To stay in school, sometimes students need a little encouragement

Study: Assuring underrepresented students that everyone struggles in college boosts retention

Assuring low-income and minority students that everyone struggles to transition into college can help keep those students in school, according to a new study published in PNAS.

Researchers examined the effect of two types of proactive advising, where students received counseling before demonstrating any academic issues, Roheeni Saxena reports for ARS Technica.

In three double-blind, randomized experiments, researchers looked at the effects of internet-based interventions. The experiments each looked at interventions focused on:

  • Increasing student confidence;
  • Increasing students' feelings of belonging socially; or
  • Both increasing students' confidence and feelings of belonging socially.

To increase confidence, students were presented with a "growth mindset," the idea that dedication and determination can help people eventually conquer most new skills. The social belonging intervention, meanwhile, simply showed participants that transitioning to campus life is difficult for everyone, regardless of household income.

The students came from various educational backgrounds but all were prepared academically for higher education.

Bringing a population health model to student success

In the first experiment, researchers delivered one of the three interventions to urban charter high school students who had been admitted to private and public universities. The ones who received the social belonging intervention were much more likely to persist full-time than students who received only the growth mindset or no intervention at all.

The second experiment directed interventions to incoming first-year students at a public four-year university. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds who received any type of intervention were more likely to persist full-time.

The third experiment directed interventions to incoming students at a private university. Researchers found disadvantaged students who received any intervention had higher GPAs than their peers who did not.

These interventions boosted student outcomes by up to 40%.

"If colleges and universities are able to help students from these backgrounds stay in school and find more academic success, then those students are more likely to break the cycle of poverty for themselves and their families. Early interventions (rather than waiting until after students are already struggling), especially those centered on social belonging, appear to be particularly effective," Saxena says (Saxena, ARS Technica, 6/9).


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