Helping Students to Succeed in College by Learning to Ride a Bike – Part 1

An Analogy of College Student Success

There are thousands of articles and hundreds of books on the topic of college student success.  For the past 28 years, I have read many of them.  Many of them are built on solid research and strong theory.  Without them our students would not be nearly as successful as they have been.

What I have found wanting, however, is a simple way of explaining the key factors of student success.  For every article or book on this topic, there is a list, table, or flowchart for better understanding.  A nice summary of a number of these models can be found in Othman Aljohani’s 2016 article published in Higher Education Studies called, “A Comprehensive Review of the Major Studies and Theoretical Models on Student Retention in Higher Education.”

On the other hand, what you will find in this article is a simple framework for understanding the major factors impacting student success.  This piece is not written for scholarly publication, but practical use.  It has been created to help me and others explain, in a simple, yet thorough manner, the factors that we need to be aware of when trying to help our students succeed in college.

If you find yourself thinking of how I might change something in this post to better communicate important messages, please feel free to share with me.  

The first part focuses on the pre-college factors – factors that in most cases colleges have little to no influence on.  Once these four factors are shared, they will be combined with what I call The Big 3 to create an analogy of how riding a tricycle is like going through the first year of college.  Once the first-year success framework is covered in Part 1, in Part 2 (a second post) I will share three additional factors that are extremely helpful beyond the first year.  I hope you find the analogy helpful.  Thanks!

Four Major Pre-College Factors – Before anyone even gets on the tricycle

Too often colleges think that students are a moldable clay, able to be transformed from a high schooler to a lifelong leader in just a few years.  The reality is that students arrive in college with at least 18 or more full years of learning, development and growth.  These formational years often result in new student being a much closer to a  finished sculpture that is mostly hardened but missing the heat of the kiln to see what melts away.  There is only so much impact an educational institution can have on the challenges students have faced and will face.  Let’s not act like we have more of an influence than we realize, the sheer number of hours (over 150K) these incoming students have spent with family and friends pales in comparison the time they will interact with faculty, staff and students (~20K).  So what factor most impact students pre-college?

1. External Factors – What type of terrain will have to be crossed?

Unfortunately, college can be a more difficult place for some students.  This is typically through no fault of their own, but because of circumstances that make equality for all difficult to achieve.  Until most universities learn to be more understanding of student backgrounds, these external factors will persist.  However, one day I expect and hope that they will no longer hinder students’ success in college. 

The following students, and this is by no means a comprehensive list, often have a more difficult time succeeding in college.

  • First generation college students
  • Lower socio-economic status students (e.g. Pell grant recipients)
  • International students
  • Students of color at predominantly white institutions (PWIs)
  • Transfer students
  • Veterans of the armed forces
  • Non-traditional age students (i.e. over 25 years old)

2. Academic Preparation – Learning in advance about riding a tricycle

As most retention experts know, the easiest way to increase a college’s retention is to focus on who is admitted.  There is one major reason that Yale, MIT and Chicago have 99% first to second year retention – they are careful to admit students who have the greatest likelihood of succeeding there.  I’m not saying that they don’t have retention programs, but often I have found that it is the regional public and mid-level private institutions who have the most robust retention initiatives.  This is because they often have the greatest likelihood of influencing a student with below average academic preparation to succeed in college (and they have more resources than bottom-level and community colleges).  From a biking perspective, these factors can be compared to how a child is taught to ride a tricycle.  It is one thing to have a conversation with a child about how to ride a bike and let them see others riding the bike than to just plop a child down on a tricycle and expect them to figure it out.  Some of them will figure it out, but the extra effort to do so creates the inequity that makes academically prepared students more successful in college.  The factors below have an extremely strong correlation to student’s success in college.

  1. High school GPA and class rank
  2. Take and passing AP courses
  3. Enter with pre-college academic credit
  4. Earn “good” SAT/ACT scores
  5. Attend high schools w/ high college-going percentage
  6. Highest level of math completed
  7. Comfort with writing assignments and speaking to groups
  8. Good practices for note-taking, studying, and test-taking
Learn to ride a bicycle. You will not regret it if you live.Mark Twain

3. Family Support – Are there caring people available to help the rider when they face challenges?

Outside of the academic preparation factors just mentioned, one of the strongest predictors of college students’ enrollment in college is the success their parents experienced in college.  If both parents have a college degree, it is extremely likely that a high school graduate will enroll in college.  But beyond just the parents’ educational success is their investment in their child.  Did the parents (or family members or other potential mentors) spend significant time with their children?  Did they provide their children with out of school opportunities to learn?  We often mock the helicopter parents for hovering over their students’ decisions, but the fact is this approach is typically more successful than the opposite extreme of absent or laissez-faire parents.  Having a family members accessible when trying a tricycle for the first time is more important than many university educators realize.

The factors below, in addition to others, are often key in a college student’s success.

  • Parents’ level of education
  • Families’ investment in student’s involvement in clubs and organizations
  • Mentors – parents, extended family, high school teachers, coaches
  • Family assistance in exploring, selecting, and choosing college
  • Family support in completing financial aid documents and applying for loans
  • Family awareness of when to provide support vs. autonomy

4. Self-Management Skills – Can the cycler maintain the effort needed to pedal the distance?

The first semester of college will be lowest grade point average of the most students during their college experience.  There is a good reason for this…just as life is much more than earning money, college is about much more than just grades.  Success in life is often measured by many components of emotional intelligence in addition to self-discipline that are extremely difficult to directly assess.  Youth who have learned to take care of themselves and overcome challenges while growing up have often develop a resilience that many other youth do not have when entering college.  Similarly, before any child gets on a tricycle, there are elements of their will-power, self-care, and self-confidence that will guide them over the initial challenges (although driving on grass, see below, is never easy).

Some of these key self-management skills for college-going students, if not all humans, include, but are not limited to:

  • Grit (defined as combination of passion and perseverance)
  • Ability to manage time and set priorities
  • Discipline to get at least 7 hours of sleep/night
  • Able to maintain healthy eating behaviors
  • Awareness of personal strengths and areas of improvement
  • Able to delay short-term gratification to achieve a larger goal
  • Comfort with interpersonal differences & building relationships
“One thing that cycling has taught me is that if you can achieve something without a struggle, it is not going to be satisfying.”         Greg LeMond, 3 times Tour de France and 1st U.S. champion

Now that we have covered the major four pre-college factors to student success, we are going to transition to what I refer to as:

The Big Three Factors… that all students and colleges must pay attention to for student success = the three wheels of a tricycle

I refer to them as the Big 3 Factors, because it is not just me who came up with them, but the shared experience of thousands of college student success professionals in the past several decades.  While I don’t think anyone has called them this before, at least not in publication, I am comfortable making a declarative statement in this case – there is a lot I don’t know and will never know, but this is one of the things I believe I know.

The reason they are called The Big Three Factors and the previous factors (or later factors) are not included is that these are the factors that 1) colleges have the most degree of control over and 2) that have the greatest return on investment in terms of student success.  For those of you who have studied retention, you will recognize that the first two are simply a highlighting of Vincent Tinto’s (the godfather of retention theory) two primary factors, academic and social integration, along with a third factor linked the the extreme cost increases in higher education over the past fifty years.  I selected a tricycle as the symbol for The Big Three because we know that without one of its wheels, it is not going to move forward.


5. First of the Big Three Factors – Academics (the handlebars and front wheel)

Of the big three factors, academics is the only one that is split in two.  If you don’t want to learn the two parts, don’t worry, remembering the importance of academics is acceptable.  However, the split is made because if the two parts are separated and emphasized individually, they will result in greater academic success.  These two aspects are labelled academic engagement and faculty interaction.  While they are closely linked, academic engagement often leads to faculty interaction in the same way as the handlebars of a tricycle leads to the front wheel’s turning.

5. a. Academic Engagement – Are the handlebars being steered in the right direction?

In order for students to meet their and the institution’s goals for their first year, they have to make wise choices about how to spend their time academically.  Thirty years ago, students were told to expect to spend three hours in class for every hour outside of class.  At some point this number decreased to two.  The reality the last decade is that students, on average, spend no more than one hour/week for each hour in class.  A number of studies have documented this but it doesn’t seem to be improving.

Faculty are not rewarded for how much their students read, study, and learn – but for their research, collegiality (typically rewarded in non-written documentation), and teaching evaluations.  These teaching evaluations are often called satisfaction scores because the only learning they can measure is self-reported learning.  So if you like the faculty member (which, interestingly happens more often with white male faculty) and you think you learned something, your faculty member is going to be eligible for their promotion when the time comes.  This being said, the reality of student success is that good grades are often highly correlated to behaviors that describe academic engagement.

Several of these important behaviors include, but are not limited to:

  • Maintaining 15 credits/semester
  • Using of academic support resources (tutoring, supplemental instruction, etc.)
  • Using campus course management system (time spent using it)
  • Attending class almost all the time
  • Knowing and regularly talking to an academic advisor
  • Enrolling in a first-year seminar class
  • Allocating at least two hours/week to study for each hour in class

5. b. Faculty Interaction – The Front Wheel Leads the Way

In 2014, Gallup and Purdue University undertook a study of over 30,000 former college students.  They questioned these students after they had graduate and working full-time.  They discovered that there were three factors that most differentiated the graduates who were successfully engaged and enjoying their work when compared to graduates who were not as engaged and less satisfied with their work.  All three of these factors had to do primarily with students’ interactions with faculty.  They are the first three items below.  The other items are also important to student success as they are indicative of the extent to which students are interacting with faculty.

  • Faculty are excited about what they are teaching
  • Faculty care about students as people
  • Faculty are serving as mentors
  • Percentage of students participating in undergraduate research
  • Similar ratio of faculty of color to students of color
  • Students to faculty ratio below 20:1
  • Much higher percentage of full-time vs. adjunct faculty
“Decades of research indicates that close interaction between faculty and students is one of the most important factors in student learning and development in college (Astin, 1993; Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, and Whitt, 2005). Indeed, frequent and meaningful student-faculty contact is a central characteristic of all high-impact educational practices (Kuh, 2008).”

6. Co-Curricular Engagement (leading to a Sense of Belonging) – One of the back wheels

One of the most overlooked core components of a college experience is the experience outside of class. The reality is that most students only spend 15 hours/week in class.  A week consists of 168 hours which means that students are in class only 9% of that time.  Even with a conservative estimate of students sleeping seven hours/night, this still leaves 63% of the week when students are awake and not in class.  This is 7X the amount of hours they are in class.

In addition, in an era in which almost 8 out of 10 high school graduates attempts some form of college, earning a degree is no longer a factor that does much to distinguish a student.  Recent generations of students have to do more to stand out from their peers.  Think about a resume – what percentage of your resume is taken up by listing a degree?

Third, students spend significantly more time with their peers in college than anyone else.  There is research, called peer effects, which demonstrates how powerful the influence of one’s peers can be on learning and development (we probably already knew this).  At more than one university I have worked there is one question we could ask a student that predicted their retention at the college more than any other question – Do you feel like you belong here?  Combining the answer to this question with first semester grades predicts retention and graduation better than anything I have studied.  Adding the third part of the Big 3 strengthens this prediction even more.

Some of the best ways of engaging in the co-curriculum include:

  • Living on campus, especially in a living-learning community
  • Joining and attending activities of student organizations
  • Going on a study abroad trip for a semester
  • Participating in semester-long internships
  • Playing intramurals and/or participating in fitness classes
  • Attending orientation and extended orientation programs
  • Attending music, theatre, and dance programs
  • Engaging in activities and groups that involve a diverse audience
“Through co-curricular participation, students frequently interact with peers who have similar interests, providing social integration into the college environment. As a result, involved students view their college years as a positive experience and feel they are a vital part of the university.”

7. Paying for College – The other back wheel

As previously mentioned, what could be argued is the oldest retention theory, developed by Vincent Tinto and first published in 1975, postulated that in a college environment, academic and social engagement were most important factors.  There is no mention of financial factors in Tinto’s model.  However, in today’s culture, college sticker prices far exceed levels in 1975; even when including inflation.  One study by Bloomberg in 2012 estimated the cost in college had increased 1,120% since 1978.  The Consumer Price Index increased just over one tenth of this amount over the same time.  The reality is that without the proper ways of paying for college, students can rarely just get a part-time job and work their way through college (as some older generations did).  Several of the factors that are indicative of a family’s ability to pay for college include:

  • Students’ and their family’s ability to take on debt
  • Students’ awareness of an appropriate amount of debt for their situation
  • Students with college savings funds
  • Students willing to work, but not more than 20 hours/week, while in college
  • Students who don’t complete the FAFSA each year
  • Students who are food insecure or homeless (steadily increasing in recent years)

The Significant 7

We started with four pre-college factors that play a major role in student success.  We transitioned to the Big 3 Factors that are most influential to student success their first year in college.  Together, this gives us 7 factors most predictive, in my informed opinion, of student retention (first to second year).  To help in remembering, I am calling these The Significant 7 and they are visualized on our tricycle analogy below.

How to Remember the Significant 7

I hope this model makes sense to you.  These seven factors are the major determinants for student success in the first year of college.  One might argue that they could be broken in to different, less, or more categories.  The two acronyms below should improve the likelihood that you remember them.

4 Major Pre-College Factors

– needed before anyone gets on a bike

  1. Self-Management
  2. Academic Preparation
  3. Family Support
  4. External Factors

The acronym here is SAFE… If you are not safe, you may not make it to college

The Big 3 Factors in College – you need all three wheels to move on a tricycle

1.  Co-Curricular Engagement

2.  Academics

a.  Academic Engagement

b. Faculty Interaction

3.  Paying for College

The acronym here is CAP – You put on your cap to play ball.

The next post will be titled Beyond the Big 3, and explain why we switch from a tricycle to a bicycle after the first year in college.  

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