Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Psychology, Mentoring and Dollars: Innovations in Graduating More Students from College

Flickr/Cat Branchman (CC BY 2.0)

College students enter their institutions excited about learning and eager to succeed. Yet many don’t.

Hurdles like the cost of attendance certainly exist, but researchers are also now starting to examine the effects psychological barriers such as social group dynamics, self-confidence and feelings of isolation have on college students’ success.

During EWA’s National Conference in Boston last week, Mary C. Murphy, an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University and a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the behavioral sciences at Stanford University, described how addressing psychological roadblocks could lead to higher graduation rates — a technique that could potentially be applied to help tens of thousands of college students across hundreds of campuses.

“Worries about potential and belonging reduce people’s confidence in their ability, ultimately resulting in poor performance,” Murphy said. ”Socio-psychological factors are an under-recognized barrier that plays a larger role in college persistence and achievement.”

Certainly, colleges could add resources such as long-term mentoring or study programs to help students with these challenges. But Murphy said that instead of adding new initiatives, colleges might achieve substantial results by encouraging students to use the resources within themselves.

That’s the ultimate goal of The College Transition Collaborative at the Project for Education Research That Scales (PERTS) research center at Stanford University. The team of universities and colleges participating in this project is working to develop interventions that directly address these socio-psychological obstacles in an effort to increase persistence and retention.

One example of such challenges students can face would be a student entering a college only to discover there are fewer students who share her racial or ethnic background attending the institution than she initially thought. Or a student may experience exclusion when friends go to the cafeteria without him — accentuating feelings about his place on campus and possibly misreading the motives of other peers. Another hump could be how students interpret the opinion of a professor when they receive critical feedback in class. They may question their own academic worthiness to be in the class instead of realizing all students experience professorial scrutiny.

If students have doubts about their place in an online course, one of the interventions would be presenting them with evidence and information that most students from their college struggle with online courses and they are not alone in this feeling, Murphy said, adding that the students could then be shown how those other students overcame their struggles.

Murphy and other scholars are developing short interventions — 20 or 30 minutes in length — that ask students who are likely to feel isolated to write out their feelings or read the impressions of other students who faced similar circumstances. The intervention will vary in language based on the type of school and social group, but initial evidence suggests this act alone decreased the racial achievement gap at one college by 50 percent, Murphy said.

Despite the early success, Murphy said that the researchers are not looking to expand this type of intervention just yet. Instead, they’re continuing the experiment in 23 universities and colleges across the country in an effort to better prove that these types of psychological interventions can help students. Murphy said that for schools to scale up these ideas, it would be wise to have a social psychologist who understands the research to implement the strategies alongside administrators. The takeaway, though, is that these interventions can likely be applied in many settings.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is The Dell Scholars Scholarship, which helps low-income students succeed in college by giving them the extra funding needed to cover additional costs that can often become a barrier to succeeding academically such as child care services or textbooks.

The scholarship, which provides students with $20,000 over four years, a laptop and textbook support also provides assistance to address any emotional, lifestyle and financial challenges that might prevent students from completing college, said Lindsay Page, a professor of research methodology at the University of Pittsburgh.

Most of the Dell Scholars have proven that they can graduate from college with this additional assistance, Page said. So far, more than 1,300 Dell Scholars have graduated in an 11-year span since 2004.

“This program provides robust support to students over a long period of time. We’re thinking about programs that think comprehensively and are not just throwing support at students from different places,” Page said. Her research could have implications for other aid programs. States that provide need-based grants could pair recipients with mentoring support and technologies that help them wend their way through the bureaucracies of college. Page’s next set of research will look at how much those add-ons would cost.