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Keys to college students' success often overlooked, report says

An early visit to college, clubs and other activities help students graduate earlier than others, study finds. A sense of belonging also helps, researchers say.

November 28, 2011|By Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times

Colleges should examine a wider set of social, economic and personal characteristics to determine how they can help students remain in school and graduate, a new report has found.

Aside from SAT scores and high school grade point averages, students' success in college relies on a number of other factors — often overlooked — that more accurately predict whether they will stay in school, according to the report scheduled for release Tuesday by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.

Using information from a national survey of college freshmen in public and private institutions as well as graduation data, the report found, for example, that students who visit a college before enrolling, participate in clubs and other activities and those who have used the Internet for research and homework are more likely to complete a degree earlier than others. The costs of attending a college and the institution's size also contribute to students' success, the report found.

Overall graduation rates are up from a decade ago — nearly four in 10 students (39%) graduate in four years today compared to 36% of students who started college in 1994, the report showed. But 56.4% of students now take five years to graduate.

Disparities in graduation rates by ethnicity and gender persist and the gaps are increasing, according to the report. First-generation students are especially at a disadvantage: Only 27.4% of these students earn a degree after four years compared to 42% of students whose parents attended college.

"The message to colleges is to use as much information as possible about their incoming students to assess what their probabilities are in terms of completion and think about services and programs that need to be addressed," said Sylvia Hurtado, director of the research institute and one of the report's authors.

For example, providing more on-campus housing and creating school rituals that create a sense of belonging can increase graduation rates, Hurtado said. Students who visit campus before enrolling and those who are admitted early also are more likely to stay and graduate, she said.

The report found that private schools graduate more students in four years than public institutions. But the study suggests that much of that success is because private schools are more selective in the types of students they enroll. But public universities, which are likely to enroll more low-income and first-generation students, graduate more of their students than would be expected, the report also found.

The report's findings will help colleges address issues that impede students' success, said Alice Knudsen, director of Institutional Research, Planning, and Academic Assessment at Mills College, a small campus in Oakland with a diverse student body and large numbers of first-generation and working students.

"This analysis wakes us up to factors that we might not have thought had that much impact on graduation," Knudsen said.

carla.rivera@latimes.com

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