The Three Keys to College Persistence

Feet climbing stairs with the text "only persistence leads to the goal", an illustation of what is required to encourage college persistence

By Michelle Berkeley

As the buzz around college and career readiness continues, college persistence will receive increased attention and require additional action. While a combination of internal and external factors can influence any individual’s ability to enroll in and persist through college, the current data on college-going culture in the U.S. certainly has areas for improvement:

  • Immediate College Enrollment or “College Direct”: The 2014 Institution of Education Science National Center for Education Statistics (IES NCES) data shows 68% of high school completers enroll in college in the fall immediately following graduation.
  • Persistence: The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported that the 2013 to 2014 national average persistence rate from the first to second year of college is 59% returning to the same institution and 69% returning to any U.S. institution.
  • Remediation: The IES NCES found that in the 2011-2012 academic year, approximately one-third of all first- and second- year bachelor’s degree-seeking students reported ever taking remedial courses.

Across the country, College and Career Readiness programs, such as College Spark Washington’s College Readiness Initiative, reiterate the importance of getting students adequately prepared to succeed in college. Many programs are able to show effectiveness in combating current postsecondary trends by tracking the progress of program outcomes, showing growth over the years, and making gains over comparison schools.

The College Readiness Initiative is producing promising data. According to an external evaluation conducted by the BERC Group, graduates of schools with the Navigation 101 or AVID programming showed higher graduation rates, “college-direct” rates and college persistence rates than their comparison schools. Further, AVID data was able to show incremental gains as students with more years of exposure to the programming showed increases in college persistence rates. Additional reporting from College Spark regarding postsecondary enrollment, persistence and remediation rates is expected to be published later this year.

So if readiness is the key, persistence is opening the door, climbing the stairs and reaching the top.

A river cutting through mountains with text that says "A River Cuts Through a Rock Not Because of its power, but its persistence - jim watkins"

Where college readiness is a toolkit, college persistence is consistent application of the tools. Ideally, readiness begets persistence. But what is known about the secret recipe to persistence? What combination of skills, traits, experiences and practices produce the highest likelihood of college persistence? Three words: motivation, markers and momentum.

1) Motivation.

Student motivation leads to persistence.

According to an Inside Higher Ed article by Vincent Tinto, universities must take the time and make the effort to understand how student experiences shape their motivation to persist, and then figure out ways in which the university can enhance that motivation. Vincent believes there are three major experiences that most strongly influence college students’ motivation: self-efficacy, sense of belonging and perceived value of the curriculum.

  • Self-efficacy is a trait that is learned and developed. It is important that students enter college with confidence in their ability to succeed. However, not all students do, and even those who do are not immune to encountering challenges in self-efficacy—especially in the critical first year of college. Universities must have measures in place to identify when students are struggling academically or socially and be able to provide timely support services.
  • A sense of belonging is directly affected by a student’s perceptions of his or her engagements with other people on campus. If a student does feel belonging, motivation is enhanced. Conversely, not feeling a sense of belonging leads to decreased motivation to persist. Universities must create welcoming, supportive and inclusive cultures that a student experiences academically and socially from the get-go.
  • Perception of the value of curriculum hugely impacts a student’s academic engagement and learning, and therefore directly influences college persistence. Student’s must be matched appropriately to a proper fitting field of study, curriculum must be inclusive of a variety of experiences and histories, and faculty must help students in making meaningful and relevant connections to their learning—especially those introductory courses that can serve as a gateway to a given subject matter. Problem- and project-based learning, as well as material contextualization, are excellent learning techniques to ensure students concretely apply the academic material to the real world and the community around them.

2) Markers.

Every student has a unique set of pre-college indicators, college indicators and life experience-related indicators that impact his or her ability to persist.

An American Institutes for Research study identified three categories of student-level indicators affecting college persistence:

  • Precollege indicators encompass the students’ level of preparation, or “college readiness,” which can be measured objectively through the intensity of high school curriculum, Advanced Placement results, end-of-course exams, high school grades, standardized test scores and dual-enrollment programs.
  • College indicators are related to academic behavior and social experience in college. Academic indicators include: participation in remedial courses, grade point average, credits earned after first year of college, credits earned over summer terms, full- vs. part-time student status, continuous enrollment vs. stop out, withdrawal from or repeating courses, alignment of student goals and major and completing a two-year degree and transferring to a four-year institution. Socially, indicators of college persistence include participation in college-affiliated extracurricular activities and student-faculty interaction.
  • Life experience indicators are those things that can directly affect students’ engagement in and focus on college. These include availability and access to financial aid, being a first-generation college student or single-parent student, working while attending school, and home or community support.

With knowledge of students’ indicators, colleges can improve their methods of monitoring students in need, observe patterns of need of the student body at large, and develop student resources more effectively.

3) Momentum.

Student “momentum” leads to college persistence.

The Community College Research Center (CCRC) produced a report entitled “Building Student Momentum from High School into College.” The report emphasizes the importance building and instilling “momentum” in high school students through “momentum points”—specific college prep experiences and attainments—leading to the likelihood and ability to succeed and persist through college.

a chart listing momentum points that can help educators strategize for encouraging college persistence

Researchers further developed the concept by defining “momentum chains” as a series of momentum points—in the categories of Academic Knowledge and Skills, Noncognitive Skills and College Cultural Capital—creating a path by which students move with increased, sustainable forward motion toward college readiness. For each experience and attainment point in the momentum chain, there is a high school role and an opportunity for high school and college collaborative work. This means that in order for college persistence to happen, preparation can’t just happen in the high school vacuum. CCRC maintains that K-12 and higher education must assume joint responsibility, especially during the last year of high school, proposing that the two institutions co-design, co-deliver and co-validate the momentum chain process and the transition from high school to college.

  • Co-design: includes things like completion of a needs assessment, analysis of barriers to student progress, listing of an inventory of programs and resources, and creation of a collaborative plan to fill in gaps in momentum chains.
  • Co-delivery: means dual involvement in planning, individual and collaborative delivery of courses and services, and monitoring of 12th-grade student progress.
  • Co-validation: means affirmation of the value of momentum points, utilization of the value of momentum points, and evaluation of the outcomes of co-designed and co-delivered momentum chains.

We do know that high schools and colleges have equal interest stakes in wanting students to persist. High schools want to see the success of college readiness initiatives, and colleges want to reflect high college completion rates. With a shared interest, CCRC argues, comes a shared responsibility.

As with many things in education (and in life), there may not be a secret recipe to college persistence. But we do know the importance of using persistence points to develop student motivation, of knowing, achieving and addressing academic and nonacademic markers, and of transferring educational momentum from high school to college.

For more, see:

Michelle Berkeley is a project coordinator for Getting Smart and a graduate student at DePaul University.

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