Research shows that 30 percent of college students drop out after their first year, and half never graduate. While the college completion rate has stalled over the past three decades, especially for African-American students and other minorities, a new study by psychology research associate David Yeager suggests that when given the correct tools, disadvantaged students are more likely to perform better.
Yeager found that incoming college students who are perceived to be at a disadvantage to their classmates are more likely to perform better academically if they are able to anticipate upcoming obstacles and recognize them as normal and temporary. Taking into account factors such as race and socioeconomic status, the study drew samples from more than 9,500 students.
The study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, primarily focuses on what can be done for students arriving on campus to help them be prepared to weather the storm of inevitable challenges, Yeager says.
“Students from majority groups whose parents have college degrees have family and society that they can look to for support,” Yeager says. “But when you come from a position of disadvantage, go through these difficulties, and are simultaneously aware of the possibility that you can be stereotyped, then it’s easy to interpret challenges to mean that you don’t belong.”
The study used three randomized controlled trials that presented incoming students with stories from older students discussing social and academic problems they faced in college. The stories explained to incoming students that college challenges are normal and will pass over time. After reading the stories, incoming students were asked to reflect on what they expected to happen during their first year at a university and why each challenge is normal. The result of this exercise was that academic achievement gaps in full-time enrollment and grades between disadvantaged students and non-disadvantaged students improved from 31 to 40 percent.
The study makes “total sense” to fifth-year undergraduate and first-generation student Alex Vences. Vences says that once he came to terms that he’d be at a disadvantage compared other students, he had to get into the proper mindset in order to succeed—both for himself, and his parents.
“I had to really think hard upon why my parents, and why other families, choose to come to the U.S. in the first place,” Vences says. “Mom and Dad endured hardships of unimaginable degrees. They came here for us, the kids, and once I learned to really appreciate that, I felt more confident.”
Yeager emphasizes that the results are not “magic” and didn’t change over the course of the two-year study. He says that while some may see the students studied as being flawed in some way or having “low-self esteem,” that is definitely not the case. The results of the study do not work in isolation, but rather help students take advantage of opportunities available to them. For the exercises to be effective, however, the researchers say students need access to resources and support.
“Universities spend an enormous amount of money to recruit minority students, and those students are most likely to drop out,” Yeager says. “So there’s this tremendous waste of resources. Some people have attributed that sequence of events to mean that those students didn’t belong to begin with and that they shouldn’t have been admitted. What we show is that many students are sufficiently talented, but they encounter concerns about belonging and ability. However, when you address those [concerns], then students can persist at higher rates.”
Yeager says the next big challenge for researchers is figuring out what university administrators can do differently to support students and changing the way teachers talk about intelligence.
“How can we make them refrain from saying,‘Well, if it’s hard this term, then maybe you should drop out’?” Yeager says. “How do we change that language, that climate, that culture?”
For first-generation students getting ready to enter their first year of college, Vences offers some advice.
“Never feel that you’re alone in this. Every obstacle in your way is going to be an important learning experience for you, both inside and outside the classroom,” he says. “It’s natural to feel underprepared for college, but the reason you’re here is to learn what you’re truly capable of and how to apply your potential.”
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