College enrollment is down. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, undergraduate college student enrollment in Fall 2021 dropped 3.1% or by 465,300 students. Doug Shapiro, of the Clearinghouse, attributes the drop to a trend of more young people pursuing work instead of college. Students from low-income families, in particular, are choosing to work in order to support their extended families and because many companies have increased wages to $15/hour. The value of attending college is regularly called into question even by those who attended college, and even though research by Lumina Foundation shows that college graduates stand to make $500,000 more over the course of a lifetime than non-college graduates.
Author and strategist Elliot Felix believes that students would get more out of college and find it more valuable to their overall life and career if they were more involved in “creating” their college experience rather than merely navigating it.
Felix recently published a new book — How to Get the Most Out of College: 127 Ways to Make Connections, Make it Work For You, and Make a Difference (Alinea Learning) — which is focused on students creating a college experience that is right for them.
From Felix’s perspective, students often see college as something to “navigate or get through, like an obstacle course.” He wants to change this view so that students see college as “an experience they create so that they can take full advantage of what’s offered, particularly by connecting the academic, social, and career aspects of college, which are too often thought of as separate .” Once they use this approach, Felix believes students “can find their place, their people, their program, and their path.”
Felix has learned a lot over the last 20 years consulting with more than 100 colleges and universities and wants to want to share those lessons about how college works with students and families so that they can make it work for them. Specifically, he has learned that “access to information, support, and opportunity is not equitable within higher education.” To counter these inequities, Felix wants to help students in a way that levels the playing feel so that students with fewer resources and relationships can get the most out of college.”
Although there are quite a few books and other resources available for prospective students (and their parents), according to Felix, “they tend to be either light-hearted and social (ie, how to get along with your roommate) or very serious ( ie, how to write a term paper.)” In addition to this social/serious divide, they are also often divided between the college search, the college experience, or the career path. Felix’s book bridges these divides by connecting the academic, social, and career aspects of college. He also uses an accessible tone and format with concise tips that students and families can read cover-to-cover or skim and skip around.
Felix shared that there are plenty of “beat the system” books available to students — those in the vein of the Tim Ferriss 4-hour work week, which are about finishing college with the least effort possible. According to Felix, his is not one of these books. He uses a very different approach as he is “a firm believer that you that you get out what you put in and that there are no real shortcuts.” He added, “I want students’ hard work and their struggles to overcome challenges to mean something and get them somewhere. This is advice and information to help them do that, not to cheat the system and themselves.”
Felix believes that if you see college as something to navigate, you take a more passive role — “as if your education is something done to you or given to you.” Designing your college experience means you are taking charge of it, taking responsibility for it, and taking ownership of it. As Felix explains, “Designing means putting people at the center, trying things out, and learning along the way. This makes it more personal, meaningful, and effective. It’s a more helpful mindset.” He believes that education is not too far from healthcare in that both are “big systems that you can easily get lost in if you don’t have the right information or advocate.”
Unlike many mainstream books on the same topic, Felix thinks it is essential that colleges and universities understand and speak to the diversity of students on their campuses. How to Get the Most Out of College is structured so that one section covers the different faces of college life that apply to all students: thriving in classes, feeling supported, building relationships, mastering technology, enjoying the campus, and exploring career paths. Then, another section covers specific student identities based on his interviews with students and experts in these areas: first generation students, students of color, students with disabilities, students with children, international students, transfer students, veteran students, and student athletes. Felix organized the book this way so that it specific advice but also so students can learn a little about students who may be different from them in some way and also see how advice for these students could even help their own lives.
In terms of what might be different advice for students of color, one of the key themes in the book is feeling a sense of belonging. To Felix, “Sociologist Robert Putnam’s work on bridging (connecting with people different than you) versus bonding (connecting with people similar to you) according to has been influential for me for a long time and we know from longitudinal data in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) that spending time with people who are different than you is a key to success in college.” He includes tips in the book about getting involved, understanding that belonging takes time and is hard for everyone, assessing your intercultural competence, communicating across difference, and spending time with those who might be from a different race, ethnicity, religion, or background than you. Felix also interviewed students and experts who study belonging in order to provide comprehensive advice to students. As he explains, “researchers Terrell Strayhorn (Virginia Union University) and Andrés Castro Samayoa (Boston College) helped me understand that finding a sense of belonging and balancing of bridging and bonding is more complex and more risky for students of color.” Felix includes tips in the book about taking advantage of cultural/multicultural centers on campus, finding people, places and programs where you see yourself, managing code switching, and getting help dealing with the stress of systemic racism. In the words of Samayoa, “Finding communities where you don’t have to account for or justify yourself is critical in school and in general. These ground and nourish you and prepare you for the situations where you may not feel as welcome, lowering the threshold of how much mental energy you have to spend to protect yourself.”
Unlike many authors of books related to getting the most out of the college experience, Felix has a background in design. He believes that this background helps him center students in the book. Three tenets of design shape his work — understanding people, trying things out, and making connections and thinking holistically. According to Felix, “The most important thing designers can do is understand who they are designing for, whether it’s a product, a service, a space, or a system.” His book starts off helping students understand themselves so they know who they are designing the college experience for.