The headlines in higher education are often about two things: Access to colleges and universities and student debt. And while those are important conversations to be having, we’re missing a crucial third conversation: College completion. Right now, only about half of the students who enroll in colleges and universities are leaving with a degree in hand, and the gap in post-secondary degree attainment is widening between white and non-white students.

We sat down with Dr. Mary Murphy, a Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences and Associate Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion at Indiana University, for a discussion on how and why colleges should be addressing the issue of completion. What follows is a transcript of that conversation.

What's the state of play in higher education right now? Who is going to college, who is graduating?

While we have seen American colleges and universities make progress on providing access and admission to students from diverse racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, college completion remains a significant issue. Moreover, the completion gap is actually growing for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. Getting into college is an important first step towards fulfilling the American dream; but too many students get into college, sink years of their lives and take out thousands of dollars in loans that will follow them for the rest of their lives, and still never achieve a degree.

We know that a college degree is an effective tool for social and economic mobility—both for individuals and their communities. But right now, too many colleges are compounding the disadvantages that students of color and students from low-income backgrounds already face, instead of equipping them to succeed.

Fortunately, some colleges and universities are realizing that as their student bodies become more diverse, the same-old student support programs aren’t going to cut it. To be successful in closing the completion gap, colleges and universities need to better understand how historically underserved students are experiencing their institutions and recognize the strength and resilience that brought them there.

What are some common experiences that students face when they arrive on campus? What are typical challenges?

Most students struggle with questions of belonging and fit—especially in the transition to college. Yet, belonging concerns can take different forms for different students.

For example, students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, might wonder whether they will be able to afford all the things they need to do well in school (e.g., books, supplies, food, housing), not to mention the “nice-to-haves” that help them fit in with more wealthy students (e.g., money for trips, outings, social clubs, sororities/fraternities, etc.).

For students who are first in their families to go to college, belonging concerns might come up when they navigate complex bureaucracies like confusing and convoluted major maps, course registration, and the financial aid process without the assistance of family and friends who have done it before.

For many students of color, coming to college means having to navigate a space where there are few people who look like you—and this can be an isolating and exhausting experience. These students are often concerned about being stereotyped, which can contribute to feelings of nonbelonging in college. These might come up when a professor shrugs off students’ questions in class or when, over dinner, it’s clear that your roommate assumes your family life resembles the stereotypes that are presented in TV and movies.

Why does this matter? Why should colleges care about equitable outcomes for students?

Students’ feelings of belonging matter because they influence students’ motivation, persistence, and performance. When students feel that they (or their group) are not valued or respected by peers, faculty, administrators, or staff, it becomes far more challenging for them to persist to completion. When you feel as though you don’t belong or are not valued, why bother?

The disparities in college completion compound into disparities in economic and social outcomes for students down the line. When we open the doors to college for students of color and low-income students without making sure our institutions are welcoming places for those students to learn and grow, we do those students a tremendous disservice.

What can colleges and universities do to address these issues, and what are some promising practices?

Colleges and universities can start by doing a better job understanding when, where, and how students experience moments that undercut their sense of belonging, and how those moments play out differently for students from different social and economic backgrounds.

I have seen many universities and colleges address issues of student belonging with evidence-based strategies that help students persist and fulfill their potential. For example:

  • Connecting upperclassmen to first-year students so they can share their own experiences with belonging on campus, normalize challenges, and help newer students persist through those challenges. (See Social Belonging Intervention)
  • Changing the notification language for students experiencing academic probation so that it’s less punitive and instead motivates students to seek out support and get back on track. (See Academic Standing Project)
  • Simplifying bureaucratic hassles like navigating a major map and the financial aid process that can leave students feeling drained and can sap their motivation long before they’re even in a classroom.

Schools can and should learn from each other. Many student pain points are shared across institutions—for example, the early transition to college, complicated bureaucracy, gateway STEM courses, or social tensions in dorms. Understanding what different schools are doing to address students’ experiences is essential and it is what the College Transition Collaborative (CTC) is focused on in its current work: The Student Experience Project (SEP). SEP is a collective of university leaders, faculty, researchers and national education organizations who are committed to innovative, research-based practices that prioritize student success.

SEP seeks to improve students’ feelings of belonging, dignity, and respect; their interactions with peers, faculty, staff, and administrators; and also their academic motivation, persistence, and performance. These kinds of school partnerships and networks help administrators who may not have this specific training and expertise develop it through conversations and learning with other schools facing similar challenges.

What can donors do to learn more and support equitable outcomes in higher education?

Here are some actionable steps you can take to learn more and support equitable outcomes in higher education:

  • Sign up for updates from organizations that are creating and using evidence-based strategies to support students’ experiences. Or contact them to have a conversation about donating to their research. Some of those organizations include:
  • Ask the colleges and universities you support what they are doing to understand students’ experiences and the barriers to belonging.
  • Suggest that the colleges and universities you support learn more about potential partnerships with evidence-based organizations like the ones listed above that prioritize the students’ social and psychological experience as a way to increase students’ success and address inequalities in college completion.
  • Support student emergency funds for your local/favorite university to alleviate some of the stigma that stems from students’ economic, social, and/or material needs.

Finally, stay tuned to the CTC, APLU, and USU as we launch the Student Experiences Project and our learning network of colleges and universities. We can’t wait to share what we find about how institutions across the country can understand and address students’ experiences in college.