About 33% of first-gen students drop out within 3 years. And in 2016, public institutions had an average fall-to-fall retention rate of 64.8% for African American students, compared to 72.4% of white students.
These achievement gaps are influenced by many factors that are out of an institution’s control (federal policy or K-12 education). But colleges can influence at least one factor that hinders students’ ability to succeed: their confidence.
“We need to think about the expectations students have about their college experience, and the expectations that have been placed on them before,” argued David Bevevino, a senior consultant with EAB‘s Academic Affairs Forum, in a presentation at our annual CONNECTED conference.
Low-income, minority, and first-gen students in particular tend to question their place at university and may take any one misstep as a sign that they shouldn’t be there. Common early-semester obstacles, like doing poorly on an exam, can reinforce students’ fears about belonging in college and lead them to stop out.
To close the achievement gap, colleges need to address students’ doubts and misconceptions about their ability to succeed early on, says Bevevino.
Colleges who help students build their confidence can inoculate them against future academic challenges that might elongate or derail their degree. Bevevino highlights three tactics schools are using to close the confidence gap and build academic perseverance among their students.
1: Introduce the growth mindset during orientation
University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) administrators worked with psychology faculty to design an orientation exercise that fosters academic perseverance among students.
In one experiment, UT Austin asked incoming students to read articles on different subjects and write reflections over the summer before matriculation. One group reviewed material about the growth mindset, read messages from current students about their difficult transition to campus, and gave advice to future college students about academic perseverance. This group had a credit completion gap half the size of their peers that read generic articles about the local community.
And each year at Amherst College, incoming students read letters from other students about the challenges they faced, write an essay about their personal experience overcoming obstacles, and record a video on what they’ve learned. After implementing this exercise, Amherst saw the GPA gap between African American and white graduates shrink by 50%.
2: Simulate a low-stakes academic experience in a summer bridge program
The University of Nevada, Reno‘s NevadaFIT program is a pre-semester, week-long boot camp designed to boost first-term readiness among incoming students. NevadaFIT essentially “accelerates the failure rate in a low-stakes environment,” says Bevevino. Students in the program can fail, seek help, and bounce back—a process that fosters academic perseverance.
NevadaFIT participants complete college-level assignments and receive feedback from faculty. Students are also assigned a peer mentor who teaches them academic and college navigation skills, introduces them to available resources, and checks in with them across the first semester.
“[Students] sign up because they are allowed to fail, so it gives them permission to try out harder majors, to gain confidence, and see if they have what it takes to succeed,” says Felicia DeWald, a NevadaFIT Coordinator. Between Fall 2016 and Spring 2017, first-gen, Pell-eligible, and Hispanic students in the NevadaFIT program saw higher retention rates than their non-NevadaFIT peers.
3: Redesign degree pathways to accommodate different academic preparedness
A 2013 analysis from the Education Trust found that more than half (55%) of low-income high school seniors performed at “below basic” math levels compared to 29% of their higher-income peers.
This gap in math preparedness poses a particular problem in STEM, where students without a strong math background can struggle to pass the introductory, math-heavy courses, says Bevevino. Students who fail introductory courses have to retake those courses, which can delay their graduation or lead them to switch their major.
To retain more STEM students, the University of Texas at San Antonio is piloting a new degree pathway that delays organic chemistry (a math-heavy course) so students have time to build their college-level math skills. Instead, students begin their degree with a course on molecular structure that doesn’t require math. By the time students reach math-heavy science courses, they will have spent their previous term studying the relevant math skills.