If I were (college) president…

Sara Goldrick-Rab
4 min readNov 28, 2022


One job I never plan to hold is that of college president.

It’s not that I don’t think the gig is important or that I dislike administrators. Like the saying goes, some of my best friends are presidents. I’m just not here for the bureaucracy and org politics. And frankly, I don’t think my skills are well matched to it.

That said, I’ve got a big heart for presidents and their teams, especially now. They are facing a very tough situation, one that some pundits want to fetishize into a crisis and call for massive changes to the entire industry. Their teams (staff, faculty, everyone) are burnt out and overwhelmed, and as enrollment continues to stagnate or otherwise fails to rebound the financial picture (and the workload) is precarious.

So in the spirit of the season, I’m offering a gift — aka unsolicited advice (hey, my Mom taught me well!) — to assist with planning for next semester. My gift is crafted from two decades of careful on-the-ground research with today’s students — those I lovingly call #RealCollege students, to counteract the harmful ruse that “only those colleges you ‘go away’ to are ‘real’ colleges.” It’s wrapped in the simplest material (a quick blog) and there’s no bow —I never see the points of them. You get what you get from this gift, and I hope it helps.

Plans for 2023 should stick this theme: Students are humans first.

Every single person you want to attend your college or complete their credential is first and foremost a human. Make sure everything you do going forward centers that humanity and you’ll see significant gains in enrollment and retention. Start here:

(1) Craft a Zoom video message welcoming students next semester, ensuring it is no more than 2 minutes long and that your face is clearly centered in the frame. No fancy tricks, just you and the camera. In that message, tell students why they matter to you and your college, what makes you hopeful about their futures, and then openly acknowledge that most people are dealing with a lot (financial, mental, time, etc) right now, that is ok, and you urge them to seek help. Name a few campus resources and provide a link to a comprehensive list and contact info for more assistance. Post that video in as many places as possible (including the campus LMS) and send it directly to students.

(2) Send every student a very short “welcome back” questionnaire on the first day of classes. Tell them you want to be sure they are treated like humans first on campus, and that you’re trying to understand their needs for support. The first question you should ask them is to identify areas in which they are struggling to afford college and want more support (food, housing, childcare, transportation, mental health, computing resources, books, etc). The second question you should ask them is to identify the support they are already receiving (financial grants, loans, emergency aid, bookstore vouchers, SNAP, etc). The third question you should ask them is what they want you to know about their life right now as it pertains to their education. Use the resulting information to: (a) flag students for additional outreach with information on whatever resources you have to offer (whether on campus or out in the community); (b) inform fundraising and strategic partnership development for emergency aid and other basic needs supports; (c ) educate faculty and staff about current students needs; and (d) help students understand that they are not alone. Be sure you write to students after the questionnaire is done and share the results with them, and tell them what actions you’re taking to support them as humans. Also, tell them how they can help!

(3) Advocate for your students’ human needs on and off campus. Write op-eds in the local paper, share numbers and stories when you meet with business and other community leaders, and ensure that your institution’s marketing centers students’ humanity. This will support recruitment efforts, and help you bring back students who left because they didn’t feel seen. It will also help connect your existing students to your institution, supporting retention.

These three simple actions will let students know that they matter as whole people, increasing the odds that they receive support, and improving the institution’s financial picture. There are many optional add-ons, including refining existing program operations to remove administrative burden, providing support and other PD to staff and faculty so that they too feel human on campus (remember: hurt people hurt people), and so on. If you need specific strategic info in those directions, I’m available to serve as your accomplice.

Most of all, please know that YOU matter. Higher education is a brutal place to work, and this is a brutal time in its history. Thank you for you.



Sara Goldrick-Rab

Author of Paying the Price, founder of the #RealCollege movement, the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, and Believe in Students