Student Success Does Not Arise by Chance

Student Success Does Not Arise by Chance

Arthurlene Towner, Financial Literacy and College Persistence Conference Moderator, with Dr. Vincent Tinto, one of the featured speakers.

February 7, 2013

Dr. Vincent Tinto, distinguished professor at Syracuse University, and originator of the prevailing theory in the field of retention was a featured speaker at the Financial Literacy and College Persistence conference held at Menlo College on January 18. Tinto’s presentation titled “Student Success Does Not Arise by Chance,” addressed why students leave college and what educators and administrators are doing successfully to help them stay and complete college. The following is an excerpt from his speech.

I’ve had the conversation about student success with hundreds of colleges around the country, particularly those that serve low-income students and I’ve have had the opportunity to work with the Trio Programs [federal educational opportunity outreach programs] in Washington that serve low-income students.  Over the course of these many conversations, several facts have become clear. First, the issue we face is not only one of helping low-income and first generation students gain access to college, but also and more importantly, helping them stay and complete college once they begin.  Second, though financial aid clearly matters in access, it does not, for most students, directly influence persistence and completion. This is not to say that financial matters do not influence persistence. Rather that its effects tend to be largely indirect in how finances affect how one goes to college, namely attending part-time and/or working while in college.

Persistence and Completion
The fact is that students leave college for a variety of reasons, many of which are not within institutions to easily influence (e.g. family and work obligations). Still, there are things that influence retention that colleges can influence, namely the experience students have on campus once they begin their studies.

The way most colleges improve persistence and completion is by focusing on things over which we already have control, namely the environments or conditions in which they place their students and ask them to learn and succeed. These conditions are a reflection of what we’ve done in the past and can change in the future, that is if we are truly serious about improving student success. Colleges can change those conditions, and many colleges have. One can then ask what we know about the conditions on campus in which we place students that promote their success and what colleges have done to increase success.

Students do best in environments that provide clear, consistent expectations about what the college requires, and what the classrooms require for success. More importantly, students do best in environments that hold high expectations. Recall ”No one rises to low expectations.” But a lot of our youth, especially those who come from first generation low-income backgrounds have a legacy of being held to low expectations. Make sure students know what is being required of them, and hold them to high expectations.

To make expectations reachable, however, you need to provide support. Many of our students enter with inadequate academic skills. Therefore, colleges invest a good deal of time in providing a range of academic as well as social support including the well-known student success courses that reflect the work of John Gardner and Betsy Barefoot.

The secret of effective academic supportis not simply that support is available on campus but that is that it is contextualized in some way with what students in classrooms that are trying to learn.

In a typical first year course, for example, you may have supplemental study groups connected to the course and student assisted groups with a student who maybe got an A in the course or learning center people. The trick is this support is that tutors must work with the instructions so they know what is being taught. The job of the tutors is to make sure the students get the skills to do the assignments week to week.

Assessment and Feedback
Students are also more likely to succeed when colleges frequently assess their performance and provide feedback to students, faculty and staff in ways that enable all parties to change what they do to better support student performance. Across the country institutions are not only monitoring student progress but also developing early warning systems where students and faculty are notified early in the semester if students are having trouble and therefore need support. The secret of effective early warning is that it is early, the earlier the better, preferably in the first two weeks.

Finally, students are more likely to succeed in college when there are engaged with others.  Simply put engagement matters. No engagement is more important than active engagement with other students learning activities in the classroom. This is the case because doing so increases student motivation and the time they spend studying.

But studying does not only mean sitting studying at a desk alone. It also means being engaged in intellectual discourse with other people about classroom materials and how it is applied to meaningful problems. This is one of the virtues of pedagogies such as problem-based and project-based learning that require students to work together to apply classroom material to solve problems and complete class projects.

Completion also requires that students succeed in many classes over time. That’s where finances come in, in part, because the longer it takes people to finish, the less likely they are to finish, certainly among low-income students. The cost increases, relatively speaking, and the benefits are delayed. To quote Isaac Newton, “An object that rests tends to stay at rest, an object in motion tends to stay in motion, unless acted upon by an external force.” That notion of momentum is driving a whole series of movements.

Colleges are identifying roadblocks that they may be responsible for in the first year. They look through the transcripts of students and recognized that some courses have unusually high failure rates. Students who fail courses are delayed. So they are revising those courses.

A program called Completion by Design headed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has now been tested in three states, funded colleges to reorganize their curriculum with only one or two paths that students can follow. Courses are offered in a sequence so students can make progress rapidly. A report about the program was recently published in WestEd

Student success does not arise by chance. It requires educators to construct conditions on campus, especially in the classrooms that are know to promote student success and in turn organizes those classes one after the other in ways that form coherent pathways to completion and provide support that enables students to gain momentum to finish their degrees in a timely fashion.

Dr. Tinto is the author of Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition, coauthor of Where Colleges Are and Who Attends andCompleting College: Rethinking Institutional Action.