Who gets to graduate?

Whether a college student earns a degree — or just a few memories and a lot of  debt — correlates very closely with family income, writes Paul Tough in  Who Gets to Graduate? in the New York Times.

Ninety percent of freshmen from top-quartile-income families will earn a degree by age 24 compared to a quarter of freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution.

Students with similar SAT scores have very different odds of making it through college. Vanessa Brewer was admitted to the University of Texas at Austin with 22 on the ACT (equivalent to a 1020 SAT score) and a 3.5 grade point average because she ranked in the top 7 percent of her high school class. She wants to major in nursing and become a nurse anesthesiologist. Students with similar grades and test scores have a 2 in 3 chance of graduating if they come from families in the top-income quartile, writes Tough. “If they come from families in the bottom quartile, they have just a 1 in 6 chance of making it to graduation.” Only 52 percent of UT-Austin students complete a degree in four years, compared to 70 percent at comparable flagship universities. Admitting students by class rank raises the percentage of first-generation-to-college Latinos, blacks and rural whites, but disadvantaged students tend to have lower test scores than the UT-Austin average. And they’re less likely to make it through. UT is trying to help high-risk students through “student success programs” that include “small classes, peer mentoring, extra tutoring help, engaged faculty advisers and community-building exercises,” writes Tough. Some students get an extra scholarship in exchange for leadership training. Telling students their anxiety is normal and won’t last can be very powerful, researchers have found. In one experiment at an elite college, first-year students read brief essays by older students.

The upperclassmen conveyed in their own words a simple message about belonging: “When I got here, I thought I was the only one who felt left out. But then I found out that everyone feels that way at first, and everyone gets over it. I got over it, too.” After reading the essays, the students in the experiment then wrote their own essays and made videos for future students, echoing the same message. . . . Compared with a control group, the experiment tripled the percentage of black students who earned G.P.A.s in the top quarter of their class, and it cut in half the black-white achievement gap in G.P.A.

Vanessa Brewer failed a statistics test in her first month at UT. She was shaken: High school math had been easy. But she persevered, pulling out a B+ for the semester. When she struggled with chemistry, she spent six or more hours a week at the tutoring center. She earns A’s or B’s on every test. And she’s met two juniors, also black women majoring in nursing. She told Tough: “I felt like I was alone, but then I found people who said, you know, ‘I cried just like you.’ And it helped.”

1-hour exercise raises blacks’ GPAs

After an hour discussing the fact that the college transition is tough for everyone, black students earned significantly higher grades, shrinking the minority achievement gap by 52 percent, report Greg Walton and Geoffrey Cohen, Stanford psychologists, in a paper published in the March 18 Science. The exercise stressed that it’s normal for new college students to worry that they don’t belong and that it gets better over time.

“When your group is in the minority, being rejected by a classmate or having a teacher say something negative to you could seem like proof that you don’t belong, and maybe evidence that your group doesn’t belong either. That feeling could lead you to work less hard and ultimately do less well.”

Twenty-two percent of black freshmen who participated ended up in the top 25 percent of their graduating class, compared to 5 percent of blacks in the control group. One third of blacks in the experimental group graduated in the bottom 25 percent compared to half of the control group.

The experiment was conducted at a “top university,” presumably Stanford, so these were very competent students. But it’s scary to go from being a star student in high school to being nothing special in college. I faced that as a Stanford freshman — without having to worry that I’d been held to lower standards because of affirmative action.

Black and white students in the experimental group “read surveys and essays written by upperclassmen of different races and ethnicities describing the difficulties they had fitting in during their first year at school.” The upperclassmen emphasized that they grew more confident eventually and were able to make good friends and develop  strong relationships with professors.

“Everybody feels they are different freshman year from everybody else, when really in at least some ways we are all pretty similar,” one older student – a black woman – was quoted as saying. “Since I realized that, my experience . . . has been almost 100 percent positive.”

The test subjects in the treatment group were then asked to write essays about why they thought the older college students’ experiences changed. The researchers asked them to illustrate their essays with stories of their own lives, and then rewrite their essays into speeches that would be videotaped and could be shown to future students. The point was to have the test subjects internalize and personalize the idea that adjustments are tough for everyone.

The exercise had virtually no impact on white students’ academic careers, but made a significant difference for blacks. In addition to higher grades, blacks who participated reported being happier, healthier and less likely to think about negative racial stereotypes compared to the control group.

Walton and Cohen believe similar exercises may help first-generation college students and immigrants succeed in college.