The most important factors in college success

Experts say students don't get the same learning experience in online courses.

How does someone succeed in college? It’s the $64,000 question—or, these days, more like the $150,000 question—whose answer has been sought by countless policy makers, researchers, and universities over the years.

In a new attempt to provide insight into the discussion, sociologists Dan Chambliss of Hamilton College and Christopher Takacs of the University of Chicago took the long road to an answer.

In 2001, they started conducting what would turn into a 10-year study of Hamilton students in an attempt to learn what had the greatest effects on their college experiences. What were the turning points? What mattered most? What didn’t?

The Hechinger Report sat down with Chambliss recently to discuss the results of the study, which will be included in a forthcoming book titled How College Works, and what implications the results might have for U.S. higher education.

Question: Tell me more about the study.

Answer: In 2001, we started tracking a cohort of students as they went through the college. We took 100 people, randomly selected, and we interviewed them every year they were in college and every year after they got out. In addition to that, we collected a lot of information about these people. We collected papers they wrote while they were in college and papers from high school. And we basically tried to learn what were the important turning points—what kind of things made a big difference, and what things didn’t.

The goal of this was to find how colleges or universities could have relatively resource-neutral, reliably effective interventions that really help students in a big way. In other words, how can you do stuff that you know you can do, that you know will make a positive difference, but you don’t have to turn the world upside down or have a big capital campaign and spend a lot of money.

Q: So what were they?

A: It’s all about people, not programs. Colleges spend a huge amount of time and effort worrying will they have writing-intensive programs or a freshman seminar program or if a major is set up right or if their curriculum is done this way or that—all the kind of stuff about the content and information for kids and students. That’s not where it’s at.

The problem is not access to information. The problem is motivation. And student motivation goes up and down a lot. And the key to motivation is face-to-face contact with another human being. That’s what really works. And it doesn’t take that much of it to have a big impact on a student’s career.

So, for instance, having a great intro teacher is incredibly important, and schools don’t spend much time on that at all. Yet it’s very, very doable. A single department chair can impact thousands of students’ educational careers just by moving one professor. Because if they have a great experience in an intro class, that paves the whole way throughout academia. If they have a bad experience—Bam! The door slams shut.

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