Retention: Partly a Problem of Student Mindset

Paul Tough’s “Who Gets to Graduate?” is a thorough and really thought-provoking article tracking several studies that have been done at the University of Texas about the biggest difficulties facing low-income undergraduates. This finding is sobering:

The second trend is that whether a student graduates or not seems to depend today almost entirely on just one factor — how much money his or her parents make. To put it in blunt terms: Rich kids graduate; poor and working-class kids don’t. Or to put it more statistically: About a quarter of college freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution will manage to collect a bachelor’s degree by age 24, while almost 90 percent of freshmen born into families in the top income quartile will go on to finish their degree.

Interestingly, the work done at UT also demonstrates that there are relatively low-cost, not particularly time-consuming, and astonishingly effective things that can be done to offset these statistics. The article continues:

U.T.’s efforts are based on a novel and controversial premise: If you want to help low-income students succeed, it’s not enough to deal with their academic and financial obstacles. You also need to address their doubts and misconceptions and fears. To solve the problem of college completion, you first need to get inside the mind of a college student.

Primarily, the studies have found, the things that work best for helping students not merely stick with college but succeed have to do with mentoring, creating cohorts of incoming students, and providing peer-based anecdotes about how to cope with  feelings of insecurity, uncertainty, or insufficiency. The article is long, but the strategies–which include things like brief, interactive, online modules for all incoming students to complete as part of the final set of information they provide to the university on enrolling in their first year–are innovative and demonstrate astonishing kinds of success.

We encourage anyone interested in questions of retention to read this article. And we’d love to know what kinds of strategies have been tried at your institution–and whether they are proving effective or not.

Author: Andrea Kaston Tange

Andrea Kaston Tange is professor of Victorian literature and culture at Eastern Michigan University, Past President and Treasurer of the Midwest Modern Language Association, and editor of the *Journal of Narrative Theory*.

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