Disadvantaged Students Can Earn 4-Year Degrees With Key Supports, Study Finds

August 09, 2009

First-generation college students who start at four-year institutions are at a high risk of leaving without bachelor's degrees, particularly if they are lower-income and minority students. But some of them do stay and earn their degrees. And a new paper illuminates what sets them apart from those disadvantaged students who do not.

The paper focuses on the complexities of why certain students "reverse transfer" from four-year to two-year colleges. The likeliest reason, the authors suggest, is that students who stay enrolled at four-year institutions had four important resources: guidance in developing their college plans, clear goals, an ability to find academic and financial help, and advocates pushing them to earn bachelor's degrees.

The paper, "Institutional Transfer and the Management of Risk in Higher Education," was presented this weekend at a national meeting of the American Sociological Association by its authors, Regina Deil-Amen, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Arizona, and Sara Goldrick-Rab, an assistant professor of educational-policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Understanding reverse transfer is important, the two researchers say, because students who make such a move are much less likely to ever earn bachelor's degrees.

"You've got kids who look like they've made it," says Ms. Goldrick-Rab, "and then we've lost them."

The authors' findings are based on interviews conducted over three years with 44 students who graduated from the Chicago Public Schools and enrolled immediately in four-year colleges. All of the students interviewed were black or Hispanic, and most were low-income and first-generation college students. Information from the interviews was coupled with longitudinal data that tracked those students' outcomes as part of a larger project, conducted through the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago.

Seeking Out Support

According to the new paper, some students manage to find all four of the key supports, even though they come from neighborhoods and high schools with high rates of poverty. For example, two students, referred to as Monique and Olivia in the report, struggled academically in their first year at a four-year college. Olivia reached out to professors and began regularly using the academic-help center, but Monique was afraid to ask for help. She told the interviewers, "For some reason I felt that if I got help, I'd be failing still."

Monique ended up transferring to a two-year college, while Olivia steadily raised her grade-point average to a 3.2 and graduated in four years.

Many students in the study found themselves underperforming in the first place because they were encouraged to go to college but received little help in understanding the demands of college-level work or in developing clear and realistic goals about what college to attend, what to major in, and what career to pursue.

"This go, go, go message—just go to college, go anywhere—is very vague," says Ms. Goldrick-Rab, who is a contributor to The Chronicle's Brainstorm blog. It's not enough to create a college-going culture, she says, if schools are not giving students specific information on what to expect.

The authors say high-school teachers and advisers should develop better processes for helping students set goals. Colleges also should consider "intrusive" advising systems, the researchers say, such as early-alert programs that identify struggling students and reach out to them, rather than wait for students to ask for help.