Retention

Essay on the significance of men's studies in promoting success of male students

Today’s college men, as a group, are not doing so well — in comparison with today’s college women and with college men of the past. Many men are simply not attending college at all; and of those who matriculate, they are not graduating in large numbers, again, as compared to women and to previous generations of men. Coming out of high school, they are not as well prepared for college. They are reading less than girls and less than boys of older generations. In fact, if college admissions were gender-blind, the vast majority of students at our most selective colleges would be women.

While at college, men are less engaged in their studies and in student life, and they receive lower grades and fewer honors. (Men in STEM courses, i.e., science, technology, engineering, and math, are the exception.) On campus, they exhibit higher rates of alcohol and substance abuse and commit more social conduct violations. College men use fewer student services and are more reluctant to seek help and attend support programs. In short, men are getting less out of their college experience, and they are not taking it upon themselves to do something about it. 

All that may strike us as odd, or it used to. Now it seems to be on everyone’s mind, especially parents of boys. Even a recent issue of Scouting magazine (May/June 2013) ran a cover story on how to  promote literacy among boys. Historically, though, we have tended to think of men in general as powerful and privileged, and it would be reasonable to expect college men to be higher-achieving. In a society that values education and where education is often the pathway to success for the middle class, it would make sense for men to be doing better, especially with the awareness that most of our older and more prestigious colleges — the very models of higher education — were established with men in mind.

What is stranger still is that, unlike the performance of other groups, we often struggle for an explanation of college men’s experience, their lack of success. Back in 2004, I expressed it this way in an article: “When the problem of the success of college women was first articulated, we quickly developed an explanation — sexism. And when the problem of the success of college persons of color was addressed, we readily found a similar explanation — racism. But when it comes getting at the underlying cause of the lack of success of college men, we seem to be at a loss.” When feminist, critical race, and other explanatory systems were developed, they relied, in part, on differences in power to explain the experience of women, persons of color, and other oppressed groups — in other words, the relatively powerless, and not the obviously powerful. That is where men’s studies can help: both in understanding why college men may be struggling and what we can do about it.

Men’s studies is an emerging field of knowledge concerned primarily with men’s experience, identity, and development throughout the life course. In so far as it focuses on what men are (social reality); what we think men are (stereotypes); and what we would like men to be (gender ideal); men’s studies could be described as the study of masculinities. Fundamentally, it studies men as men, and not as generic human beings. In his classic essay, “The Case for Men’s Studies,” Harry Brod said it best: Men’s studies is “the study of masculinity as a specific male experience, rather than a universal paradigm for human experience.”

Following from Brod, I wrote that a “men’s studies of college men would be a study of college as a specific male experience rather than a universal human experience.” In other words, instead of talking about students we should be talking about male students, female students, etc.

At bottom, what men’s studies teaches us, and where it can play a role in improving the lives of college men, is the fundamental insight that the totality of men’s experience cannot be explained by men’s power alone. True, objectively speaking, men as a group may still have power over women as a group; however, subjectively, individual men do not necessarily feel powerful, or behave as if they were in control.  That is because many men engage in harmful, self-destructive behaviors linked to messages about manhood, or feel they do not measure up to the gender ideal, or are burdened by harmful stereotypes of what it means to be a man.

They are also socialized not to express their feelings, report symptoms, reveal their vulnerability, or otherwise deal in healthy ways with their emotions. And when it comes to learning, they learn at an early age that “school is for girls.” Masculinity leaves men feeling shamed and disempowered, suffering the negative consequences of their own notions of manhood and their own aversion to female identified values and attributes.

Worse yet, after steering men in the wrong direction, masculinity — insidiously and tragically — interferes with help-seeking behavior. No wonder so many men struggle in college. On campus, college women more likely to be sober and involved and men are drinking more — and more often — and are more distracted. College women in distress are more likely to seek out counseling centers or are referred by a friend, while college men become silent or act out. Informed by men’s studies, we can better design programs and services for college men, with men in mind. Hobart College, a men’s college where I am a dean and faculty member, offers a program for first-year men, Men’s Lives, which includes four mandated workshops on sexual assault prevention, men’s health and wellness, career and family, and diversity from a men’s perspective. We believe it has made a difference in the retention and success of our college men.

In closing, nothing I have said here invalidates or is inconsistent with feminist or social justice perspectives. On the contrary, most men’s studies work is “pro-feminist,” geared toward men, but compatible with best practices for college women. Men’s studies does not bash college men or re-privilege them, but, in the words of Victor Seidler, simply asks college men to take responsibility for their actions and make the right choices for college success.  To modify a phrase coined by Adrienne Rich, the role of men’s studies is to exhort us to “take men students seriously.”   

 

Rocco L. Capraro is senior associate dean of Hobart College and assistant professor of history. This essay is adapted from one in What Works: A Book About Raising Boys, Engaging Guys, and Educating Men.

The book may be ordered, free, from Hampden-Syndey College.

 

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Essay on how to improve retention

In the hope of improving American higher education, President Obama set a goal in 2009 of improving college degree attainment rates from 40 percent to 60 percent by 2020. This represents a 50 percent increase in attainment rates. This does not seem to me to be an outlandish objective. Indeed, we accomplished just such a 50 percent improvement at my college over an eight-year period. It happened by accident, but we learned something from it about the kinds of things that might help one meet such a goal intentionally. Here is the story.

It happened “by accident” because we did not set out to reduce attrition or increase graduation rates. Instead, we fixed things at the college that were not working well or were broken. It was an ad hoc process, with no particular order. Indeed, progress was often slowed for want of adequate funding. But with a few years’ attention to improving conditions for living and learning, we suddenly discovered we had another problem to address: We had a larger student body than we had intended because fewer students were leaving. As problems go, this was a nice one to have.

Let me give examples of the kinds of changes that produced this happy result.

  • We repaired physical facilities that had fallen into disrepair through petty acts of vandalism. And we found ways to increase student self-policing, which led to greater student pride in their campus facilities.
  • Since freshmen, as a general rule, were responsible for the largest portion of misbehavior on campus, we increased upper-class presence in freshman dorms, doubled the number of adult senior residents, and built new dormitories to bring back to campus a larger percentage of upperclassmen.
  • There were parts of the academic program where our students needed more help than they could get in class. So we established a formal group of paid student mentors to help individuals with their classroom studies.
  • Medical problems were the single greatest cause of students' leaving during the academic year. So we improved the quality and number of our medical, nursing and counseling staff.
  • We added a substantial competitive paid internship program that allowed students to build their own internships over the summer. This helped to greatly decrease the anxiety among upperclassmen about their future job prospects.
  • For students who felt the need to leave for financial reasons, we established a crisis fund, from which they could seek up to $3,000 to tide them over through an emergency.

These examples may sound familiar to experienced campus program administrators. But my point is that every college is going to have a different problem to solve at a different time. Each campus community has a better sense of itself and its needs than someone from outside. The only way we can improve student retention substantially is to support a wide range of self-identified improvement efforts at each college and university.

Every change identified above had a cost attached to it, sometimes quite significant. We did not spend our scarce resources on measuring the retention effects of each program. Instead we continued to invest in programs and improvements that our students and faculty told us would be helpful and good in themselves. Higher retention rates seem to have been an inevitable byproduct.

What we could have used was a start-up grant to help us test ideas before building them into our operating budget. Fortunately, funds were available to us from private sources. But imagine the impact that a grant program could have on such efforts — a program designed not to provide solutions from above but to support individual campus efforts toward meeting President Obama’s 2020 college completion goal.

Here is an idea for such a program that would be simple to administrate and extremely helpful, especially to the smaller institutions across the country that are the front-line providers of educational opportunities to first-generation college students and the seriously disadvantaged. The Department of Education could make a block grant to one of our national college presidential associations, or to the various state associations.

I imagine some of these associations would be eager to help ease the burden on both the department and the colleges in administering such start-up or incentive-based programs for their members, allowing member institutions to apply for such grants as would help achieve the purposes I have described.

I think it is bad public policy to have institutions breaking their backs to chase government money. Instead, government money should be following the need and investing in the efforts that local administrators and teachers believe will help keep their students in school, or better yet, investing in the programs that are already working to achieve the president’s objectives.

Christopher B. Nelson is president of St. John's College, in Annapolis.

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Study: Text messages about renewing aid boost 2-year college persistence

Text messages encouraging first-year community college students to fill out federal student aid form boost persistence to sophomore year, study finds.

New study links student motivations for going to college to their success

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New study suggests that the reasons students seek a higher education can have a big impact on their grades and likelihood of staying enrolled.

Essay on the use of research to improve student retention

One of the most serious problems facing colleges and universities today is that so many students leave before finishing their studies. When students drop out, it is bad for them because they lose huge future career and income potential; bad for the institution they leave because of lost reputation, revenue, and opportunity to make a difference in the students’ lives; and bad for society because of the need for an educated work force that is able to compete in the global marketplace.

Although there are many reasons students drop out, 12 research-validated risk factors, often in various combinations, help account for why most students drop out. These risk factors apply at a wide variety of institutions of higher education. Here are the risk factors and the means to mitigate them.

1. Uneven formal academic knowledge and skills. The most obvious and frequently addressed issue behind dropout is academic background. At many institutions, large numbers of students enter with spotty academic backgrounds, especially in science and mathematics (STEM) disciplines and in writing. Institutions of higher learning need counselors and tutors who seek to remediate deficiencies but also to enrich areas of strength. To pinpoint deficiencies and ensure proper placement, institutions need to move toward tests measuring specific skills and content knowledge and away from reliance on general aptitude tests, which are not very helpful in identifying specific strengths and deficiencies in knowledge and skills. Tests of general academic aptitudes only account, at most, for 25 percent of the variation in academic success in college. It therefore is a mistake to rely on them heavily for placement (or even admissions) decisions in college. In studies my collaborators and I did while I was at Yale University and then at Tufts University, studying diverse students around the country, we found that tests of broader aptitudes (creative and practical as well as analytical) could as much as double prediction of first-year college success.

Neal Schmitt and his colleagues at Michigan State University have found that biographical data significantly enhance prediction of college success. If colleges rely too heavily on general academic aptitude scores in making placement decisions, they risk creating self-fulfilling prophecies dooming students to lesser success.

2. Lack of informal knowledge about being a college student. In any new environment, whether an academic environment or a work environment, one needs to acquire "tacit" knowledge — the informal and often unspoken keys for achieving success in that environment. For example, toward or away from which courses and advisers should one gravitate? Which kinds of student activities become unrewarding time sinks that prevent one from spending adequate time studying? How does one decide upon people with whom to hang out? How do you study for a multiple-choice versus an essay test? In research on college students, Wendy Williams and I found that acquiring informal knowledge -- "learning the ropes" -- is at least as important as learning specific formal content knowledge for success in college. Rick Wagner and I found that those with high academic abilities are not necessarily the ones with high levels of informal knowledge, and vice versa. (Put another way, academic skills are no guarantee of common sense.) Unfortunately, in many cases, the informal knowledge with which one enters college from high school actually transfers negatively to the college environment: For example, a student may believe that the meager amount of studying he did in high school will be adequate in college, when in fact it is not.

3.  Inadequate development of self-regulation skills. In high school, one often has a support network to help regulate one’s time and energy. Most important for many students is close supervision by parents or concerned individuals at one’s high school. In college, students often find themselves largely “on their own” for the first time in their lives. Some are able to channel their newly found freedom effectively, but others are not. They may spend too much time on extracurricular activities and too little time on studying, or they simply may channel their study time in ways that are less than effective. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester have found that those who lack an autonomous style of self-regulation — who have trouble managing themselves independently — are at risk for lack of success in a number of different kinds of environments. Moreover, Teresa Amabile of Harvard has found that students and others who have been pushed very hard by their parents, teachers, or employers, and who have become used to extrinsic rewards for success, may have trouble motivating themselves intrinsically when immediate extrinsic rewards (parental approval, reward money, extra praise) are no longer readily available. A sufficient intervention should include a detailed analysis of how students spend (and do not spend) their time in order to determine whether their self-regulation is adequate to their needs as a college student. As an example, a tendency toward procrastination can lead students to underperform simply because they did not allow themselves enough time adequately to perform the assignments at hand.

4. Impaired self-efficacy and resilience. Some students come to college uncertain as to whether they have the ability to succeed in their college work. Other students come expecting to succeed, and then receive one or more low marks on college assignments or tests that lead them to question whether they are able to compete, after all. As their self-efficacy fails, their drive to succeed in college goes with it. Studies by Albert Bandura and his colleagues of Stanford University have found that self-efficacy is one of the best positive predictors of success in any working environment. Counselors thus need to ensure not only that students have the knowledge and skills to succeed, but also a mindset whereby they believe in their own potential to succeed. The students need further to understand that many of their peers who have an initial failure end up successful in their fields.

In my own case, I ignominiously failed my first psychology test freshman year (with a score of 3 out of 10 points); nevertheless, 35 years later I served as president of the American Psychological Association. The resilience to get beyond disappointing setbacks is key not only in college but also in work and in life, in general. In my long career as a psychology professor, dean, and provost, I have noticed that many of my graduate-school classmates and later colleagues who never achieved the success for which they hoped lacked not ability to achieve, but rather the resilience to believe in their ability to succeed in the face of disappointing setbacks.

5. A mindset believing in fixed rather than flexible abilities. Carol Dweck of Stanford University has found that students (and others) typically have one of two mindsets — or folk conceptions —  regarding their abilities. What she calls "entity theorists" believe that abilities are largely fixed; on this view, when a student makes a mistake, the student shows a lack of abilities that is potentially very embarrassing. What Dweck calls "incremental theorists," in contrast, believe that abilities are modifiable and flexible and that making mistakes is useful because it helps one to learn and, in general, to grow. Dweck has found that although both kinds of students perform roughly equally well in easy or modestly difficult courses, incremental theorists excel in challenging courses because they are unafraid of extending their skills and making mistakes along the way. Students therefore need to understand that abilities are modifiable, that people learn through their mistakes, and that difficult but manageable challenges are good because they enable one to move ahead in one’s learning.

6. Inability to delay gratification. In many college courses, students do not find out until the end whether they have achieved the level of success for which they hoped. They do not find out for four or even more years whether they will indeed get the diploma they hope for. Often, success in a particular course or in college generally seems far off, whereas there are many gratifications to be had instantly, especially in the social domain.

Some students just cannot wait that long. Walter Mischel of Columbia University, when he was at Stanford, performed experiments with young children on their ability to delay gratification — to wait for a larger reward instead of receiving an immediate smaller reward. He found that those individuals who were able to delay gratification performed better academically, many years later when they were of college age, than did children who were unable to delay gratification. In other words, parents and teachers need to work with students to help them realize that many of the best rewards in life are not immediate.

7. Impaired ethical judgment. Many students today do not have the ethical judgment that we who teach in institutions of higher learning would have hoped we would have been able to take for granted. In my own work on ethical reasoning,  I have found that many of today’s students do not even view as ethical issues such behaviors as cheating on tests or plagiarizing in papers. For many students, it just has become too easy to take the low road, and given the temptation, they do so. They get caught, with disastrous results for their success and sometimes longevity in college. It therefore is essential that students learn, as soon as they arrive in college, the ethical expectations of the institution. It should not be assumed that they have been taught, or at least, have learned these expectations.

8. Disengagement from the university environment. For many students, a precursor to dropping out is a progressive disengagement from, or failure ever to become engaged in, the university environment. The students simply never connect with, or become disconnected from, the environment, and hence become more and more psychologically distant and even alienated from it. Disengagement, or a failure to engage in the first place, may results from what French sociologist Emile Durkheim and later Harvard sociologist David Reisman referred to as anomie, or a breakdown in the social bonds between the individual and the community. Anomie can be a particular challenge for students whose sociocultural background is distant from that of many others in the college or university. When anomie develops, students may become more and more withdrawn until they literally withdraw from the college or university. Students should be strongly urged to actively engage in at least one extracurricular activity in order to enhance engagement with the university at large. Advisers also need to try to make sure that students stay “connected” and do not start to withdraw from the life of the university.

9. Lack of interest in courses. Often, students enter college and are eager to get on with their required courses. They may load up on distribution requirements or other courses that they need to get out of their way. But Richard Light of Harvard University has found that one of the best predictors of academic adjustment is taking, during the freshman year, at least one course solely because it is interesting, regardless of whether it is required. Students who load up too much on courses that are required but that do not interest them are at greater risk of dropping out simply because they are bored and find no relief.

10. Issues in academic trajectory. Issues in academic trajectory include either uncertain trajectory or a trajectory that is ill-matched to one’s interests or skills. The late Paul Pintrich of the University of Michigan pointed out how important conscious, well-chosen goals are to motivating students to succeed. Students are likely to perform at a higher level when they feel they have some kind of academic "destination" in mind — or at least when they feel that what they are doing will lead to such a trajectory. In some cases, students simply made a poor choice, perhaps because their interests do not match their skills, or perhaps because parents or other authority figures have pushed them into a direction that does not well fit them.

11. Psychological issues. Psychological issues include a diverse range of challenges, such as substance-abuse problems, interpersonal problems with important others, and untreated or nonaccommodated psychological problems, such as learning disabilities, attentional/hyperactivity disorders, autism-spectrum disorders, and so forth. Students entering with such problems should immediately be referred to appropriate counselors and programs. Appropriate programs work. Waiting can be fatal. Such problems are always best handled, obviously, by individuals trained in the diagnosis and treatment of the problems at hand.

12. Financial concerns. I have saved for last the most challenging of the problems we all face when students are at risk for nonretention, namely, financial concerns or anxieties about financial concerns. In the end, some students drop out just because they cannot make college work for themselves financially. The financial needs of students make it imperative that colleges and universities calculate aid needs correctly. Although we know that student debt is a major problem in our society, students who graduate from college will earn, on average, 84 percent more than students who do not, so sometimes avoiding debt is penny-wise but pound-foolish.

At Oklahoma State University, we have attempted systematically to address the problem of dropping out, especially after the first year of college, and to devise solutions that would keep students on track to earn their degrees. We have created a new center — the Learning and Student Success Opportunity (LASSO) Center — which targets students who are at risk for dropping out. All students are eligible for LASSO services, although our particular focus is on students in the first year, where the risk of nonretention is greatest.

Students are identified for LASSO services in one of several ways: (a) self-referral; (b) referral by a professor (easily done through electronic means); or (c) automatic referral either through low G.P.A., uncertainty about career trajectory, or an at-risk admissions profile. We also have other resources, such as a Mathematics Learning Success Center, a Writing Center, and college-based student-success centers, which seek to help students reach their maximum potential. Research-based efforts such as ours can help large numbers of students stay in college who might otherwise drop out.

For the most part, colleges do and should try to retain students rather than usher them out. But there truly are some students who are better counseled out. It may be that college is not, in the end, a good match for them, or that their particular college does not offer them the academic or extracurricular programs they need in order to be a good fit. In my "theory of successful intelligence," I argue that people who are successfully intelligent in their lives often first try to adapt to the environments in which they find themselves; that failing, they may try to shape the environments better to meet their needs; but if that fails as well, they may find their best option is to select another environment that is a better fit to their interests, skills, values, or needs. In the end, whatever our goals as an institution of higher learning, we ought always to be serving the students who entrust their academic careers to us.

Robert J. Sternberg is provost, senior vice president, Regents Professor of Psychology and Education, and George Kaiser Family Foundation Chair in Ethical Leadership at Oklahoma State University. He is president of the Federation of Associations in the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, and past president of the American Psychological Association. However, the views expressed in this essay are solely his own.

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Ohio State sophomores to live on campus in ambitious retention and engagement initiative

In its new sophomore housing initiative, Ohio State University will draw from numerous strategies to improve retention and student success.

Pulse podcast explores uses of Starfish Retention Solutions

This month's edition of The Pulse podcast features a conversation with David Yaskin, CEO and founder of Starfish Retention Solutions.

Who Needs to Know?

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Dump the Slump

With its new convocation for second-year students, Duke is among a growing number of universities fighting a sophomore-year letdown.

Low-Hanging Fruit

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