How colleges help (and hinder) students’ chances

Profile of a smiling brunette with an optimistic attitude over a blue sky.

by Jean Rhodes

Nearly 70% of the students who graduate from high school this spring will head off to college in the fall. Although this rate is down somewhat from its peak in 2009, it is up dramatically from just a few decades ago. Unfortunately, however, only about half of those students will finish college. Although college entrance has become more accessible to a wider range of students, enrollment rates exceed graduation rates. Since satisfying well-paying jobs for college dropouts are in short supply, this high attrition rate has serious consequences for young people – and for our nation’s economy.

To lower that dropout rate, we need to recognize that today’s college students are increasingly diverse. According to 2015 data from the US Department of Education, the percentage of White college students has fallen from 84 to 60 percent over the past 30 years, while the percentage of Hispanic students, Asian/Pacific Islander, Black, and Native students has risen. Many students also come from working class and low-income communities and work several jobs to make ends meet.

Because today’s students are often among the first in their families to attend college, faculty members have a wider and increasingly important role to play in students’ lives. Beyond formal teaching, college professors can help students succeed in the unfamiliar terrain of higher education. They can help undergraduates understand the rules of engagement and lay the groundwork for promising futures. Indeed, role models are important to all undergraduates, but they are particularly critical for lower-income students who have had far less exposure to professionals and tend to hold more restricted visions of the opportunities available to them. Even when faculty members do not serve as direct role models, they can advocate for their students – opening doors to new opportunities, writing letters on their behalf, and helping them to establish and make use of connections in the school and professional community. These sources of support, encouragement, and trust can be thought of as the “social capital” of campus communities, and the denser the networks the better. In fact, social capital has been associated with school success above and beyond the contribution of students’ family income or their parents’ education.

Teacher support, in particular, has been consistently linked with higher levels of student academic performance. In a study of the factors that accounted for low-income and minority college students who were “beating the odds,” mentors trumped all other positive influences in importance. And a recent Gallup-Purdue poll of college graduates also highlighted the important role of faculty mentors. As Brandon Busteed, an author of the report, noted in an oped:

if graduates felt “supported” during college — by professors who cared, made them excited about learning and who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams — their odds of being engaged in work more than doubled, as did their odds of being thriving in their well-being. This finding was true of graduates of all ages and years of graduation; in other words, it’s a career- and life-trajectory game changer.

Appallingly, only 14% of all college graduates strongly agreed they received support in all three elements. And on one element that had a strong relationship to long-term success — a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams — only 22% of national graduates strongly agreed that they received this support during college.

 One way to ensure that more students find mentors and role models is to actually arm them with the skills to recruit networks of caring adults. Along with colleagues, Sarah Schwartz, Stella Kanchewa, and Janis Kupersmidt, we have been piloted the “Connected Scholars” program in which high school and college students are trained in mentor recruitment and network building. This model is currently being rolled out at Mulhenberg College. At UMass Boston, Connected Scholars, which is launching as a pilot will, hopefully, be a campus-wide initiative in the coming years.

Given the role that faculty members can play in strengthening the fragile but promising hold that many of today’s college students have on the educational system, we should also be doing all that we can to put such caring adults in their paths. Purdue University, for example, has enacted an innovative strategy in which a key determinant of professors’ tenure and promotion rests on their involvement in mentoring. Unfortunately, many public higher educational systems have been moving in the opposite direction. Early retirement incentive programs are diminishing students’ access to potential faculty mentors. In an attempt to reduce the payroll and allow universities to hire professors at the bottom of the pay scale, senior faculty are increasingly being offered a generous severance package. Yet only small fractions of departing professors’ salaries are returned to educational systems. Collectively the UMass system, for example, has lost 10 percent of its full-time faculty in the past decade.

This dramatic exodus of wisdom, experience, and talent, combined with insufficient money for rehires, undermines departments and programs. Among other things, it results in greater reliance on itinerant, part-time teachers who, however good in the classroom, provide little or no substitute for the mentoring functions of full-time faculty. By encouraging the departure of faculty members and then failing to restock the ponds, we are effectively reducing students’ access to a most precious resource.

It is promising to see that colleges and universities increasingly opening their doors to diverse students. Yet, it is equally important that they do all they can to ensure that the journey through secondary education is successful. Teaching students to fish, while also stocking the ponds, is an evidence-based approach to doing so.