How Academic Libraries Can Help Students Get the Most Out of College | Peer to Peer Review

At a time when the cost of higher education is rising and so are questions about its value, libraries can lead the way in enabling student success and helping students get the most out of college. To do this, college and university libraries must continue their transformation from places to access information to places to also create, connect, and grow.

Elliot Felix head shotAt a time when the cost of higher education is rising and so are questions about its value, libraries can lead the way in enabling student success and helping students get the most out of college. To do this, college and university libraries must continue their transformation from places to access information to places to also create, connect, and grow.

A decade ago, a User Experience Librarian was an emerging role to address the critical need to analyze and improve the experience of students and faculty. Now Student Success Librarian is an emerging job addressing another critical need—120 people are listed with that title on LinkedIn. Not only should every library have a Student Success Librarian, student success should be part of everyone’s job description. Libraries can help all students belong, get support, build skills, create projects, make connections, and find a career.

Foster belonging through events, programs, and jobs. Data from the National College Health Assessment’s survey of nearly 70,000 undergraduate students at four-year institutions show that 36 percent don’t feel like they belong. Without that sense of belonging, students are much less likely to stay enrolled or be engaged academically and socially. Libraries sit at this intersection of curriculum and community and are uniquely positioned to welcome all students. They can be go-to places on campus and online to host events, from an author’s book talk to a career fair to a maker club meetup. Libraries can build relationships and offer programming in partnership with centers and offices that support different student identities, such as the First Generation Center, Multicultural Center, LGBTQIA+ Center, Student Parent Center, Student Veterans Center, and Transfer Student Center, if those exist on campus, or to build programming with student groups if not. For example, many libraries such as Rice University, University of North Texas, and the University of San Diego have resources and events specifically for first generation students. The University of Utah’s Library provides a variety of spaces and programs to support and engage student veterans. James Madison University created a card game to orient transfer students.

Bring together support services to meet students where they are. Colleges and universities offer so much to support their students, but advising, career development, success coaching, subject- and skills-based tutoring, writing support, presentation coaching, data analysis, and accessibility services too often go unused. The Center for First Generation Student Success found that first generation college students are about a third less likely to use advising services and about a quarter less likely to use academic support services compared to students whose parents attended college. Libraries can host workshops, office hours, and other programs. They can house satellite spaces for these partners, or even incorporate their full operation within the library. They can normalize getting help by blending study and support in shared or adjacent spaces; for example, Kenyon College’s library includes the career development office within it and the University of Virginia’s Clemons Library includes a student advising center.

infographic showing components of college experience
From Elliot Felix's How to Get the Most Out of College

Support projects with space, tools, information, and advice. Student work is shifting from papers and exams to projects with presentations, videos, performance, apps, and prototypes, through which students build skills, work in teams, and make an impact. Libraries should continue to ramp up their efforts to enable such projects—and to get the word out that services such as one button studios are available. Gallup research found that students who work on a semester-long project are almost twice as likely to be engaged at work after graduation. Students who work on service learning projects like creating a social media strategy for a local nonprofit get hired faster and paid more. Libraries can provide space, tools, information, and advice on these projects; for example, Barnard College’s library includes a maker space, data analysis center, motion capture lab, and multimedia lab with a green screen. Libraries can even include the office of civic engagement or service learning within the library.

Build critical skills for academic and career success: Working on projects, attending workshops, and class visits to the library are opportunities to build skills. The American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has long been tracking the skills employers want. Digital literacy is number 5 on its list. Data analysis and interpretation is even higher, and the number of job postings mentioning data analysis jumped 50 percent from 2017 to 2019. Libraries can lead the way in digital and data literacy with programming and partnerships—online, hybrid, and in-person. For example, Georgia Tech’s library provides a robust program of classes and events on topics like photography, data analysis, and video editing and the University of Miami’s Learning Commons offers workshops on academic skills like time management and notetaking, creative software, and data analysis.

Help undergraduate students conduct original research and work with faculty: Working on a research project is a long established high-impact practice and working with faculty is one of four pillars of student success past president Freeman Hrabowski established at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Libraries can help students learn about original research opportunities with faculty through communications and programming. They can develop students’ research skills like Virginia Tech does with its Advanced Research Skills Certificate program. They can provide space, tools, and data to work on projects. They can even provide grants like Kennesaw State’s Undergraduate Research Award. Libraries can then showcase student research projects to recognize and preserve the work and generate interest in future projects.

Rethink offerings and operations for affordability and accessibility: Colleges and universities are catching up to who today’s students are: about two-thirds work, nearly half are first generation college students, more than a third are 25 or older, and about one-third are at or below the poverty line. Institutions are working to dissolve the “hidden curriculum” of inaccessible jargon and tacit processes unknown to those unfamiliar with higher education. As they rename services like their bursar, libraries can rename reference to research—and do much more: Provide services when and how working adult learners can access them—and spaces that attract and accommodate student parents such as the on-site daycare at Oregon State University and family-friendly study spaces. Continue to champion open educational resources and provide food pantries. Lend technology like laptops and provide access to technologies like virtual reality (VR), high-performance computing, and media production equipment. Employ students in technical roles that provide income, build skills, and increase employability after graduation. Some libraries like North Carolina State University are even providing direct scholarships to student workers with financial need.

Libraries have long been campus leaders in adapting to changes like adopting a student-centered mindset, catalyzing active learning, and championing diversity, equity, and inclusion. Now, libraries have a unique opportunity to take their efforts at supporting student success to the next level. They can lead by example to enable students to get the most out of their college experience and provide an education with impact, one that’s worth everyone’s investment of time, money, and effort. Their places, programming, and partnerships can help students join their campus community, get help, develop skills, create projects, build networks, and explore careers. There’s no better place—on campus or online—for students to find their people, passion, program, and path.

Elliot Felix is the author of How to Get the Most Out of College (Alinea Learning, 2022) and an educational consultant who has worked with more than a hundred colleges and universities to assess and improve their student experience.

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