My EAB colleagues and I trade podcast recommendations—a favorite pastime of research nerds the world over—from time to time, and this week an incredible recommendation landed in my inbox: Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast, specifically an episode titled “Carlos Doesn’t Remember.” The episode addresses an age-old question in higher education: Why aren’t more low-income, high-ability students enrolled at Harvard, Yale, and the like?
Community colleges serve low-income, high-ability students on a daily basis. Our hallways are filled with individuals of all backgrounds and experiences who have enormous potential to reach and surpass their goals. Unfortunately, we can’t always translate this potential into success; to date, community colleges only graduate about one-fifth of students within three years.
Attrition, particularly among students facing multiple barriers to success, is often rooted in stress. When our research team shadowed and interviewed new community college students, early stop-outs shared similar stories of high anxiety, stress, self-doubt, and disappointment. The quality of the academic experience is critically important, but fragile. As Gladwell illuminated in his podcast, even with all the academic ability and training in the world, an incredibly bright, promising student can see his academic progress stripped away by life circumstances.
The struggle is real
Students bring with them all the difficulties of their lives outside of school, including doubt about their ability to succeed, stress about making ends meet, and anxiety about beginning a new educational experience. It’s a lot to manage.
Last week, Karen Costa wrote a great essay in Inside Higher Ed reviewing some of the science of how stress inhibits learning. She writes, “There is a tipping point where normal stress, an inevitable part of the human condition, transforms from ally to enemy.”
When students face an onslaught of information, choices, and deadlines, their ability to take in information diminishes. Behavioral economists call this cognitive overload, and it results in the “fight-or-flight” behaviors we see in our hallways during peak registration period.
‘Not my job’
Adjunct professors like Costa and other front-line staff members who interact with students frequently tend to understand the stresses that plague students’ lives. For many administrators, however, it’s been years since they’ve worked as closely with students, and they struggle to abandon their old, ”cafeteria-style” approach to student success:
- “I’m a college administrator, not a counselor; this is college, not a daycare.”
- “Isn’t this hand-holding?“
- “Why should I have to track down students when they’re not doing well? Isn’t that their responsibility?”
- “Shouldn’t college teach these students how to be self-sufficient and independent so that they’re prepared for the real world?”
The resistance comes from a good place. College leaders want to ensure that they are fulfilling their duty as educators to train the next generation of thinkers and doers. Administrators fear that too much support, particularly for something as personal as stress or anxiety, may stifle true learning, and make students reliant on outside support when troubles arise.
However, the risks of doing nothing outweigh the risks of doing too much. If college leaders choose not to teach stress management, it is unlikely students will learn on their own. Instead, they flounder in self-doubt, which could drive them to leave the institution for good. College leaders have to create opportunities for stress management and coaching—starting during onboarding.
We created the Navigate platform to guide students through early enrollment steps and ease the chaos of the typical community college onboarding experience.
Student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive; they relish the opportunity to take their academic experience in their own hands, engage with the college in a high-tech way, and feel empowered. Here’s a sample of the comments we’ve received from students:
- “Applying to college is stressful, especially if you don’t know what you want to do. I can see this really helping students who don’t know how to pick a major.”
- “The [academic plan] is beautiful! You have everything in one view and I can see exactly what courses I have to take.”
- “I keep my schedule in my head. But sometimes it’s hard to remember when I need to be somewhere, or I over-schedule myself. This helps me see it all in one place.”
Our aim isn’t just to make things simpler for students—we also teach them how to approach big and complex tasks like choosing a major or creating a schedule. We dispel the misconception that students should just pick a major and move on; instead we guide students through a series of questions about their academic skills, future goals, and personal interests; create a customized set of program recommendations; and help them narrow their options by comparing relevant information, such as job demand and salary. It’s a combination of hard facts and guided support: no-nonsense nurturing for people of all ages and backgrounds.
No doubt, students will face much more difficult decisions down the road. And when they do, those who learned to manage stressful decisions during their college years will be at a distinct advantage. To prepare for that moment, we encourage you to ask how your institution can better equip low-income, high-ability students with the stress-management skills they need to succeed.