Study: Give incoming college students better, more comprehensive supports

August 25, 2021

The results of a six-year longitudinal study reveal the potential of comprehensive college transition programs, when implemented effectively

By Ross Brenneman

Students celebrate graduation at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Students celebrate graduation at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. (Photo licensed under Flickr Creative Commons via user John Walker)

The results of a six-year mixed-methods longitudinal study show that when universities offer comprehensive support services—with the intention to provide equity for incoming students with the greatest need—those services have substantial benefits to students’ long-term success.

The Promoting At-Promise Student Success (PASS) Project explored the role of comprehensive college transition programs (CCTP) in helping students succeed at three University of Nebraska campuses. Student participants identified as low-income, primarily first-generation college students, as well as racially minoritized.

The students were part of the Thompson Scholars Learning Community (TSLC), a living/learning community for students who are awarded a scholarship from The Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation (STBF). The STBF additionally provided funding to study the effectiveness of the TSLC.

The PASS Project team, composed of members of the USC Rossier Pullias Center for Higher Education, found that TSLC students had a higher chance of long-term college success (vis a vis items such as sense of belonging, academic self-efficacy) than students who did not participate in the program.

Ways to improve college success

In a series of seven brand new reports addressed to university leaders, administrators and practitioners, the PASS team suggests numerous policies that are helpful for improving students’ long-term success. Among them:

  • It matters more how educators support students (through a process called ecological validation) than what types of interventions get implemented.
  • Participating in a CCTP – in this case the TSLC –can lead to large and significant increases in students’ feelings of mattering and sense of belonging while students are in the program.
  • Programming pertaining to careers and majors are important for at-promise student success.
  • Proactive advising benefits students’ academic self-efficacy and is associated with students making changes to their academic behaviors.
  • Supporting students is a dynamic challenge that requires tailoring of support services to complex individual student needs.
  • While CCTPs are intended to be implemented for the early years of a students’ college experience, extending a CCTP to cover all years may be advantageous – the impact of this program faded when students transitioned out of the structured programs in years three and four.

“The PASS project emphasizes the value of comprehensive college transition programs for at-promise students,” said Professor Adrianna Kezar, director of the Pullias Center and the study’s principal investigator. “It shows that it’s not necessarily what you do, but how you do it that makes a difference. Faculty, staff and administrators need to break down campus silos so that support is seamless, and they need to engage students from an asset- and strength-based perspective.”

The study team used quantitative methods (including leveraging an existing randomized control trial) to examine differences in the outcomes of students who participated in the TSLC compared to those who received funding but who did not participate in the TSLC and to examine the experiences, perceptions and behaviors of students in and outside of the program. The researchers also used qualitative methods to explore the experiences, perceptions and perspectives of TSLC students, as well as TSLC staff members, instructors and other key stakeholders. Findings offer insights to practitioners, programs and institutions seeking to support at-promise student success.

A second grant from the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation will be used to further explore connections between psychosocial and academic outcomes for at-promise students as well as how institutions might adopt lessons learned from the first study at the institutional level.

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