Concordia College has landed on a number of lists in recent years, including “21 Coldest Colleges in the Country” and “Top 10 Strangest Mascots.” This fall, the Cobbers rolled all the way to a top twenty spot on a ranking of the most engaged U.S. colleges and universities.
The Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College Rankings 2017 is a comparative assessment of more than 1,000 US institutions. Unlike similar lists, which focus heavily on research excellence, the WSJ/ THE College Rankings are based on four broad “pillars” that focus on what the schools have to offer students: resources, academic outcomes, environment, and student engagement.
Concordia, while falling to a humble 287th place overall, tied for 13th in the category of student engagement– rising above some of the nation’s most prestigious schools, including Ivy Leagues like Harvard and Princeton.
The engagement ranking is derived from seven questions asked of 100,000 current college and university students. Four questions aimed to determine whether classes were challenging enough, fostered critical thinking, and prompted students to make connections to the real world. Two more measured how much interaction students had with faculty and peers.
When Michael Reese, director of Student Success and Retention at Concordia, first heard about the school’s recognition, he had three reactions: that he was pleased, that it was a very prestigious honor, and that he was not surprised.
“We work very diligently at creating those kinds of conditions that set us apart from other schools, that make the Concordia experience kind of unique,” he said. “Strong performing colleges, like Concordia, promote student success by offering a very supportive environment, by offering a high level of campus engagement.”
Reese, who works with students daily to ensure that they are getting the support, assistance, and overall experience that they need from the school, suggested a variety of factors that set Concordia apart in terms of engagement. One such factor is the 11 to 1 student-to-faculty ratio.
Small classes, he said, allow students more opportunities to make their voice heard in class, as well as to connect with their professors on a personal level.
“Every student is a little different, and that’s the beauty of what we can do here with smaller classes,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for a student to really experience success, and to experience it first-hand and have that closeness to a professor, have that closeness to other students in the class, be able to engage with those students and do that in a meaningful way. I don’t think that you can do that with 100 kids in a lecture hall.”
Academic rigor, as well as class size, is vital to a student’s feeling of in-class engagement. Reese noted the value of courses that require a great deal of writing and public speaking, such as Concordia’s required first-year IWC and IOC courses. Classes that force students to think critically about issues beyond their classrooms, like inquiry seminars and capstone courses, allow students to become more engaged both in their college and in their world.
“I think it’s important to be challenging and be rigorous, but not overdo it, because then you start having those academic casualties,” Reese said. “Fortunately, we’ve got some great resources for support.”
Those resources include academic advisors, who are assigned to first-year students based on their major, as well as tutors and academic counselors in the Academic Enhancement and Writing Center.
Reese also emphasized the importance of the peer mentor program, which is operated through the Office of Student Success and Retention.
“I personally believe that some of the best mentors for college students are other students,” he said.
Peer mentors are upperclass students trained to help new students make the transition to Concordia The program helps provide personal support and guidance to first-year and transfer students on a student-to-student basis.
According to junior Katelyn Berdan, who has been a peer mentor for the past two years, the role of a peer mentor is to reach out to students through email, personal contacts, CPO notes, and dorm visits. Berdan believes that such actions can help new students feel more connected to Concordia from their first day on campus.
“For a lot of people, I know that the freshman year transition is really hard,” Berdan said. “It’s hard to find kind of your own personal experience within that. Peer mentors are assigned based on personal traits like major and interests… We’re kind of like a personalized resource and friend, just somebody to say ‘I’ve been through this, I can get you through it too.’”
In addition to connections with faculty and fellow students, Concordia also offers students opportunities to become engaged with the school at an administrative level.
According to Nathalie Rinehardt, director of the Office of Student Engagement, students can sit on governance committees, which cover topics from curriculum to budget planning, as well as groups such as the new Diversity and Inclusion Action Group.
Four students also sit on Faculty Senate each year, and have a vote in institutional decisions. According to Rinehardt, these opportunities are very unique to Concordia.
“They have an official vote when Faculty Senate is passing legislation and deciding to change the way that things are done at Concordia,” Rinehardt said. “I know that maybe four doesn’t sound like very much, but it’s better than none.”
Rinehardt believes that engaging students at an institutional level does not just benefit the few students who are granted a vote, but the college as a whole.
“We exist for students, and I think we need to be observant of what students want, what they care about, how they think about things,” she said. “I think inviting them to be a part of these decisions is the best way to send the message that we care what you think, in a very formal way. We want you to be at the table where these decisions are made so you can share what it’s like from where you sit as a student.”
The final question in the WSJ/THE College Rankings student engagement survey asked students how likely they would be to recommend their school to a friend. For Berdan, the answer is clear.
“I always recommend Concordia,” Berdan said. “I say that the classes are wonderful, the people are wonderful, the faculty, the programs we have. It’s that small-school feel, because everyone is so connected and understanding. … If you want to feel like a person, come to Concordia.”