it mean to be student-centered?" and "Aren't all educational institutions by their very nature student-centered?"

Although no college or university would ever admit that they are not student-centered, some have other priorities. For instance, research universities often put a premium on hiring world-renowned scholars and researchers, offering attractive endowed chairs and equipping their laboratories with large start-up packages. While it is very beneficial to have star researchers on campus, frequently only a limited number of students are fortunate enough to gain access to these individuals as mentors. Additionally, prominent researchers are usually hired for excellence in research and not necessarily for their teaching abilities. While you can certainly argue the value of such practices, they are indicators of a more faculty-centered school, rather than a student-centered one. 

I have also seen schools that I would regard as administration-centered. These schools are well-oiled machines that strive for operational efficiencies throughout their enterprise. They can be very cost effective and have organizations that are lean. Typically, they do not devote significant resources to faculty scholarship or to the student experience. They are the proverbial degree factories.

There are certainly many variations on the theme of centricity. I knew of one school whose president focused entirely on the development of the physical plant. He seemed to have an obsession with constructing new buildings with copper roofs and extensive rotundas. While this made for an attractive campus, the direct benefit to students and faculty was not immediately apparent.

So given all of these options, what then does it mean to be student-centered? To answer this question, we need to step back and put ourselves in the shoes of our students. We need to hear from them on their everyday experiences as they navigate their college years. As we gather this feedback, we see that student-centricity affects every component of the College.

A student-centric mentality should be evident from the moment a student first expresses interest in the College. Do we provide timely responses to their queries? How is the student and their family treated when they visit one of our campuses? Are their interactions with ACPHS faculty, staff, and students positive and engaging? It continues with their first day on campus. How easy is it for our students to get settled? How long does it take them to get their housing set? To get registered? Do they get locked out of classes? 

This is only the beginning. When they enter a program, how easy is it for them to get oriented and to understand what the program has to offer? How accessible is the faculty advisor? How flexible is the curriculum? How do co-curricular activities pull together what happens in the classroom with what happens outside the classroom? What additional opportunities are open to students, whether they be study abroad, research experiences, summer internships, or specialized rotations? How accommodating are we to students who struggle or need remediation? 

It's also important to remember the student's social and personal development. This can be as critical to producing a positive college experience as their academic development. Do our extracurricular activities provide sufficient outlets for students' needs and interests? Are we providing an environment that opens students up to new ways of thinking and new world views? Do we offer the facilities and accommodations needed to support a robust social life on campus? 

Finally, we must keep an eye on our students' lives beyond college. Do we provide appropriate professional development? Do we provide proper career advice and mentoring? Do we go the extra mile to place students after college? Have we created alumni networks that give students entries into job opportunities? Do we provide adequate continuing educational experiences for our students?

This list of student-centered activities is not meant to be complete and exhaustive, rather the point is that being student-centered cuts across almost every aspect of the College. And just like student-centeredness begins before students take their first class, it does not stop on the day they receive their diplomas. Our community needs to be linked, not just by a common experience, but by a continuous engagement between past, present, and future generations of students. When we are able to realize this vision, we will truly be a student-centered college.

Greg Dewey, Ph.D., is President of Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.

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