Social and psychological factors play an important role in students’ academic achievement and whether they persist in and complete college (PERTS Lab, n.d.a). In this section, we describe some of the main social and psychological barriers to college completion. These barriers were identified in part through research being conducted by the network teams at RAND/AIR, the PERTS Lab, and the University of Virginia.
A fixed mindset is the idea that “people are born with a certain amount of intelligence, and they can’t do much to change that” (PERTS Lab, n.d.b). Students with a fixed mindset may encounter challenges and simply give up, assuming they are not smart enough. This negative interpretation of one’s abilities may dissuade students from asking for help or trying new strategies. Instead, these students often disengage from coursework and tend to underperform compared with their peers who view their intellectual abilities as malleable (PERTS, n.d.a).
Lack of Sense of Belonging
When students struggle to feel a sense of belonging on their college campus, they tend to disengage and are less likely to persist (Murphy et al., 2020). This is especially evident among underrepresented and first-generation college students at broad-access institutions. Given the historical exclusion and stereotypes surrounding these
groups, students may experience common academic and social challenges, such as receiving a bad grade or struggling to make friends, and question whether they belong at that school (Murphy et al., 2020). As a result, they are less likely to persist into their second year (Murphy et al., 2020).
Negative Classroom Environments Inhibiting Social-Behavioral Competencies
Research has shown that social-behavioral competencies are associated with academic success (Farrington et al., 2012). Social-behavioral competencies are malleable and include academic behaviors, perseverance, learning strategies, and social skills. Negative classroom environments, such as discrimination, microaggression, and an overall “chilly” climate, contribute to poor social-behavioral competencies (Herman & Hilton, 2017).
Psychosocial barriers, such as cognitive overload and impatience, present obstacles to college completion (Bettinger et al., 2019). As students progress in their postsecondary education, the path to completion is more self-guided with limited academic supports. In addition, students may start to take on more responsibilities outside their coursework. For students who are working and going to school at the same time, competing priorities may result in increased stress and less ability to focus on their coursework. When faced with increased stress and anxiety, students may believe the immediate costs of a college degree outweigh the future benefits of obtaining a college degree and are more likely to drop out (Bettinger et al., 2019; Mabel & Britton, 2018).
Bettinger, E. P., Castleman, B. L., & Mabel, Z. (2019). Finishing the last lap: Experimental evidence on strategies to increase college completion for students at risk of late departure. Harvard University. https://scholar.harvard.edu/zmabel/publications/finishing-last-lap-experimental-evidence-strategies-increase-college-completion
Farrington, C. A., Roderick, M., Allensworth, E., Nagaoka, J., Keyes, T. S., Johnson, D. W., & Beechum, N. O. (2012). Teaching adolescents to become learners. The role of noncognitive factors in shaping school performance: A critical literature review. University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED542543
Herman, J., & Hilton, M. (Eds.). (2017). Supporting students’ college success: The role of assessment of intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies. National Academies Press. https://eric.ed.gov/?ID=ED581580
Mabel, Z., & Britton, T. A. (2018). Leaving late: Understanding the extent and predictors of college late departure. Social Science Research, 69, 34–51. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssresearch.2017.10.001
Murphy, M. C., Gopalan, M., Carter, E. R., Emerson, K. T., Bottoms, B. L., & Walton, G. M. (2020). A customized belonging intervention improves retention of socially disadvantaged students at a broad-access university. Science Advances, 6(29), Article eaba4677. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aba4677
PERTS Lab. (n.d.a). Growth mindset for college students: An evidence-based program to improve retention and equity. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1j2RhUOGQiLcrFaF5Yqd_FJwSBvIUsPV2X67cVS0G1UI/edit?usp=sharing PERTS Lab. (n.d.b). What is a growth mindset? https://www.mindsetkit.org/topics/about-growth-mindset/what-is-growth-mindset