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Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College

reviewed by Andrea Layton - July 06, 2021

coverTitle: Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College
Author(s): Peter Felten and Leo M. Lambert
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 1421439360, Pages: 208, Year: 2020
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Felten and Lambert are two pioneers in higher education. Their book, Relationship-rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College is a must-read for faculty, staff, students, and anyone interested in learning how institutions can create a culture of student-centered relationships to help maximize student learning and achievement. Most of us can recall that person in our lives who profoundly influenced us during college and life. Relationship-centered individuals are often the individuals who take the time to know who you are, your interest and passions, as well as your fears and challenges. However, too often, too many undergraduate students go through college without ever having that person who took the time to build a rich relationship with their students. This text shows the need for and importance of an institutional shift thats needed at colleges and universities. With the pressure for faculty members seeking tenure and to publish the next peer-reviewed article, building rich relationships with students is not seen as a priority.

In these challenging times, when student demographics are changing rapidly, this book is a resource that should be on every bookshelf in higher education institutions. Essential to the framing of the book is How can institutions be strategic about maximizing opportunities for their students to experience meaningful relationships with faculty, staff, and influential peers (p. 59). In each chapter, the reader will develop essential tools to create an institutional culture that prioritizes student relationship building.

If youre ready to be challenged and encouraged to place relationships with students at the center of your institutional practice, this book is a must-read. The text primarily focuses on the experience of building relationships with undergraduate students, but the knowledge in this text can be applied to any stage of a students educational journey. The research for this book begins with a qualitative study where Felten and Lambert conducted interviews with 385 students, faculty, and staff at 29 diverse higher education institutions across the United States (p. 2). The participants stories and honest reflection provide the reader a vivid picture of the realities behind the ivory tower of higher education.

Chapter 1, Visions of the Possible, features stories from interviews with faculty, staff, and students. Some of the stories emphasize how faculty members have gone above and beyond by using interpersonal skills to build relationships with students. In one instance, David Scobey, director of the independent project Bringing Theory to Practice, notes that students need relentless welcome (p. 14). Students should feel that faculty and staff genuinely care about students. A highlight of the vignettes was from a staff member who works at the University of Michigan. Ayeza Siddiqi, an international, first-year transfer student, explains how she didnt know how to navigate such a large, decentralized university (p. 32). However, Siddiqui was relentless in building community and providing mentorship to students who shared similar lived experiences. Siddique argues that by building networks of connection among student life and academic staff at the University of Michigan, the Mentoring Consortium supports undergraduates in developing their webs of relationships (p. 33).

Although it's difficult to choose a portion of the book that stood out, Chapter 3, Making Relationships a Cultural Priority, discusses how most institutions solely focus on students grades instead of also centering human connection. Faculty and staff must understand the importance of knowing a student beyond surface-level interaction. Felten and Lambert referenced several authors who suggest that institutions should value a culture where faculty and staff support students in answering the big questions that are considered spiritual questions (p. 63). These questions help guide the student to learn about who they are, who they want to become, and their aspirations for life after college.

The following three chapters, Creating Relationship-Rich Classrooms (Chapter 4), Rich Relationships Everywhere (Chapter 5), and Mentoring Conversations (Chapter 6), offer practical strategies that can be applied to begin the process of creating relationship-rich experiences for an undergraduate student. Four essential themes of rich relationships are discussed: 1. Student leadership is a force multiplier; 2. individual and small-scale initiatives; 3. Technology and data can facilitate relationship building; and 4. Broadening access to relationship-rich experiences means rethinking basic structures (p. 100).

The book concludes with Felten & Lambert reflecting on their undergraduate experience. Ironically, they do not mention their grades or extracurricular activities. What stood out most to them were the people who took time and energy to support them through their academic journey and life. A profound statement that summed up the premise of the book was that exemplary faculty members are those that challenge their students, providing critique, and affection (p. 147). The reflection questions will provide the reader with guiding questions to ask how institutions can create relationship rich experiences for undergraduate students. Educators at the elementary and secondary levels and beyond can use these questions to improve student outcomes. Relationships matter, and this book proves that building relationships is a skill that all educators should master.

Overall, the book is a great resource. Felten and Lambert impressively found a way to synthesize the experiences of faculty, staff, and students. The authors found ways to disclose some of the hidden curricula that exist in education institutions. By conducting interviews with 385 participants, the reader will likely find an experience in which they see themselves. The book provides tools and resources to show the reader that rich relationship building needs to happen with intentionality, commitment, genuine care, and accountability.


Felten, P. & Lambert, L. M. (2020). Relationship-rich education: How human connections drive success in college. JHU Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 06, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23770, Date Accessed: 3/6/2022 12:30:44 PM

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About the Author
  • Andrea Layton
    Pennsylvania State University
    E-mail Author
    ANDREA (ANDII) LAYTON is a second-year doctoral student in Education Policy at Pennsylvania State University (PSU). Her research interests include racial and educational inequality, anti-racism, anti-Black racism, and teacher preparation programs and curricula in higher education institutions. She is a graduate research assistant for Pennsylvania School Study Council and is a recipient of the Edna Bennett Pierce Anti-Racism grant. Andii has also worked as a 7th-grade humanities teacher, a high school college and career counselor, and has been invited to speak at several national conferences. Previously, she was the program manager at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, Center for Educational Outreach. She managed three of their signature college outreach programs for low-income, middle school students. She also presented her research about the relationship between culturally relevant pedagogy and social justice at the Curriculum and Pedagogy Groups Annual Conference in October. Additionally, Andii was recognized by the Critical Race Studies in Education Association for her paper "Led By The Spirit: Being A Black Woman at A Predominantly White Institution."
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