The Importance of Timely College Intervention

One of the more devastating statistics in college admissions is the number of students who enroll and  never gain a degree.

According to the National Center of Educational Statistics  in 2012 just under 60% of first-time, full-time undergraduate students who began their degree programs in 2006 graduated: over 40% never gained a degree. If you include community-college students, the percentage of non-graduates rises to around 50%. The US now ranks 12th in the world in the percentage of students who have earned their college degrees; 20 years ago it led the world.

Each student who fails to graduate is a tragedy in wasted time, money, and human resources. Worse, the psychological implications are devastating.  Fortunately, evidence is mounting that a timely intervention can circumvent many of these failures.

Paul Tough’s, Who Gets to Graduate? (18 May 2014 New York Times magazine) describes how a University of Texas (UT) professor of chemistry, David Laude, assisted by a Stanford psychologist, David Yeager, attacked two major impediments to student motivation: ‘belonging’ and ‘ability,’ and thereby dramatically improved student performance at UT.   

David Laude noted that in each of his Chemistry 301 classes, there was a group of students who didn’t get it. Combing through their records, he discovered all of them had at least two ‘adversity indicators’ (e.g. first generation, low HHI, or low SATs). He placed them in a special program with extra instruction hours, assigning advisers and undergraduate mentors, and, most importantly, labeled them: ‘high-achieving’ scholars. This ‘academically challenged’ group, in turn, thrived.

Professor Laude soon thereafter became senior vice provost for graduation management tasked to improve the 4-year graduation rate from 52% to 70%. Laude in conjunction with UT’s Institutional Research team created ‘Dashboard’ which used 14 variables to calculate a student’s probability of graduating in 4 years. Dashboard evaluated UT’s 7,200 entering freshmen and discovered 1,200 had less than a 40% chance of graduating in 4 years. These students Laude enlisted into the University Leadership Network (ULN) to attend leadership seminars, serve as mentors and compensated them with annual $5,000 scholarships.

While the ULN set the students in a positive direction, Laude and David Yeager, a 32-year-old assistant professor who is considered one of the leading world authorities on the psychology of education, wanted to determine how to  motivate these students  to succeed. The Stanford Psychology department already acknowledged that students failed to live up to their potential because they had doubts about their abilities. Many students believed in the ‘entity theory of intelligence’--that intelligence cannot be improved through effort or study—which is completely false.   ULN students also doubted they ‘belonged’ at UT. Transitioning to college inflamed both concerns.

It was decided to place in the pre-orientation material messages that addressed ‘belonging’ and ‘ability,’ and then suggest that the students write their own reflection on the messages. The intervention took 25-45 minutes and 90% of the incoming freshmen completed the assignment. Every year 82% of the disadvantaged students achieve 12 credits by Christmas, versus 90% of the advantaged students. After the intervention the percentage of advantaged students stayed the same, while the percentage of disadvantaged students’ success rate rose to 86%. Closing the gap between the two groups was potent  evidence for the power of a 45 minute intervention.

Yeager attributes success to not necessarily changing the students’ minds but helping them dismiss discouraging events that might be blown way out of proportion had the students not gotten the reassurances in the intervention.

Yeager sums up the process nicely towards the end of the article: “What I like about these interventions is that the kids themselves make all the tough choices. They deserve all the credit…And that’s the best way to intervene. Ultimately a person has within [himself] some kind of capital, some kind of asset…we can help them bring that out, and they then carry that asset with them to the next difficulty in life.”