The College Transition Collaborative was founded in 2014 to create higher education learning environments that foster equitable student outcomes by bridging research and practice. Our work helps schools better understand how their students experience moments of transition or difficulty and how psychologically attuned practices–messages, policies, behaviors, and programs–can convey to all students they are valued, respected, and can excel.
Despite enormous investments by institutions of higher education to provide academic and financial supports for their students, 4 out of 10 new 4-year college students do not graduate within 6 years. The numbers are significantly worse for many of the young people who have the most to gain from a post-secondary degree — students of color, low-income students, and those who are the first in their family to attend college. The resulting inequity in post-secondary outcomes has significant individual and societal costs: untapped human potential, widening class and income disparities, higher educational debt burdens and lost opportunities for career and social mobility.
The ways people make meaning of themselves and their experiences can shape their beliefs and behaviors. For example, when new students encounter challenges in the transition to college, they are more likely to remain socially and academically engaged if they see these challenges as common and surmountable, rather than implying a lack of ability or potential.
Scientists have demonstrated that well-designed learning environments can have lasting effects on how students make meaning of events and respond to difficulties. When students feel like their school believes in them and provides a clear path to success, they are more likely to participate in class, attend office hours, join student groups, seek mentors, and make use of resources provided by their institution that may otherwise be underutilized.
Schools send students countless messages every day, both explicitly in communications and implicitly in the design of policies, programs, and practices. Colleges have a powerful opportunity to support student achievement by ensuring that the messages, policies, programs, and practices students encounter throughout their college journey are informed by an understanding of how students make meaning of their experiences – i.e., students’ “psychological experience” of college. Learning environments attuned to students’ experiences, beliefs, and concerns can help students make sense of challenges and transitions in ways that bolster academic performance and foster well-being. This is especially critical for students who have been targeted by negative stereotypes throughout their life, and may reasonably experience challenges–such as a low grade on an exam, difficulty registering for courses, difficulty making friends, or being placed on academic probation–as yet another sign that they do not belong or can’t succeed.