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  • Writer's pictureNancy Adis

Helpful Insights on How College Can Make Us, Not Break Us!

I’m always working to learn more about fostering a successful college experience. To that end, I just finished reading “The Years That Matter Most; How College Makes or Breaks Us” by Paul Tough. With 329 pages of discussion about higher education history, research, and insights, each reader will have their own favorite takeaways. Here are a few of the things that resonated with me as I focus on gleaning helpful success strategies:

“Letting In” – This chapter reviews the push and pull of admitting students and discounting tuition (with institutional aid), and how the process is driven by balancing an incoming class while hitting budget numbers. It’s another reminder of how unpredictable the admissions process is and therefore, logically, college acceptance shouldn’t be tied to a student’s identity or sense of self; but it often ends up feeling like that for the high school seniors who feel emotionally attached to the college admissions decisions. We can all work to value our students for who they are and not where they are admitted.

There was also plenty of discussion on the continued challenges and inequities of standardized testing and published college ranking lists in which algorithms can lead colleges to prioritize certain situations which are not reflective of other institutional priorities. I continue to support a healthy questioning of the value of these “tools.”

“Fitting In” - This chapter explores the huge diversity in preparedness of incoming students. We see examples of the challenges that 1st generation students and those from underrepresented backgrounds can have with fitting into the college environment. These students can be more likely to doubt themselves when challenges arise. I loved the idea of encouraging them to believe in themselves, perhaps saying, “if you got accepted, you can make it here.” I see the benefit of encouraging new students to “find your people” and get involved in more than just the “work” of college, through extracurriculars and making personal connections with other students and professors (more than may have been emphasized in their past).

“Staying In” – This was my favorite chapter, which described programs and initiatives designed to help students stay in and succeed in college. Citing both research studies and institutional examples of a focus on reducing student dropout through tailored study groups, personalized attention, and even faculty/staff who watched for signs of trouble and developed customized interventions. One idea was from 1970s research at Duke University which showed that something as simple as telling struggling students to expect some failures and challenges, but they can get past it, and narratives from upperclassmen sharing their challenges and saying “things can get better” really helped new students. I loved reading about success insights as varied as giving help with matching up aptitudes to career goals, ongoing optimistic messages about students’ upward mobility, and practical steps that focused on supportive ways to help students be successful at college.

These are a few of the things that resonated with me because I tell students that they can be successful no matter which college they end up choosing – it’s more about what they do in their college experience than the exact institution they attend.

I enjoyed this interesting book and, in the end, on the final page, I appreciated the reminder and the suggestion that one reason to work on improving the inequities within higher education is to get back to an American principle of the past: “Our collective public education benefits us all.”

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