Ask college graduates what they value most about their college experience and more often than not the answers will have something to do with inspirational professors.
In fact, I have spent much of my long career in higher education asking this same question of college students and graduates. The question inevitably leads to delightful, fascinating conversations about student interactions with captivating, dedicated and selfless professors.
Clearly quality higher education depends on the people who teach, mentor and guide students. The value of a college education is directly linked to teaching that heightens the trajectory of student achievement and increases the capacity for lifelong success.
Throughout the years, however, it also has become clear to me that, as valued as professors are to students after they enter college, prospective students and their parents rarely inquire about the quality of teaching during the college search process. That is particularly true today, as students and their families consider the cost of higher education more than measures of its quality.
A focus on cost is understandable. But a focus on cost without a consideration of the return on an investment in a quality education is regrettable—and ultimately expensive.
Without a doubt the single most important contributor to a quality education, one that leads to higher paying jobs and expanded opportunities for graduates, is teaching excellence. There are few places where this is more evident than at Emory & Henry College, which has one of the most celebrated faculties in the nation.
Take Dr. Jim Duchamp, who was honored with the 2009 Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award by the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia. Duchamp, a chemistry professor, is famous for his availability to students. Day or night, he can be found in his office, the lab or the library working with students as they struggle through problems outside the classroom or as they work with him on research.
There’s also Dr. Scott Boltwood, who was named the 2013 Virginia Professor of the Year by The Carnegie Foundation and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. A Fulbright Scholar, Boltwood brings a passion and ingenuity to his teaching of English that has inspired numerous students toward success, not just in the field of English, but in a wide variety of careers.
And consider Dr. Alma Ramirez, the sole recipient of the 2014 Rising Star Award, given by the Virginia Foundation of Independent Colleges. For this Spanish professor, learning a second language is not just about helping to break down cultural barriers; it is about having the skills to succeed in an increasingly diverse, multi-lingual world. The immense results she has achieved for her students prove the effectiveness of her approach.
All of these professors were honored because their teaching, their service and the integration of their research into their classrooms has led to extraordinary student success. They did more than effectively convey knowledge to their students; they changed the trajectory of their students’ futures, adding tremendous value to the investment made in their education.
Too often a college education is seen as little more than a process toward a degree and, eventually, a career. Any consideration of what value quality teaching adds to that degree and the ultimate success of the graduate is frequently forgotten in calculations of cost or considerations of less important factors, such as housing, social opportunities or extra-curricular experiences.
But make no mistake, teaching is, in higher education, where a student’s present meets his or her future. The most successful college graduates know this, and they draw from a large store of memories of amazing professors to emphasize their point.