When Elizabeth Davis became President of Furman University in 2014, she looked to promote what was most distinctive about the small liberal arts school in Greenville, South Carolina. Furman had its share of awards and recognitions but Davis was seeking to capture what her listening tour had convinced her was a very different college experience for students, faculty and staff.  

Engaged, student-centered learning was part of Furman’s culture as far back as the early 1930’s.  Internships and study away had been available since the late 1960’s and undergraduate students had been offered research opportunities for decades. The faculty-as-mentor concept had been embraced at Furman long before it was linked to life-long wellbeing but no one was really talking about it. It occurred to Davis that combining all of these elements provided an advantage waiting to be named at a time when student emotional and behavioral health was becoming a national concern. 

“I had become really interested in the Gallup Purdue work that identified the big six experiences that you need to have in college in order to thrive in life and work and it was clear to me that many of our students were getting all six,” she said.  “We had faculty and staff who were interested in creating that kind of environment for our students and I thought this was really a differentiator.” 

The problem, according to Davis and her team, was bigger than finding the right slogan. In order to make Furman’s engaged learning culture an institutional asset, and a true promise to its students, they needed to increase the percentage of them who were experiencing these high impact practices. That meant informing more students about what was available and reducing the barriers to participation for students who, for whatever reason, were not taking part. 

In October, 2016, Furman launched a new strategic plan called The Furman Advantage (TFA).  Equal parts pedagogy and programming, TFA is a four-year individualized educational experience that progresses developmentally, is guided by specially trained advisors and exposes all students to engaged learning experiences like undergraduate research, study away, and internships. Underpinning all of it is a commitment to reflection -- urging students to consider questions such as “What am I good at?” “What do I most care about?” 

The journey begins with Pathways, a two-year, 4 credit class of 15 students, taught by a professor or trained staff member who becomes a student’s pre-major advisor. Its curriculum covers topics like study skills, time management, and academic integrity, while exploring concepts such as belonging, identity, and empathy. Once their major is declared in year two, students spend years three and four on engaged learning experiences, and career and post-graduate exploration and preparation.  

“All of the things that were part of the core from a liberal arts education are in there,” said Beth Pontari, Provost at Furman and one of the lead architects of TFA. “It was just sort of highlighting and amplifying the things we care deeply about and ensuring access for all students by providing a level playing field that is foundational.”

Nothing says “we care about you,” like a personalized, developmentally-appropriate pathway of curricular and co-curricular activities.

The Furman Advantage has its own significant advantage in that it was funded by an extraordinary gift from The Duke Endowment. Now celebrating its 100th anniversary, the Duke Endowment was established by industrialist James B. Duke to continuously fund, among other pursuits, four schools in North and South Carolina: Duke University, Davidson College, Furman University, and Johnson C. Smith University.  The unusual funding relationship allows the schools to experiment with concepts before they are proven.   

“We work really closely with the leaders of all four institutions to understand what their institutional priorities are and then determine how The Duke Endowment can best support them,”  said Kristi Walters, director of higher education at The Duke Endowment which funded the Furman Advantage in three large grants totaling around $75 million over several years.  “Our hope is that our support leads to high value education across all the schools.” 

At Furman, the Endowment’s backing fueled an institutional transformation that is difficult to achieve in higher education.  While The Furman Advantage is perceived as more of an iteration than a major change, making it the dominant nomenclature at the school took years of hard work that involved perennial challenges like getting faculty buy-in, aligning independent departments around common goals, and hoping the students would respond. 

Photos courtesy of Furman University

Building the Advantage

Nothing says “we care about you” like a personalized, developmentally-appropriate pathway of curricular and co-curricular activities curated with the help of an engaged advisor. But the team at Furman does not want TFA to be confused with coddling students. In fact, when Elizabeth Davis was looking at Furman with fresh eyes, a group of administrators, faculty, researchers and practitioners were already participating in a multi-institutional effort to address what they saw as a lack of resilience among students.  

Early strategic discussions involving all Duke Endowment-funded schools concluded that student mental health was among each of their highest concerns. They agreed the best cumulative response was to focus on preventative strategies rather than service delivery only.  Hearing this, the Endowment agreed to fund a $3.4 million, five-year project called The Student Resilience and Well-Being Project with a mission “to better understand the challenges students face in college and to identify individual, interpersonal and institutional factors that promote and detract from student well-being in the face of challenge and stress.”  The aim was not to make things easier for students but to help them cope with the stresses of college and to develop the skills that would help them flourish in school and beyond. 

The project was launched in 2014 and involved nearly 20 faculty and administrators across the institutions focused on tracking the undergraduate class of 2018 through their entire collegiate experience.  It collected data on more than 6,600 variables across 11 waves of data collection from more than 2,000 students.  Some say the study itself did not reach its full potential due to pandemic-related disruptions, but the individual schools have benefited from the findings in a number of ways. 

By all accounts, Furman took the Resiliency Project, and the data it provided, very seriously.  Pontari says while academic rigor is expected at Furman, they were surprised to see that the level of academic stress reported by students, and continuing throughout their four years, was higher at Furman than at the other schools. Advising was another red flag. Furman had faculty advising only and as committed as many were to the practice, quality advising was reported to be inconsistent, leaving outcomes up to what they called “the advising lottery.”  

“When you see the data, you know what you’re dealing with and these were things we were not going to ignore,” said Pontari, who, through The Duke Endowment, hired Gallup to provide a baseline of knowledge about students’ experiences at Furman. For Davis, the Resiliency Project provided more material for the strategic initiative. Not only did the project identify key challenges that would make their way into TFA, it strengthened another one of Furman’s little known and unusual assets – the collaboration between academic and student affairs. In the Resiliency Project, Psychology professors found themselves working alongside mental health practitioners. Student affairs professionals and academic deans got to know and respect one another through years of working groups. 

Photos courtesy of Furman University

Throughout the process, Pontari, who at the time was Associate Provost of Engaged Learning, worked hand in hand with Connie Carson, Furman’s Vice President of Student Affairs. Many, including Davis, consider their continued partnership to be one of the most important outcomes of the multi-year research project.

“The two domains of a student’s life - the in-class/out-of-class thing – they can either work well together or they can play against each other.”

“Beth and Connie developed a learning relationship that was so important to what we ended up doing,” she said. “The academic side got to learn what student life brings to the table.  It’s not all fun and games. It’s a real understanding of student development theory.” 

Carson sees the alignment as something that institutions can choose to value.   

“Higher education can be very competitive with lots of curiosity about who gets credit,” she said. “The two domains of a student’s life - the in-class/out-of-class thing – they can either work well together or they can play against each other.  Here, all we cared about was the impact on the student and so we said, ‘let’s make this an asset.’”

That asset is woven throughout The Furman Advantage, starting with Pathways, which involves both student affairs personnel and faculty as student advisors as well as teachers of a specially designed curriculum for first and second year students.  Based on a five year pilot that involved a student control group, Pathways is a best-practice boot camp of sorts where new students get exposed to college life, its stressors and opportunities, and build both academic and emotional skills. Students meet once a week for a 50 minute class led by their Pathways program advisor and a peer mentor who are trained to discuss issues like conflict resolution as easily as they are how to choose a major. Faculty and staff are compensated for their time, either through a stipend or by folding the course into their teaching load.  

 “The Furman Advantage concept was really thinking about – how do we engage in this developmental model and create it in a way where students will understand what they need to be doing and when in order to reach the goal of being prepared for work and life,” said Michelle Horhota, a psychologist and faculty member who is Furman’s first Associate Dean of Mentoring and Advising. “The Pathways program is the glue that holds it all together.”

Results from the Pathways pilot showed a 3% increase in first-year to sophomore retention, an 11% increase in first-year to sophomore retention in students of color; improvements in advising satisfaction among first-year students and increased utilization in services like career development and counseling. Surveys also showed a 9% increase in first-years’ sense of belonging; a 10% increase in feeling that they matter; and a 5% increase in first-years reporting they strongly agree that professors care about them as individuals. 

By design, Pathways exposes students to engaging learning experiences, but Pontari points out that “just because they know about them, doesn’t mean they will participate in them.” She says one of her most important roles at Furman has been to eliminate the barriers to participation, the most common of which are money and time. The school’s summer fellowship program began to include compensation for students who rely on summer income for undergraduate research and internships. It created a flexible study away program and on campus internships for athletes whose schedules did not allow for significant time away. 

Participation in Furman’s big three – study away, internships and undergraduate research — is now at around 95% which comes close to Davis’ original goal, though the cultural change is ongoing.  Not everyone on campus envisioned TFA as clearly as its leaders did and Davis says more work needs to be done to articulate the concept both internally and externally, particularly with faculty, many of whom voted against making Pathways a graduation requirement. 

Tim Fehler has been a history professor at Furman for nearly 30 years.  He said he “backed into” TFA by having been the Director of Undergraduate Research and Internships in the early 2000’s. He talks about his own “conversion” from the inside-the-classroom mindset to an understanding of how the intentionality of TFA might affect student development as well as the integrity of teaching at Furman. 

Fehler had been working with students on summer research projects for years, despite being in the humanities which didn’t naturally lend itself to the practice.   

“Doing research with me or in the chemistry department doesn’t mean you’re going to become a professor, in fact, most of our students will not,” he said. “But what they learn is just as valuable. Working in research helps you understand yourself and your abilities and your approach to problems. And it got me to see that students can do this kind of work and the effect it can have on them.”  

But despite leading these efforts and even joining The Furman Advantage committee, Fehler said even he had to be convinced about some of its components. 

“I understood research but when it came to internship applications, I was kind of like ‘who cares?’ – isn’t this just a job?” 

Fehler says it took reading the student’s reflections on their experiences with internships to understand that they were an opportunity to get students to think about who they are and who they will eventually become, not just another bullet point on a resume.  

Asked about faculty buy-in for TFA and the Pathways program in particular, Fehler said it was mixed with a fair amount of “eye rolling.” He says that while Furman was always a place that put teaching first, many saw Pathways as a separate duty that was placed on them and could distract them from what the university was really going to reward. For younger faculty, getting tenure is still the primary goal.  

“Some faculty still have that kind of expectation that this student-facing component is not quite what I went to graduate school for,” said Fehler.  “However, when faculty can witness the growth potential among students, we see how these activities can improve our work both in the classroom and professionally, plus the mentorship experiences can become deeper and richer.”

As Furman continues on its cultural journey, results from the Gallup study delivered good news. Furman alumni surpassed the national average in Gallup’s “Big Six” college experiences. The survey also found that Furman students are 3.4 times more likely to be engaged at work and 2.9 times more likely to be thriving in wellbeing.

Folks at Furman now call TFA an educational philosophy, as opposed to an initiative. “It’s just the way we do things now,” said Davis. Those in higher education who hope to follow Furman’s example might ask “Would Furman’s success with TFA be possible without its deep history of engaged learning? or the significant financial support of the Duke Endowment?”   

Davis says changing the philosophy around the co-dependence of activities inside and outside of the classroom remains the biggest lift even for a school that was ready for it.  In regards to funding, she acknowledges that it allowed them to accomplish a great deal quickly but encourages other schools to look at what Furman has already paid for. “We spent years having faculty and staff develop Pathways,” she said. “Now it exists.” 

Asked if she thinks The Furman Advantage is an even bigger advantage at a time when the value of higher education is in question, Davis is cautiously optimistic.  

“There is perceived value – rankings and acceptance rates and whatever you see on the web site – and then there is real value,” she said. “We can influence perceived value to some degree, but we really have to keep working on what the real value is – being able to sustain the promises we make to prospective students.”