Two studies suggest strategies to help students at community colleges and broad access institutions

July 15, 2020

A brief reading and writing exercise designed to alleviate worries about sense of belonging helped students at a midwestern broad-access public university with a high Hispanic population stay in school, raising continuous enrollment over 2 years by 9% among socially disadvantaged students, according to a new study. The findings suggest that social belonging interventions may decrease dropout rates at broad-access institutions, which accept more than 75% of applicants and serve many first-generation college students and racial and ethnic minority students. Although broad-access institutions provide valuable educational opportunities for disadvantaged groups, they are also plagued by low graduation rates. To investigate whether concerns about belonging (combined with financial constraints and lower levels of academic preparedness) may undermine student success at these institutions, Mary Murphy and colleagues tested the impact of a customized reading and writing exercise administered to 1,063 first-year students. While similar exercises have been tested at more selective universities with high admission standards, past assessments have tended not to focus on broad-access institutions. In addition to keeping students in school, the researchers determined that that the exercise helped disadvantaged students' GPAs to increase by 0.19 points in the semester following their participation in the exercise. Murphy et al. note that more information is needed about the specific educational contexts in which similar interventions would be conducted in order to better assess their effectiveness.

In another study, researchers demonstrated that data from 30 community and technical colleges across Washington state illustrate the same "shape" of educational inequality despite each cohort's individual differences - each institution shared the same exponential distribution of students who earn a given number of college credits. Based on these findings, Christopher Quarles and colleagues conclude that "student capital," which includes factors that a student attains from their parents, mentors, and friends to help build their capacity to succeed in school, is a finite resource within a given population - unlike intelligence, which can be built up over time. As a result, poorer and less educated populations have fewer of the resources necessary for aspiring college students to gather the social and academic skills as well as the economic resources they need to succeed. The findings suggest future student success intervention designs may work best when they build up the resources and skills that students need to succeed in college. "Social psychological interventions, done well, can provide one form of student capital to students, by giving them the mindsets that will help them succeed," Quarles added.

American Association for the Advancement of Science

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