Key Success Factors For College Students

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by Lillian Williams

 

Dr. Shaun Harper of the University of Pennsylvania, one of the nation’s leading educational researchers, created the “anti-deficit achievement framework” to study college persistence issues among students of color in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Harper’s framework emphasizes factors that influence achievement, rather than deficits. In other words, Harper’s model looks for contributors to success, rather than barriers to success. His work has been beneficial, particularly in the face of persistent racial gaps in U.S. college and university graduation rates.

As an Education Trust study shows, U.S. colleges and universities have improved graduation rates in recent years, but a significant gap still exists between black and white students. See results of that study here.

“Just like many of the campus activists suggest, our data show that university leaders can and should do more to create a more supportive and welcoming environment that allows black students to thrive,” said Andrew Nichols, Ed Trust research director and co-author of that graduation rate report.

“We have serious concerns that at too many institutions, equitable student success is an afterthought instead of a top-of-mind priority,” Nichols said.

Last year, adapting researcher Harper’s framework, I interviewed 12 successful graduates of the Journalism Program at Columbia College Chicago. Specifically, I explored factors these graduates believe led to their success at Columbia, a private college specializing in arts and media disciplines.

Among the interviewees were eight African-Americans and four Hispanics, 10 females and two males. Each had graduated within the past 10 years. Five were employed in TV news; two in public relations; two as freelancers; one as a web producer, and one as a magazine editor. Themes that emerged from their interviews contained valuable advice for incoming students.

Here’s some of that advice from Columbia College Chicago graduates:

Student/Faculty Interaction: As widely affirmed in literature, these graduates found that interactions with faculty helped them to persist through to graduation. These interactions with faculty – both formal and informal – boosted confidence levels; led to mentorships, and sparked connections to internships. Years later they recalled these meaningful interactions.

One graduate said: “During my senior year, I did a story on the Chicago bid for the 2016 Olympic games. When the professor saw my piece she said it was good enough to be aired on NBC5. I knew then I was good enough to do what I am doing now.”

Another graduate said: “Faculty members…definitely instilled in us that we could, and we would, go out into the journalism world and conquer it.”

Internships: Students should meet their internship/career advisers as quickly as possible, the graduates advised. Internships offer the opportunity to clarify and sharpen career interests; make professional connections, and expand upon competencies gained in the classroom.

Commenting on the value of internships, one graduate said: “There I was able to mingle with professionals already in the industry. All of that motivated me to pursue a career in journalism. I was excited about the type of life I could have becoming a news reporter.”

Another noted the skill-building advantages: “Internships at the news station really forced me to fact check and make sure that all of my ducks were in a row to avoid inaccuracies.”

Student Organizations: Students should get involved in campus-based organizations as a way to network and to build leadership skills, the graduates advised. Right from the start, students should seek to attend meetings of student-run organizations in their disciplines, and/or college-wide organizations.

Here’s how one graduate put it: “Being a part of a student-organization was a great networking tool. It gave me an opportunity to meet new people, be a part of creating exciting events and programs on campus and build my communication and planning skills. As a member of a student organization it also connected me to other power-players on campus-both adults and students. Being a student-leader on campus held me accountable, helped me master time management and allowed me to find my voice. The experiences prepared me well for becoming a leader in the newsroom; someone who sets a positive tone and leads by example.”

In this exploration of factors leading to their success, these graduates pointed to three key factors: significant relationships with faculty, internships, and involvement in student organizations.

In implications, incoming and current students should immediately get to know faculty in their disciplines, as well as participate in student organizations. They should connect with college internship coordinators as early as possible, to understand institutional guidelines for experiential education.

Lastly, though interviewees did not mention them by name, academic advisers serve as a key bridge between various college programs and disciplines. Therefore, students should connect frequently with academic advisers for information about popular campus bridge programs that prepare students for college, tutoring and peer mentorship programs.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article was published on Dec. 19, 2016 in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education
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