Wednesday, July 6, 2016

How Students’ Beliefs May Impact College Graduation Rates

The New York Times recently highlighted the major disconnect between college enrollment rates and college graduation rates. At private nonprofit colleges, only 55 percent of students graduate within six years; and at public universities, the graduation rate is only 46 percent. With college degrees having the potential to significantly impact future job opportunities and earnings, and with the full college learning experience arguably quite valuable for its own sake, it is worth exploring why these graduation statistics may be as they are and how they might be improved.

The Times article noted that there are various reasons that many students drop out, including the feeling that they do not belong. For a person who is already lacking confidence in his or her belonging, small setbacks can be experienced as significant confirmations that college is not the appropriate environment for him or her. This phenomenon highlights the importance of lay theories, or the core beliefs we have about ourselves and our interactions with the world. Past research provides an abundance of examples that show it is often not just the content of a challenge, but also a person’s belief structure in response to that challenge, that is predictive of impact.

Earlier studies about how lay theories impact college students in particular have indicated that students are more successful in college when they believe that transitional challenges are (a) common and (b) able to get better, rather than indicative of a permanent lack of potential. Building upon these studies, researchers recently examined the impact of lay theory interventions before college matriculation. Experimental groups of outgoing high school seniors, who had been accepted to a variety of public and private colleges, received single-session, online lay theory interventions.

A "social-belonging" intervention involved sharing feedback from college students who indicated that most students worry about a sense of belonging and that such worries subside after taking active steps to connect with others. A "growth mindset" intervention involved sharing a summary of research regarding the malleable nature of intelligence and the significance of using effective strategies that can be developed over time. As compared to control groups, students who received the social belonging intervention were more likely to use academic support services, join extracurricular groups, and choose to live on campus. A significant number of the students who received the growth mindset intervention were more likely to complete at least the first two semesters of college.

These results, while preliminary, suggest that lay theory interventions could be valuable tools to use in the quest to improve college graduation rates. If students may be dropping out due to feeling they do not belong, and if a sense of belonging — or steps toward facilitating such — can be fostered by as little as a one-time, online intervention, then similar or expanded interventions certainly seem worth exploring.

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