UT innovates to close graduation gap

The University of Texas-Austin is on the national forefront of efforts to improve college completion rates of entering students from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds.

The scope of UT’s program is outlined in a long-form article by Paul Tough in the June 8 issue of the New York Times Magazine A brief summary of the article is below – though it’s really worth reading the whole thing.

Children from low-income families face a double handicap when it comes to college graduation. First, they aren’t as likely to be able to go to college – but even if they get there, they graduate at far lower rates than their peers. A freshman from a family with an income in the lowest quartile has a 16 percent chance of a getting a four-year degree, while a student from a top-quartile income family graduates at roughly a two-thirds rate.

UT-Austin, the flagship school of the University of Texas system, faces this problem more acutely than many other high-end selective schools due to a quirk in the Texas public college admissions system. A student finishing in the top seven percent of the public high school graduating class receives automatic admission to UT. This policy leads to a fairly diversity of students admitted who might not get into other nationally ranked state flagship schools, like the University of Virginia, for example. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds in east Houston join wealthy students from elite magnet schools like Carnegie Vanguard.

Faculty members and administrators at UT like Assistant Professor of Psychology David Yaeger and Vice Provost for Enrollment and Graduation Management David Laude are trying to boost UT’s overall graduation rate of 52 percent in part by testing novel ways to close the gap between students from underprivileged and privileged backgrounds.

The new policies Laud is implementing focus on flagging incoming students with characteristics that make them likely to drop out, then providing them with extra support through their four years on campus. The novel twist is that the support focuses just as much on helping students believe that they belong at college and will be able to overcome their own struggles.

All students struggle at points during their college, but that students from wealthier backgrounds have the ability to retain their underlying self-confidence. In part they get through their struggles because they fundamentally believe that they have the ability to do so. In contrast, students from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to lack the armor and one failure tends to lead to feelings of helplessness, which leads to a downward spiral.

Paradoxically many program intended to help disadvantaged students catch up further marginalize them. For example, testing students into remedial coursework tends to reinforce the stigma of being an outsider.

Laude’s approach is to make sure that support programs emphasize not that struggling students are subpar, but rather that they are part of a community of elite high achievers. He developed the idea in part from strategies he developed in teaching introductory chemistry for a decade that helped equalize

Yaeger works on a parallel path. He studies a subfield of psychology called mindset intervention, which explores the As part of his research, he ran a large study during UT’s pre-orientation in 2013. All students needed to complete an online series of tasks before arriving on campus. As part of the online pre-orientation, half of the students saw a control vide

But the other half saw either or both of a video discussing the potential of the brain to grow new connections to deal with new learning challenges, or a video from UT upper classmen discussing how they had started out at UT feeling lonely and struggling academicly, but had overcome those challenges. To cement the message, incoming students wrote an essay discussing the lessons from the videos for future UT students.

The results were astonishing. Normally, only 82 percent of students from disadvantaged backgrounds complete 12 credits in their first semester, in comparison to 90 percent of other incoming students. The experimental intervention — which took less than 45 minutes – cut that gap in half.

Tough sums up the approach as follows:

“Select the students who are least likely to do well, but in all your communications with them, convey the idea that you have selected them for this special program not because you fear they will fail, but because you are confident they can succeed.”

The UT experiment bears watching over the next several years.

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