Application season will soon be upon us, and graduating high school seniors across the country will be in the thick of deciding where to apply to college. Unfortunately, after they are accepted and enrolled, many won’t go on to earn a degree -- especially if they are black or Latino. According to the Digest of Educational Statistics, only about 41 percent of black and 52 percent of Latino students obtain their bachelor’s degree within six years of enrolling, compared to 61 percent of white and 69 percent of Asian students.
I have spent the past three years tracking more than 500 black and Latino students across their first three years of college to better understand the factors that could increase their likelihood of degree attainment. Over the course of this work, one question kept coming to mind: How did so many of them arrive on a campus having thought so little about why go to college -- and why that college in particular?
The answer came from understanding how their high schools failed them in the college application process. Most received what I now call mechanical advising: maximum logistical assistance but minimal decision-making support.
For example: Claudia is both a first-generation American, born to parents who immigrated as teenagers, and a first-generation college student. She relied on her high school for everything concerning applying to college. Although she was an excellent student, graduating fourth in her class of more than 800 students, it was not until senior year that she received guidance on applying to college. Even then, most of that guidance came in the form of schoolwide announcements and application support for the entire class.
Claudia credits her senior year AP English Literature teacher with getting her into college: “If it wasn’t for [her] I probably wouldn’t even have applied or known how to apply. She was a big role in how I did everything, because one of the assignments was actually to apply to colleges. Every step of the way was an assignment, so I did it all.”
Mechanical advising is designed to make sure increasing numbers of high school graduates enroll somewhere, anywhere. Claudia recalls: “They said, ‘Go to college.’ They always announced on the megaphone for morning announcements. They would tell you deadlines, ‘apply, apply, apply.’”
The Pew Research Center reported that, from 1996 to 2012, college enrollment increased by 240 percent among Latinos and 72 percent among blacks, compared to 12 percent for whites. While efforts to increase college enrollment are apparently succeeding, is this system helping if we are simply increasing the numbers of blacks and Latinos who won’t get a degree?
Because college has large financial and personal costs, the past few decades of broadening access without increasing graduation rates has created a college-going context that could be particularly detrimental for students from economically disadvantaged families. Expansions in college access have coincided with rising college costs and a shifting of student aid funding away from grants that don’t have to be repaid to loans that can’t even be discharged in a bankruptcy. Essentially, students who do not obtain a degree still walk away with the burden of college debt. The most recent numbers from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education found undergraduate borrowers who dropped out over a decade ago had incurred a median debt of $7,000 in loans before leaving college. Given the steep increase in college costs, it is likely that today’s student borrowers who drop out are leaving with significantly more debt.
Expanding access to student debt without also increasing the likelihood that students will graduate means not only is college more of a financial risk, but increasing numbers of low-income students are exposed to that risk. Because of the strong correlation between race and ethnicity and income, the likelihood of dropping out is not spread evenly across all racial and ethnic groups, as the percentages of students earning a bachelor’s degree show.
For black and Latino students in particular, there is one important thing to add to the list of factors to consider in the college decision: How many students of their racial or ethnic group has their potential college graduated in the recent past?
Using overall graduation rates can be misleading. For example, based on the six-year graduation rate of five cohorts of freshmen who enrolled from 2004 to 2008, the University of Minnesota Twin Cities had an overall graduation rate of 73 percent. But that dropped to 65 percent for Latino students and an even lower 52 percent for black students. Concordia University Wisconsin had an overall graduation rate of 59 percent that dropped to 31 percent for Latino students and, again, an even lower 20 percent for black students.
The pendulum has swung too far. The current narrative that pushes all students toward a bachelor’s degree has resulted in mechanical advising that is not in the best interests of many students. The alternative advising model asks counselors to be both encouraging and discouraging -- encourage all students to develop postsecondary education plans and discourage aspects of plans that are implausible and imprudent. That means going beyond merely providing application support and engaging in discussions about the costs and benefits of college, and how various certifications and degrees fit into a spectrum of occupational trajectories.
More immediately, students and their families can be armed with vital pieces of information that will enable them to make better decisions about which college or university they should choose to take on the student debt they are about to accrue. Comparing institutions based on their graduation rates is rarely on the list of things that students do when deciding where to apply and which admission offer to accept. But as students and parents are armed with more information, it increasingly will be.
For their part, universities would do well to embrace the understanding that retention is as or even more important than recruitment. A high retention rate is itself a competitive recruitment tool, and an increasingly important success metric that determines government funding. For administrators eyeing the bottom line, it is more cost-effective to retain those already enrolled than invest in the replacement of those who have dropped out. One examination of the fiscal benefits of student retention found that retention initiatives are estimated to be three to five times more cost-effective than recruitment initiatives. One example found that at the University of St. Louis, each 1 percent increase in the first-year retention rate generated approximately $500,000 in revenue by the time those students graduated.
Graduation rates aren’t the only aspect of college that matters, but it is one tangible number that prospective students can use to guide their decisions. Admitted freshmen should enroll at the college with the highest graduation rate for their racial or ethnic groups. And if all of the institutions to which they have been admitted have low graduation rates for their racial or ethnic groups, we should expect them to think twice about the amount of debt they will need to incur.
As the costs and benefits of getting a college degree continue to rise, so do the stakes associated with making the decision to enroll in college and the decision about which college to attend. These two decisions are intimately intertwined -- students can no longer be encouraged to enroll at any college and at any cost just for the sake of being counted among the college-going population. And colleges, for the long term, can little afford not to help them succeed -- and graduate -- once they get there.
Micere Keels is an associate professor in the department of comparative human development at the University of Chicago. She is a faculty affiliate of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, and member of the Committee on Education.
While political support in Washington builds slowly for a federal student record database, Indiana and the University of Texas System get creative with their own data on how students fare after college.
Marymount California University has rolled out an automobile incentive in a drive to entice students to graduate in four years.
The private Catholic university in Southern California has a new program starting this fall for freshmen that dangles the keys to Mini Coopers. Freshmen can purchase a car from an area dealer at a discounted price under a new program called My Marymount Mini. The students will be responsible for making four years of car payments. But if they graduate in four years, the university will make their fifth and final year of payments, worth up to $5,000.
“Our students will commute to and from our campuses, drive to their internships, and explore the abundance of beauty, culture and fun that Southern California has to offer,” said Marymount President Lucas Lamadrid, who is credited with the program idea, in a statement. “And our graduates who participate in the My Marymount Mini will have a reliable and cool car that’s fully paid for to drive to their first job after college.”
The dealership involved wants 100 freshmen to sign up this year. Marymount California University enrolls approximately 1,100 students. It lists tuition of $34,134 for full-time students this academic year.
For years, our prevailing view of student retention has been shaped by theories that view student retention through the lens of institutional action and ask what institutions can do to retain their students. Students, however, do not seek to be retained. They seek to persist. The two perspectives, although necessarily related, are not the same. Their interests are different.
While the institution’s interest is to increase the proportion of their students who graduate from the institution, the student’s interest is to complete a degree often without regard to the college or university in which it is earned. When viewed from the students’ perspective, persistence is but one form of motivation. Students have to be persistent in their pursuit of their degrees and be willing to expend the effort to do so even when faced with challenges they sometimes encounter. Without motivation and the effort it engenders, persistence is unlikely -- institutional action aside.
To promote greater degree completion, institutions have to adopt the student perspective and ask not only how they should act to retain their students but also how they should act so that more of their students want to persist to completion. The two questions, while necessarily linked, do not lead to the same sort of conversations about institutional action. The latter, rarely asked, requires institutions to understand how student experiences shape their motivation to persist and, in turn, what they can do to enhance that motivation.
The answer to that question is far from simple. Many experiences shape student motivation to persist, not all of which are within the capacity of institutions to easily influence (e.g., events beyond the campus that pull students away from persistence). But of those that are, three stand out as being central to student motivation: students’ self-efficacy, sense of belonging and perceived value of the curriculum.
Self-efficacy refers to a person’s belief in their ability to succeed at a particular task or in a specific situation. It is one manifestation of how past experiences shape how individuals come to perceive themselves and their capacity to have some degree of control over their environment. Self-efficacy is learned, not inherited. It is malleable, not fixed. It is not generalizable in that it applies to all tasks and situations but can vary depending on the particular task or situation at hand. A person may feel capable of succeeding at one task but not another.
When it comes to students’ belief in their ability to succeed in college, a strong sense of self-efficacy promotes goal attainment, while a weak sense undermines it. Whereas people with high self-efficacy will engage more readily in a task, expend more effort on it and persist longer in its completion even when they encounter difficulties, persons with low self-efficacy will tend to become discouraged and withdraw when encountering difficulties. Although many students begin college confident in their ability to succeed, more than a few do not, in particular those whose past experiences lead them to question their ability to succeed in college as well as those who experience stereotype threats that label them as less likely to succeed.
But even those who enter college confident in their ability to succeed can encounter challenges that serve to weaken their sense of self-efficacy. That is particularly true during the crucial first year as students seek to adjust to the heightened demands of college. What matters for success in that year, however, is not so much that students enter college believing in their capacity to succeed, as it is that they come to believe they can as the result their early experiences.
Therefore while it is important that institutions challenge existing labels as marking some students as less likely to succeed than others, it is equally important that students are able to obtain the timely support they need to succeed when they encounter early difficulties in meeting the academic, and sometimes social, demands of college. To be effective, such support must occur before student struggles undermine their motivation to persist -- thus the need for institutions to employ early-warning systems that, when properly implemented, alert faculty and staff to struggling students and trigger support when needed. Midterm grades will not do.
Sense of Belonging
While believing one can succeed in college is essential for persistence to completion, it does not in itself ensure it. For that to occur, students have to come to see themselves as a member of a community of other students, faculty and staff who value their membership -- that they matter and belong. Thus the term “sense of belonging.” The result is often expressed as a commitment that serves to bind the individual to the group or community even when challenges arise. It is here that engagement with other people on the campus matters. But more important still are students’ perceptions of those engagements and the meaning they derive from them as to their belonging.
Although a sense of belonging can mirror students’ prior experiences, it is most directly shaped by the broader campus climate and their daily interactions with other students, faculty, staff and administrators on campus -- and the messages those interactions convey. Students who perceive themselves as belonging are more likely to persist because it leads not only to enhanced motivation but also a willingness to become involved with others in ways that further promote persistence. In contrast, a student’s sense of not belonging, of being out of place, leads to a withdrawal from contact with others that further undermine motivation to persist.
Here there is much colleges and universities can do. First, they must ensure that all students see the institution as welcoming and supportive -- that the culture is one of inclusion. They can do so by not only speaking to issues of exclusion but also by promoting those forms of activity that require shared academic and social experiences. In the academic realm, that can take the form of cohort programs and learning communities. Within classrooms, it can mean using pedagogies like cooperative and problem-based learning that require students to learn together as equal partners. In the social realm, institutions can take steps to provide for a diversity of social groups and organizations that allow all students to find at least one smaller community of students with whom they share a common bond. However they promote students’ sense of belonging, institutions should address it at the very outset of students’ journey -- indeed as early as orientation. As is the case for self-efficacy, developing a sense of belonging during the first year facilitates other forms of engagement that enhance student development, learning and completion.
Perceived Value of the Curriculum
Students’ perceptions of the value of their studies also influence their motivation to persist. Although what constitutes value is subject to much debate, the underlying issue is clear: students need to perceive the material to be learned is of sufficient quality and relevance to warrant their time and effort. Only then will they be motivated to engage that material in ways that promote learning and, in turn, persistence. Curriculum that is seen as irrelevant or of low quality will often yield the opposite result.
Addressing this issue is challenging if only because student perceptions of the curriculum vary not only among different students but also the differing subjects they are asked to learn. But there are steps institutions can and should take. First, institutions should see to it that students enroll in a field of study appropriate to their needs and interests, that they find the material within those courses sufficiently challenging to warrant their effort and, with academic support, reasonably within their reach to master. Second, they should ensure that the curriculum -- in particular, but not only, in the social sciences and humanities -- is inclusive of the experiences and histories of the students who are asked to study that curriculum. Third, institutions, specifically the faculty, should be explicit in demonstrating how the subjects that students are asked to learn can be applied to meaningful situations in ways that have relevance to issues that concern them. This is particularly important in first-year introductory courses as they serve as gateways to courses that follow. Too often, meaningful connections in those courses are left for students to discover.
One way of making those connections is to use pedagogies, such as problem and project-based learning, that require students to apply the material they are learning to resolve concrete problems or to complete a project that frames the class. Another is through contextualization, where students are asked to learn material within the context of another field, as is the case in developmental education, where basic skills are taught in the context of another area of study. In this and similar cases, students are more likely to want to learn basic skills because it helps them learn a subject in which they are interested. One promotes the learning of the other.
Colleges and universities can also achieve contextualization through the use of learning communities. When properly implemented, students co-register in two or three courses that are linked through an issue, problem or project that provides a unifying theme to the community. Such multiple course linkages can provide not only academic and social support but also promote a form of interdisciplinary learning that is not easily achieved in stand-alone courses. Lest one forget, the goal of persistence is not simply that students complete their degrees, but that they learn in powerful ways while doing so. Education is the goal of our efforts; persistence is only a vehicle for its occurrence.
All this is not to say that students will not persist if they have little sense of belonging or see little value in their studies. Some will if only because of external pressures to do so (e.g., family) or because of the perceived value of obtaining their degree from the institution (e.g., occupation, income and status outcomes). But doing so is a hollow achievement, for it fails to take advantage of the intrinsic benefits of a college education: belonging and learning. At the same time, as Sara Goldrick-Rab has made abundantly clear, many students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, who want to persist are unable to do so because they simply can’t afford the full cost of attendance. Many would succeed if only they could find a reasonable way of financing their education.
There is little doubt that many colleges and universities have improved rates of student completion. But they can and should do more. Institutions must expand their conversation about college completion beyond simply how they can retain their students to how they can act in ways that lead all students to want to stay and complete their degrees. Though it is undeniably the case that academic ability matters, student motivation is the key to student persistence and completion. But addressing student motivation requires institutions to do more than simply issue another survey questionnaire. Rather, it necessitates that they understand students’ perceptions of their experience and how events throughout the campus influence their perceptions and shape, in turn, their motivation to persist.
Colleges and universities need to listen to all their students, take seriously their voices and be sensitive to how perceptions of their experiences vary among students of different races, income levels and cultural backgrounds. Only then can they further improve persistence and completion while addressing the continuing inequality in student outcomes that threaten the very fabric of our society.
Vincent Tinto is Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at Syracuse University.
Around this time every year, as colleges and universities begin to spring back to life, I am reminded of my years working within central administration and the excitement in watching the sea of people full of promise come spilling back onto the campus. I remember the familiar faces of returning students, beaming with the fresh potential of a new year, who dropped by just to declare themselves back again or share goals for the year hatched over the summer.
But I also remember just as clearly the faces of the students who didn’t return. Those we lost somewhere along the way to graduation.
Many of those students still haunt me today. I remember one freshman I met when I was working as vice chancellor and chief of staff at UNC Greensboro. She came into my office at the end of the spring semester in tears. A straight-A student through high school, she arrived on our campus full of confidence. But that confidence was shattered when her professors told her that she was a terrible writer. She struggled through the year in silence, determined to improve. But she never got the help she needed. The tears rolled down that young woman’s face as she learned that she’d been placed on academic probation and would lose her scholarship. It was too late. We were too late.
There are thousands more stories like this young woman’s -- of students from low-income families who could have made it farther than their parents did but whom we somehow failed along the way.
We used to blame our students: their poverty, their underpreparation, the extra burdens they carry. It turns out, though, that it’s a lot about us. Yes, poverty and preparation matter. But the choices we make matter, too. Some institutions are simply doing a much better job of graduating their students than other institutions serving exactly the same kinds of students.
As we begin a new academic year, this can be a moment for improvement-minded institutional leaders to engage campus communities in honest, data-driven conversations about what we might do better. How can we more fully understand the journeys our students take on the way to the degree, noting where those journeys are speeded and guided, and where they derail? How can we renew our collective commitment to expand what's working and to confront -- and address -- what’s not?
To assist institutional leaders in their reflection and planning, The Education Trust has sought to identify and broadly share the high-impact practices of institutional leaders who have driven impressive improvement in completion rates, particularly for students who have gone historically underrepresented -- and underserved -- on our campuses: low-income and first-generation students and students of color. Most recently we’ve examined practices at Florida State University, San Diego State University, the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire and Georgia State University.
While each of these institutions is distinct in their mission, and each set of leaders distinct in their style, at the core of their improvement efforts are common practices and qualities -- many of them steeped in honest analysis of data. Those practices and qualities are:
Courage. When then San Diego State President Stephen Weber addressed his Faculty Senate, applauding the many ways in which the faculty had worked toward -- and attained -- excellence over the years, he went on to issue a challenge that would spark a decade-long improvement effort: “But a great university doesn’t lose almost two-thirds of its Latino freshmen along the road toward graduation.” Like Weber, all of the leaders at the campuses we’ve been learning from are clear-eyed, intentional and dogged in their approaches to institutional improvement. They roll up their sleeves alongside staff and faculty and ask hard questions of the data on student matriculation and success. They zero in on areas of strength and weakness to draw out promising practices and needed interventions.
Shared commitment. These leaders are keenly aware that, while they have a strong role to play in leading change, staff and faculty members operating closest to their students are the ones who enact that change. Using data, leaders at University of Wisconsin Eau Claire engaged departments as partners and problem solvers. Said one senior leader on campus, “We give them the data … we’re not telling them where the problem is; they identify the problem and we encourage them to solve the problem.”
In examining their data, they found that, while their six-year graduation rate was relatively high, the four-year graduation rate was extremely low at just 18 percent. To address that pattern, faculty and staff members identified course bottlenecks and acted to remove them.
At each of the institutions we’ve studied, leaders draw together partners at every level -- senior administrators, department heads, faculty members, student-affairs professionals -- to engage in data analysis and problem solving. And they arrive not with answers, but with questions, trusting that those assembled in the room have much to contribute to improvement efforts.
Timely data for targeted interventions. These leaders understand that their students struggle in real time -- and that those working closest to them need information to intervene in real time. Further, they know from disaggregating data that all students don’t struggle at the same time with the same obstacles or need the same supports. They take time to parse data to understand the needs of all their students -- first generation, transfer, black, Latino, immigrant and many others. They identify benchmarks and warning indicators to ensure that no student is left to languish and disappear at any point in their educational journey without real supports to turn the situation around.
For example, practitioners at Georgia State University noted, “Four or five years ago, we had nothing consistent in our system that would help us track students.” Today, an impressive online data repository gives faculty and staff members immediate access to 130 screens of the most requested data on student progression and success. Through their Graduation and Progression Success advising system, which tracks more than 700 markers of student success, nightly feeds generate lists of which students have missed which markers. That information enables advisers to reach out immediately with targeted support for students who stumble.
Continuing evaluation of the data. Leaders at these institutions always come back to the data. A longtime campus leader at Florida State University described the cultural change ushered in by former provost Lawrence G. Abele: “When he came in, there was a huge shift in culture. It was no longer OK to just do things you thought were right; you needed data to support new ideas and also to assess, evaluate and improve current programs.”
For instance, when campus leaders analyzed their dropout patterns, they found that while white students were most at risk of dropping out in their first year, black male students were more likely to leave after the second, third or even fifth year. They realized that their retention efforts needed to stretch beyond freshman year to guide students through the entire undergraduate trajectory. Like Abele, leaders at these fast-improving institutions convene their teams regularly to monitor and review the data and to make midcourse corrections to ensure that their efforts, energies and resources are directed where they are most needed.
The lessons these leaders offer provide real insight from within successful college and university change efforts. They remind all of us in higher education that “success for some” is no great institution’s epitaph -- that institutional success will be measured not by how well some students are served but by how well all groups of students are served. If institutional leaders and those of us working alongside them don’t have the courage to confront the reality of what’s happening on our campuses in the narratives of all students, whether on commencement lists or dropout rolls, we are merely comforting ourselves with a half-true story that plays on repeat each year.
Bonita J. Brown is director of higher education practice at The Education Trust. She most recently served as vice chancellor and chief of staff at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Earlier this year, we published a study that found that although the majority of students who enter higher education through a community college intend to earn a bachelor’s degree, nationally only 14 percent do so within six years of starting college. In comparison, about 60 percent of students who start college at a four-year institution earn a bachelor’s degree in six years.
Research we and others have done on transfer, together with years of visiting colleges and talking to students, has given us some insight into why transfer outcomes are so poor. But our colleagues Di Xu, Shanna Jaggars and Jeffrey Fletcher at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center recently released a working paper that illuminates some of the less understood barriers community college students face as they seek a bachelor’s degree. In the study, Xu and her colleagues examined outcomes over 10 years for students who started at a community college in Virginia and who intended to earn a bachelor’s degree. The researchers matched those students with those who started at a four-year institution based on their personal characteristics and their first-term grade point averages and course-taking patterns.
The study identifies five barriers that community college students face in trying to transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree. Two of these have been fairly well researched in the literature: the difficulty students have transferring credits, and posttransfer “academic shock.” The other three have received less attention from either researchers or practitioners. Yet they may pose even bigger barriers to transfer student success than the first two. Understanding them is critical for colleges that want to tackle this problem. Here is what Xu and her colleagues found.
Understudied Transfer Barrier 1: Lack of Early Momentum
One obstacle to transfer student success that has not been adequately studied is that, compared to students who enter college through a four-year institution, community college entrants earn college-level credits at a slower pace. Part of this is due to the fact that community college students are more likely to enroll part time or to take remedial credits, which do not count toward a degree. Xu and her colleagues try to account for these differences by comparing groups of two- and four-year entrants who were matched on numerous student characteristics, including whether or not they started college as a full-time student and if they had ever taken a remedial course. Even when using this matched sample, as is shown in Figure 1, four-year entrants on average take a higher course load each semester than do similar community college students. This, combined with the fact that community colleges students take more remedial courses, means that community college students fall farther and farther behind their four-year peers in earning credits over time (see Figure 2).
Understudied Transfer Barrier 2: Unclear Transfer Pathways
Many community colleges and universities have put a great deal of energy into developing articulation agreements intended to clarify the path for community college students seeking to transfer. Many states also have developed such agreements for their public higher education systems. Most of them are based on a 2+2 model, in which students take two years of lower-division, general education coursework followed by two years of courses in their major at the university. The study shows that few students follow this path. Over 40 percent of bachelor’s-seeking community college students in their sample transferred to a university with fewer than 60 college credits (the number typically required for an associate degree). While little more than a quarter (27 percent) of such students transferred to a four-year institution in the third year after entering a community college, some students transferred sooner (16 percent) and most (57 percent) transferred three years or more after starting at the community college.
As Xu and her colleagues say, there is no “well-trodden pathway” to a bachelor’s degree for community college students. This suggests that most students do not follow the articulation agreements developed by colleges, universities and state systems. Why this is so is unclear. However, hints about the answer come from research showing that students have a hard time understanding transfer agreements and our observation that most community colleges do not keep close track of students’ progress toward transfer goals.
Understudied Transfer Barrier 3: Students Make Progress, but Don’t Transfer
Perhaps the most surprising finding from the study is that many community college students who indicate a desire to earn a bachelor’s degree make substantial progress in their community college course work but do not end up transferring. About half of bachelor’s degree-seeking students in the sample earned at least 60 college-level credits at a community college but did not transfer. And almost a third of such students who earned an associate degree from a community college did not transfer. Thus, many students are leaving cards on the table. More research is needed into why this is the case.
The study of transfer student outcomes in Virginia by our CCRC colleagues suggests that, if transfer outcomes are to improve, community colleges and universities should work together to address these three less understood obstacles. How?
First, community colleges need to pay much more attention to early student momentum and work to encourage and support students to take higher credit loads (while also adopting acceleration strategies that minimize the time students spend in remediation). Second, two- and four-year institutions should more clearly map out the pathways to successful transfer and also help students choose a transfer path, monitor their progress and provide advising and support when their progress stalls or students go off track. Finally, practitioners and researchers need to examine why so many community college students who seek a bachelor’s degree make good progress at their two-year institution but fail to transfer to a four-year institution.
In partnership with the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence program, we recently published The Transfer Playbook, which describes how two- and four-year college partnerships can pursue these and other strategies to help students overcome the barriers they face to transfer. Continued work on all three of these fronts holds great potential to fix one of the leakiest parts of our higher education pipeline: students who start at a community college and never fulfill their dream of earning a bachelor’s degree.
Davis Jenkins is a senior research associate with the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College. John Fink is a research associate with CCRC.
Riding my bike last fall, I started thinking about momentum. In physics, momentum is “the product of the mass and velocity of an object,” and the greater that product, the more force is needed to stop the object. That certainly applies to my bike when I try to surmount hills by beginning them at high speed, but does the term also apply to students trying to finish their college degrees?
Perhaps it is not students’ momentum but their growing vision of the top of the hill -- the approaching sight of graduation day -- that energizes them to attain their goals. Perhaps we should consider motivating students by focusing on what they have left to do, as opposed to, or in addition to, what they have already done for graduation. Perhaps we should focus on making learning more efficient, so that graduation day arrives more quickly.
At least since 1999, when Clifford Adelman published his groundbreaking monograph Answers in the Tool Box: Academic Intensity, Attendance Patterns and Bachelor’s Degree Attainment, the term “momentum” has been used to describe the increased probability of students finishing their college degrees that accompanies credit accumulation. More specifically, Adelman found that students were likely to finish their degrees -- their graduation trajectory was harder to interrupt -- if they accumulated at least 20 credits in their first year of college.
Since Adelman’s 1999 monograph, numerouspublications have used the concept of academic momentum and similar concepts to help explain why students do or do not finish their degrees and to suggest ways in which we can help them to do so. An especially insightful paper is one by Paul Attewell, Scott Heil and Liza Reisel entitled “What Is Academic Momentum? And Does It Matter?” It shows that data confirm the central claims of momentum theory. For example, Attewell, Heil and Reisel found that the number of courses attempted by students in their first college semester predicts the rate at which students cumulate credits over subsequent years. Also consistent with momentum theory is the more general finding that the more credits accumulated, the more likely is graduation. (It was knowledge of this principle that once led a college’s chief operating officer to tell me that the way to increase that college’s unsatisfactory graduation rate was obviously to admit only students who had accumulated a great many credits.)
Although momentum-like concepts have been useful in explaining college students’ and others’ goal-related behavior, the variable of accumulated credits, which predicts college graduation, may be correlated with a different variable. And it is therefore also possible that that latter variable is as useful, or even more useful, in understanding how to help students graduate.
More specifically, note that if it takes 120 credits to finish a degree, saying you are more likely to finish that degree if you have accumulated at least 20 credits in your first year of college is mathematically equivalent to saying that you are more likely to finish that degree if, at the end of that first year, you have at most 100 credits left to earn. Perhaps it is focusing on what credits are left to earn, not the credits that have already been accumulated, that is most useful in promoting degree completion. Perhaps it is the pull exerted by a shorter period of time to graduation, rather than the push exerted by more cumulated credits, that most increases the likelihood of degree receipt.
In what follows I discuss those possibilities and their implications. Is the evidence consistent with the hypothesis that the time to the reward (or desired outcome or goal) of degree completion influences degree completion? What are some ways that we could better help students finish their degrees if that hypothesis turns out to be correct?
What the Research Tells Us
First let’s consider as a whole the body of work examining the effect of reward delay on behavior. For many decades, experiments have shown that reward delay has a strong effect on behavior. (See my book Self-Control: Waiting Until Tomorrow for What You Want Today.) Animals of all sorts -- including humans -- tend to choose an immediate reward over a delayed reward. When hungry, we prefer to eat now, not tomorrow, and the gaming industry knows what it is doing when it has our slot machine winnings immediately pour out into our hands instead of being delivered via a check that comes weeks later in the mail. We work harder to obtain less delayed, as opposed to more delayed, rewards, and we choose less delayed over more delayed rewards. A reward’s delay affects our motivation for that reward -- our tendency to do things to attain that reward as opposed to doing something else.
Research has also shown that when the reward delay is relatively short, small changes in the delay can have a big effect on obtaining that reward. But when the reward delay is long, small changes in the delay have relatively little effect on obtaining that reward. If such findings apply to credits and graduation, you would expect to see an accelerating probability of graduation as the remaining needed credits decrease. The evidence described above in which the probability of graduation increases as total cumulated credits increase is consistent with such a relationship. However, whether the rate at which the probability of graduation increases changes as reward delay decreases remains to be explored, and would be a useful research project.
More generally, the concept of motivation (someone’s tendency to choose to behave in a specific way) can help us understand what contributes to academic success. Being sufficiently motivated to engage in certain specific actions, not just the ability to learn new things, can be crucial to how well a student does in college. For example, students accepted to college need to actually start college, the opposite of the phenomenon known as summer melt. As another example, remedial courses can be no help to students if they do not enroll in them or finish them, and many students do not.
In fact, evidence suggests that students faced with a particularly time-consuming remedial intervention (which implies a particularly long delay to graduation), are less likely to even attend college. Further, coming to class (independent of what is done there) is a strong predictor of whether a student will pass the class, but unfortunately many students choose to be places other than their classrooms. Many students also suffer insurmountable financial difficulties in completing college because they do not complete, or even start, the FAFSA. And a common explanation for why high school grades, as opposed to one-shot tests, better predict college performance is that grades provide a better measure of students’ ability to stick to academic tasks over the long haul.
In other words, college grades, as opposed to tests, provide a better measure of the critical variable of motivation. The currently popular concept of grit, thought by many to be critical in academic success, is essentially a measure of motivation as it relates to delayed large rewards. The Wikipedia definition for grit is “a positive, noncognitive trait based on an individual's passion for a particular long-term goal or end state, coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve their respective objective.”
Motivating Students to Succeed
For all of those reasons, the concept of motivation seems a useful approach to understanding how to help college students succeed and graduate, and reward delay seems to be a vital determinant of students’ motivation. As summarized by William Bowen and Michael McPherson in their insightful new book, Lesson Plan: An Agenda for Change in American Higher Education, “It is highly likely that the prospect of long time to degree deters some students from ever starting -- never mind finishing -- their degree programs, and thus contributes directly to low overall levels of educational attainment.”
Focusing on decreasing the delay to graduation instead of on credit accumulation is consistent with the success of some specific interventions in increasing college student success. Two examples are the City University of New York’s ASAP (Accelerated Study in Associate Programs) and CUNY Start programs. Both require academic progress by students that is more rapid than usual. ASAP does so by requiring all students to attend full time. CUNY Start requires its students, all of whom have multiple remedial needs, to attend remedial classes 25 hours per week, with a goal of completing all remedial course work within one semester. Both programs emphasize decreasing the time to degree. A rigorous randomized controlled trial has shown ASAP to approximately double associate-degree graduation rates, and quasi-experimental data have also shown CUNY Start to be effective (a randomized controlled trial is in progress).
More generally, research has shown that developmental education that is compressed (e.g., taught in shorter terms), accelerated (e.g., skips lower-level courses and provides tutoring instead) and streamlined (eliminates unnecessary topics) -- all of which should decrease the perceived time to graduation -- is effective in increasing progress toward graduation. The positive effects on graduation of college credits earned from Advanced Placement and high school dual enrollment courses are also consistent with the concept that decreasing the delay to graduation is useful in increasing behaviors that result in graduation. Further, identifying and requiring students to follow clear paths to graduation, which should increase students’ perceived efficiency of time needed to receive a degree, has been found to be effective in increasing graduation rates, as discussed at length in Thomas Bailey, Shanna Jaggars and Davis Jenkins’s well-received book, Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success. (Note that it’s perceived efficiency andperceived reward delay that will affect students’ behavior, not actual efficiency or delay.)
It isn’t actually clear precisely why decreasing delay to graduation (or to any goal or reward) would increase the probability of graduation. Less time to graduation may increase the frequency of behaviors such as studying that are essential to graduating, an example of the increased pull from a less-delayed reward mentioned above. Alternatively, or in addition, receipt of the reward may become more likely as reward delay decreases because there is a shorter period of time during which other events can interfere with receiving the reward.
More time to graduation also provides more opportunities for a student’s close relative to become ill, for a student’s car to require unaffordable repairs and for someone to offer a student a low-paying but immediately available full-time job. As stated by Complete College America, “Time is the enemy of college completion … The longer it takes, the more life gets in the way of success.”
Those two possible mechanisms -- more proximate rewards increasing behaviors likely to obtain the rewards, and more proximate rewards decreasing the opportunities for outside events to interfere with reward attainment -- may be related. You may not be motivated to work for a reward that you are unlikely to get. In one experiment, experienced provosts were more likely to choose a smaller, more immediate amount of money for their units as opposed to a larger, more delayed amount of money, possibly because they had learned that their units were unlikely ever to receive future promised money.
For our purposes right now, the essential, overall point is simply that decreasing the delay of a reward is more likely to increase the receipt of the reward. However, exploration of the mechanisms responsible for any such effects -- whether people are more motivated by less delayed rewards and/or whether outside events are less likely to interfere with receipt of less delayed rewards -- should prove useful in the future.
Strategies That May Help
Psychology research provides general guidance about how to help someone engage in the behaviors needed to attain a delayed goal. Evidence-based strategies include reminding the person of the delayed goal (again see my book Self-Control: Waiting Until Tomorrow for What You Want Today), monitoring progress to the goal frequently, reporting or making public that monitoring and physically recording the results of that monitoring. Consistent with those recommendations, when I’m on my bike, if a hill looks high above me and far away, I estimate the number of seconds to reach the top, then look directly down at the ground (so that the incline is not so apparent) and count the number of seconds that I pedal, impressing upon myself how quickly the number of seconds left to the top is decreasing.
More specifically with regard to degree attainment, if reward delay is important in motivating students to complete their degrees, then a useful strategy might be to help students frame their progress in terms of what is left rather than what has already been completed. For example, perhaps class status (freshman, sophomore, junior, senior) should be defined by how many credits are left for the degree rather than by how many credits have been accumulated, as is usually done.
Reminders about the goal of graduation, and having students repeatedly monitor the credits remaining for their degrees, may also be useful. We need to help students think about how much they have left to do and not just how much they have completed. Further, without in any way sacrificing learning quality, we need to do everything possible to help what is left to be done take as short a time as possible -- and to be perceived by students as taking as short a time as possible. And we need to continue to conduct research about the best ways to do all of this. The current six-year bachelor’s degree national graduation rate of only 59 percent is not acceptable.
Time -- how long something takes, how much time has passed and how much time is left --- can be a useful way to organize and make use of the evidence about what does and does not increase graduation rates. Academic momentum measured as cumulated credits may have been a useful concept for increasing college success, but it is time for us to also consider using delay to graduation as a factor that influences whether students graduate. The top of the hill may not actually pull my bike up, but thinking that the top isn’t far away sure helps me keep pedaling.
Alexandra W. Logue is a research professor at the Center for Advanced Study in Education at the CUNY Graduate Center.