A Theoretical and Pragmatic Foundation for Raising Graduation Rates

In an earlier blog, I wrote about The Implications of UCLA’s College Completion Research for Coaching.  What I did not address was the underlying rationale for the success of coaching and related recruitment practices in raising persistence from freshman to sophomore year as well as a student’s success.   The foundation for the efficacy of such interventions in raising college persistence and graduation rates is likely the extent to which students have realistic expectations for their college experience.

In too many cases, the college experience is portrayed via websites, “view books,” and counselors’ advice in ways that are inconsistent with the reality, thereby leading to unrealistic student expectations.  One of the more common examples is the extensive use of a disproportionate number of non-white students in group photos, thereby giving the appearance of a far more diverse student experience than the reality.  Another example at many research universities is the portrayal of the opportunity to work directly with a faculty member on one’s own research project.  By contrast, the freshman experience is characterized for the most part by large, lecture classes at public, research universities.  The point here is not to dismiss the opportunity that students have to meet those who come from different backgrounds nor to argue that opportunity does not exist in the junior or senior year to work with a faculty member on one’s own research.  Rather, it is to make the case that the portrayal is unrealistic relative to expectations for the freshman experience.

As a behavioral scientist in the area of organizational psychology, I have always been intrigued by the work on what has been referred to as the realistic job preview (RJP).  More than 30 years ago, John P. Wanous drew attention to the topic of organizational entry from what was then a new perspective in organizational psychology – the perspective of the individual. In a ground-breaking publication in the Psychological Bulletin, Mr. Wanous contrasted the individual and organizational perspective.  Whereas an organization is concerned with the competence of a new entrant to perform, the individual is concerned with whether the organization will satisfy personal needs.

Although the work of Mr. Wanous has been widely applied to organizational recruitment with the introduction of the RJP into the process, it is not used very frequently by college and university recruiters to introduce a realistic college preview (RCP) for the individual student.   Coupled with the somewhat unrealistic portrayals that I have already described is the same organizational (university) concern with competence, i.e., ability to compete in the college classroom, rather than a concern with the prospective student’s needs.  Much of what Mr. Wanous argued about the value of the RJP in raising retention and satisfaction for new employees applies to the student recruit as well, and this similarity makes the RCP an ideal vehicle for raising persistence and graduation rates.

Mr. Wanous stated, “The quality of information possessed by outsiders is an important issue because all the theories of organizational choice rely on individual expectations.”   According to him, realistic information by the individual has three effects: (1) it increases organizational tenure, i.e., persistence from the freshman to sophomore year at a university; (2) it communicates honesty, increasing the individual’s commitment to the decision (in this case the decision to enroll); and (3) it lowers expectations such that they are more congruent with the organization (inoculating a student against the reality of large classes, increased competition, residence hall life, etc.).

Introducing the RCP will not be easy for many university and college administrators.  It is likely to be derided as inconsistent with the approach of the competition, and it may be feared as limiting the achievement of recruiting goals and thereby tuition revenue goals.  The theoretical foundation for its success, however, in raising persistence, graduation rates, and tuition revenue from returning students is evident from the work of Mr. Wanous and others.  Introducing a RCP will, however, necessitate altering college preview materials like websites, and it will require newly deployed expenditures on retraining staff and adopting alternative interventions like pre-admission and post-admission coaching by existing staff or by outsourcing this work to professional organizations like InsideTrack.  Nevertheless, the UCLA data are clear; there are pragmatic means to raising student persistence, and the theoretical foundation for these interventions can be found in the work of organizational psychologists.

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