The most important factors in college success


Talking to alumni who graduated 30 years ago, they’ll bring up, “I went to Professor So and So’s.” What is this? One time? Are you kidding me? But it works. I don’t know why. But a little bit of contact with the right person at the right time seems to have this disproportionate impact.

I would wager you that that same effect would occur anywhere. It’s a low-cost kind of intervention. The quality of intro faculty, that’s going to work anywhere. If you’ve got 500 kids in an intro history class, it’s all the more important that you’ve got a good person teaching it. You can see this if you ride the subway in New York: There are all these ads for all kinds of schools. All the time they have a picture of this kindly professor looking over the kid’s shoulder. They always advertise, “You’ll work with real professors,” this kind of stuff. They’re trying to sell that kind of contact because it’s what a lot of students really want.

Q: It’s clear from your study that face-to-face meetings are critical. How does the growth of online education in universities factor in?

A: I think there are a lot of things you cannot do online. Online is great for, let’s say, certain kinds of information exchange, for training people (to do) kind of predictable tasks, things like that. What can’t be conveyed well at all is attitudes about things, the right way to think about a topic. … There’s just a level of expertise past which you cannot go unless you’re talking with another human being.

Q: Based on your research, if I were a senior in high school and the first person in my family to go to college, what advice would you give me?

A: First, you want to have contact with a good number of people—dozens of people—early on. And it needs to be regular contact. So either live in a dorm or join the choir or play on the football team or something where you have a lot of ongoing contact with a significant number of peers.

Second, ask around who the good teachers are. Try to get into courses with teachers who are exciting and fun and make it challenging. In other words, pick your teachers and not your courses. Third, it’s who you hang around with. So if you’re struggling after a year, look around and see who you are spending time with. It matters.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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