Faculty Resource Network

An academic partnership devoted to faculty development. Now in our fourth decade, we remain committed to this partnership, and to fostering connection, collaboration, and collegiality among our members.

First Year Students’ Definitions of Success


Defining and Promoting Student Success
A National Symposium
November 21-22, 2008
University of San Francisco
San Francisco, California


Sonia V. Gonsalves, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Ramya Vijaya, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

One in four freshmen drops out of college and only approximately 50% of college students graduate after six years of school. Financial pressure, academic disqualification and poor fit are among the top reasons cited students who have dropped out. Regardless of the reason, far too many college students are unsuccessful in their educational pursuits. This descriptive study categorizes and summarizes the opinions of freshman students about success in college. Students come into college hoping to succeed and faculty want to help students succeed. What each constituent means by “success” is an important part of facilitating the journey and knowing when it has been achieved. The perspectives that incoming students have about the nature of success in college, and the contributing factors that support it, are therefore important areas of inquiry. Although definitions may vary, institutions, faculty, parents, and other stakeholders all share the goal of success for each student. How better to try to realize all these convergent ambitions for success than to have students think about and articulate their beliefs about success in college, to discuss their positions with them, and to familiarize them with the current research and expert thinking on the topic?

Both the timing of the data gathering and the content are important. Given that students want to succeed, however success is defined, students who have the opportunity to unpack this goal and reflect on their role in taking responsibility for success at the advent of their college careers should benefit from the process of clarifying, articulating, and later discussing their positions. This analysis of the nature of, and the reason for success could itself prove to be an intervention that influences their path. Furthermore, if faculty have prior knowledge information about students’ beliefs and attributions, they can conceivably make use of it to inform students and to give them the type of feedback that supports this shared goal.

Existing research identifies several variables that are consistently related to student success. Kuh and Hu (2001) highlighted student engagement with faculty; Pike and Kuh (2005) described environmental and instructional variables, such as collaborative practices in and out of the classroom, as important correlates of students’ success; and Pascarella, Pierson, Wolniak, and Terenzini (2004) conducted a longitudinal study that showed clear advantage for students who have at least one parent who attended college. Pike and Kuh (2005) also found evidence of the supportive impact of second generation status among college students. Undoubtedly there are cognitive, metacognitive, personality and demographic variables that are associated with student success. Fazey and Fazey (2001) are among the researchers who looked at some of these factors and predicted better academic outcomes for students who are motivated and who have a perceived internal locus of control. Other studies show gender differences in likelihood of success in college.

In this study we were particularly interested in gender and locus of control as they relate to perceptions of success. Specifically we queried the extent to which students believe that the keys to success are in their hands and the differences between men and women in holding this belief. Investigations of gender differences in locus of control have tended to yield mixed results. Some studies (Cairns et al. 1990) have reported findings that suggest females have a more external locus of control than do males. Archer and Waterman (1988) conducted a review of several studies on gender differences in locus of control. The results of the review were inconclusive with the majority of studies reporting no gender differences; several had findings that indicate males are more internal and females more external, and one study showing females more internal than males. Clearly there is not enough consistency in the results to be definitive about gender differences in locus of control. In this study we collected self reported data from students about their perceptions of success and the likely causes of success and failure in college.

The data were collected from students in a four year institution with a population of 7,300. 47% of freshman applicants are accepted for a freshman class of 850 students. Approximately 98% of the students are the students from New Jersey.

We administered a survey on student success to 112 first year students in their second week of college and again in the final week of their first semester. 62% of the group was female and 71% were first generation college students. Their average age was 18 years. The surveys were administered by freshman seminar leaders in five seminars and the students completed them anonymously.

The students were asked to register their level of agreement on their judgment of several variables as primary to the concept of “success in college.” Factors included learning, getting a good job, getting into graduate school, making useful contacts, enjoying the college experience, making and keeping friends, and meeting family expectation. Students also had the opportunity to write in other topics that were not on the list. In two other items, students recorded their level of agreement about whom or what would be most responsible for their possible success and possible failure or to complete the sentence, “I will know that my college experience is a success when ……”

The success factors were classified as “internal” or “external” and as “current” or “future.” The first dichotomy addresses attribution dimension or ascription of success and failure to student variables (internal), such as study habits and academic choices, or to external variables such as family or institutional support and the college faculty. The second division was constructed to differentiate between the conceptualization of success in the present, such as “getting good grades” or in the future such as “getting a well paid job.” We hypothesized that there would be gender differences and differences between first generation college students and those students whose parent(s) are college graduates in the definitions of success and in the proposed reasons for success or failure.

In both tests students stressed internal factors over external as critical to both success and failure. There were significant gender differences, female students rated internal factors more germane than did male students and they also rated the factors in the future as more indicative of success over factors in the present than did their male counterparts. There were no generational status differences in either the attribution or the future/present dimensions in either test. Overall, both the test results were statistically similar for the group. The reports were very stable over the semester period and no significant differences were found between the two tests.

Although the students’ opinions were stable over the semester, the question about the most likely cause of failure showed significant change with a greater percentage of students (42%) agreeing that financial considerations could derail their college career in the end of semester test than in the earlier test (27%). In a less marked change in opinion, 33% of students in the end of semester test anticipated that “college specific” factors could lead to their failure in comparison to the 24% who anticipated that in the first test.

Although the characterizations of success were dominated by graduation from college and getting a good job, there were more elaborate descriptions of success in the final test than there were in the beginning of semester test. Fifteen percent of the end of semester test responses to the open-ended questions were complex, reflective, and multivariate; this was more than twice as many as there were in the pre-test. These responses include such offerings as, “I can look back and honestly say that I am a better, more rounded person due to my experiences here,” and, “I have become a more involved and productive member of society and can thankfully say that college has helped me to succeed.” There was an increase in the number of students who mentioned happiness as a criterion for measuring success in the end of semester test condition (5.4%/11%) and both tests had one or two truly unique success criteria (“I can’t decide whether to spend the weekend in my mountain cabin or my beach house; I am just so successful”).

98% of the students in this sample reported that they were confident that they would succeed in college. In fact, over the past six years, there has been a steady decline in the percentage of incoming students who believe that they are likely to drop out of college for any reason. Another on-going study of a larger group of freshman at the same institution showed that incoming students are increasingly confident that they will complete their college degree.

Table 1: Likelihood of dropping out: Freshman responses

About 50% of university students typically leave before receiving a degree. At this time in your college career, do you think this could happen to you?

Although the students in this study downplayed the importance of environmental factors in their success and expressed strong conviction that they, and the decisions that they made, were primarily responsible for their success, Kuh (2006) has identified several factors that could threaten the leading measure of success that they identify: persistence in college to graduation. One such factor is first generation status as a college student, a status that would describe the majority of the student participants in this study. Kuh also found that students who worked more than 30 hours each week were at greater risk factor for dropping out of college.

Gladwell (2008) in a less academic and more populist case-based thesis also reinforces the importance of environmental factors in success in general and challenges the notion that success can frequently be attributed to individual talent, skill, and effort without a lot of other environmental support. He highlights preparation, timing, and cohort group peculiarities as critical variables in success in fields as diverse as hockey, litigation law, and computer technology. There is an intuitive as well as an empirical basis for the perspective that many external factors affect and even determine success and although the students did not discount outside factors entirely, they were strongly and stably convinced that the keys to success were in their hands.

Faculty influence was not rated highly as a determinant of success by the students in this study, however, Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh and Whitt (2006) are not as dismissive of faculty influence. They identify several instructional factors that support student success. These include the quality and frequency of feedback from faculty, the availability of faculty to work with students outside of class, and the exposure of students to pedagogies of engagement. Terenzini and Pascarella (2001) concur with this finding.

The data from this study proved to be a good starting point for a discussion among students and between faculty and students about the meaning of, path to, and obligations of success. The findings were informative for faculty who teach first year students. Faculty used the results to point out to students that there is a shared responsibility for their success, and that personal, instructional, institutional and many other environmental and personal variables matter. Students were able to trace the probable path of some of the correlates of success that prior research has uncovered and to explore the likelihood that they would be helped by engagement with faculty, working fewer hours, relying on family support in challenging times and by taking responsibility for the academic and social decision that they make during the college years.

Additionally this data can also be useful as a reference point for planning academic support services such as tutoring, learning support, mentoring, advising and writing centers. Students entering college with a stronger identification with “internal” factors of success might be less inclined to seek external support or engage with institutional support systems beyond the immediate context of courses they are currently enrolled in. This calls for diverse methods of introducing such services to students beyond the initial orientation period. For example, faculty collaboration could be sought to embed such introductions within freshmen seminars or other first year courses so that students start to view institutional support as “internal” to the academic process.

The sample group had very little age (mean 18 years, s.d 0.4 years), geographic, or racial diversity. The students appeared to have very similar expectations and experiences, and framework for conceptualizing success. Similarly the large proportion of first generation students in this sample could also have been a factor in the homogeneity of the responses. First generation students might be less aware of institutional support services offered in an academic environment and might be less confident of engaging with faculty outside the class room. Results from investigation of a more heterogeneous population could yield different perspectives and solicit different reactions from faculty.

Archer, S. L. & Waterman, A. S. (1988). Psychological Individualism: Gender Differences or Gender Neutrality? Human Development, 31(2), 65-81.

Cairns, E., McWhirter, L., Duffy, U. & Barry, R. (1990). The Stability of Self-concept in late Adolescence: Gender and Situational Effects. Personality and Individual Differences, 11(9), 937-944.

Fazey, D. M. & Fazey, J. A. (2001). The Potential for Autonomy in Learning: Perceptions of Competence, Motivation and Locus of Control in First Year Undergraduate Students [Electronic Version]. Studies in Higher Education, 26(3), 345-361.

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The Story of Success. Hachette Book Group, New York, NY.

Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J., Whitt, E. (2006). Student Success in College: Assessing the Conditions for Educational Effectiveness. National Resource Center for The First Year Experience and Students in Transition. http://www.sc.edu/fye/index.html.

Kuh, G. D. & Hu, S. (2001). The Effects of Student-Faculty Interaction in the 1990s [Electronic Version]. The Review of Higher Education, 24(3), 309-332.

Pascarella, E. T., Edison, M., Hagedorn, L. S., Nora, A. & Terenzini, P. T. (1996). Influences on Students’ Internal Locus of Attribution for Academic Success in the First Year of College. Research in Higher Education, 37(6), 731-756.

Pascarella, E. T., Pierson, C. T., Wolniak, G. C., & Terenzini, P. T. (2004). First-Generation College Students: Additional Evidence on College Experiences and Outcomes [Electronic Version]. The Journal of Higher Education, 75(3), 249-284.

Pike, G. R. & Kuh, G. D. (2005a). First- and Second-Generation College Students: A Comparison of their Engagement and Intellectual Development [Electronic Version]. The Journal of Higher Education, 76(3), 276-300.

Pike, G. R. & Kuh, G. D. (2005a). A Typology of Student Engagement for American Colleges and Universities [Electronic Version]. Research in Higher Education, 46(2), 185-209.