The Mixed Methods Blog

Perspectives from our researchers, highlights from recent studies, and other news about CCRC

Many-Cause Explanations for Student Success

College students in a classroom 

When I taught community college, I often heard my fellow math instructors say things like, “The reason students don’t do well in algebra is that they don’t know their fractions.” Simple explanations like this are attractive because they give us a sense of control over the world. If students only face a handful of barriers, then we can just break down those barriers and everybody will be successful.

But this simple-cause explanation is wrong. Student success is more accurately attributed to a many-cause explanation. A large body of research has shown that a lot of factors are related to success in college, and many of them come with the student. These factors include family responsibilities, limited financial resources, interest in school, housing and food security or insecurity, self-discipline, degree expectations, race, parental income, age, commute distance, engagement in the campus, perceptions of faculty, and more. And these are just the factors that researchers have measured. Other factors that are harder to analyze, such as a willingness to approach authority figures, getting the right teachers, the ability to focus, having reliable transportation, and disease exposure, likely add up to significant effects on student success. Furthermore, students can often substitute these factors for one another. If someone’s car doesn’t work, perhaps they have the money to fix it or a friend to give them a ride. Student success is complicated.

There is no simple recipe for creating student success, as evidenced by the repeated finding that high school GPA is one of the best predictors of college success. The relationship between high school GPA and college success is not caused solely by better academic preparation, since we know that learning is not strongly related to grades or completion. Instead, some students are just “good at school.” They’ve learned the hidden curriculum and gathered the resources, traits, and skills they need to navigate complex social and academic environments. The total effect of these factors, which my research collaborators and I call student capital, is a student’s ability to be successful in a certain academic environment.

In a research study published in Science Advances, my collaborators and I studied student capital in more than 150,000 students from 28 Washington State community colleges. Our results suggest that student capital is best thought of as a limited pool of energy associated with each student: Successful students have a large pool of resources, traits, and skills that they can draw from every day and when faced with sudden challenges. Less successful students have smaller pools. This suggests that effective interventions should focus on building up student capital by helping students gain all those little things that more advantaged students got from their families and environment. In the process, students will gain skills that can continue to help them achieve their professional and personal goals throughout their lives. This approach also has the benefit of addressing systemic inequities built into society.

The idea of building up energy within students is different from the commonly used idea of momentum. Momentum approaches typically focus on ensuring that students meet early milestones, such as passing a college-level math class or successfully completing a full term of credits, which have been shown to strongly predict earning a college credential. Measuring milestones helps administrators understand how well a group of students is doing without waiting years to see if they graduate. However, students don’t graduate because they passed a math class. They pass a math class and graduate because they have student capital. So interventions focused on directly improving early milestones likely won’t be as effective as multi-factor or comprehensive interventions such as CUNY ASAP or guided pathways that help students gain the study skills, financial resources, and other resources they need to be successful in college.

How did our research lead to this conclusion? Rather than trying to measure the individual effects of each factor on student capital, we lumped them all together. Assuming that students are using their resources as wisely as they can to achieve their goals, we operationalized student capital as the number of credits a student could earn until they had to drop out. While we couldn’t measure the student capital of students who dropped out or transferred, we could use individual-level data to infer information about the distribution of the cohort as a whole. Ability to be successful in college didn’t behave like intelligence or other test scores. Instead, success seemed to be constrained by finite resources. Our results were consistent with the idea that each community has a limited amount of experience and resources to help build up student capital in their college-going population. For instance, communities with lower parental education will, on average, be less able to give their kids the skills they need to be successful in school. The results led to other interesting insights. For instance, the probability of losing a student is constant per credit earned, not per academic term. However, the key takeaway is that rather than just removing discrete barriers, colleges should be helping students build up the skills, traits, and resources that they need in both college and their future careers.

More details about the results and the way we calculated them can be found in the research paper. Our code used the statistical software R and is available for use by other colleges or researchers.

Christopher Quarles used to teach math at Everett Community College and is a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan School of Information.

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