College-bound high school seniors across New Jersey and the nation are deep into the application process at this time of year. They are assessing each university’s academic and research programs, campus life, location and cost. Each of those factors is important, but I want to shed light on an often overlooked but crucial aspect of the decision-making process – the significance of robust student support services.

Admission to a great college is only the first step; it is the student’s path to a timely graduation that sets the foundation for a successful future. In an era where college campuses showcase their picturesque landscapes in glossy brochures, it is easy to get lost in the aesthetics.

However, the true measure of a college’s greatness – beyond its academic and research opportunities – lies in the day-to-day advising, tutoring, language, job placement, mental health support and other programs that help students succeed. No matter the caliber of the academic environment and the academic record of their students, all colleges need to do the work that helps students reach their goals.

It is an important concept that we have embraced at Kean University, New Jersey’s urban research university. We take immense pride in our award-winning support services that have contributed to our recognition by U.S. News & World Report as one of the top in the nation for improving the social mobility of our students. Tutoring, writing support, veteran’s services and supplemental instruction are not just optional extras; they are integral components of the education we offer. And those kinds of programs should be top of mind for families considering any institution.

Keep this statistic in mind: More than 30 percent of undergraduates nationwide do not complete their degree programs, according to the Education Data Initiative. That is striking. But studies also show that students who use support services are more likely to succeed and persist on their path toward earning a degree. Kean’s experience with Supplemental Instruction proves the point.

The program, which places a student-tutor directly into some of our most difficult classes, had an immediate impact after being introduced in 2018. It increased the final grades of the students by 36 percent compared to their peers who did not benefit from the in-class support, and it boosted retention in the class.

One of the cornerstones of Kean’s approach, and that of many other minority-serving institutions, is our commitment to addressing the challenges faced by students of color and first-generation students through mentorships and networking. The college journey can be particularly daunting for these young people, who may require additional guidance in navigating registration, internships and other critical milestones on their academic and professional path. Kean also offers extra support for students with disabilities and those who had individual education plans, or IEPs, in high school, a group that often struggles in college.

Dr. Brian Bridges, New Jersey’s secretary of higher education, stresses that supporting students’ basic needs is vital, and we strongly agree. Our chief well-being officer leads a data-driven holistic approach to measuring and improving upon student wellness. Kean’s Cougar Connections Center of Social Work provides resources and advocacy. In its 2022 Annual Report, Penn State’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health notes, “When students improve during treatment at counseling centers, they are more likely to remain in school.” We take that seriously.

Our commitment to equity extends to 24/7 mental health support. Kean’s Uwill telehealth counseling service was used by more than 500 students in the fall semester alone. Every institution should offer these comprehensive services, but many do not, and it’s important for families to dig deeper and truly assess what is available to their students wherever their college search takes them.

Attending college is a significant investment in a student’s future. As students, with their parents and guardians, finalize their college choices, I strongly encourage them to ask any institution, how will you help me if and when I struggle? College is a transformative journey, and the right support services give every student a chance at a deeply enriching and rewarding experience that changes their lives forever.