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Student Success Redefined


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


Patricia M. Carey, New York University

Who and what defines student success? Is there only one standard? How do we explain divergence from the mean? Here we explore self-image, expectations, campus climate and an academic development model that promotes student success.

He attended a large urban public high school with an insatiable appetite for more academic resources for its students. He was not at the top of his class, nor did he grow up privileged. Nonetheless, he was offered admission to college and enrolled through a special program that believed he had the potential, and expected him to succeed. He completed his baccalaureate degree, went on to complete his master’s degree, and Fall 2008, began medical school, choosing one from among the six offers he received.

What is our young man telling us? Rather than taking a passive role, waiting for his story to lead, with outcomes unknown, our young man decided to become active in charting the course of his life. “Yes, I am black; I am male. But, I am more than that. I am poor on paper, but I have never thought of myself as being poor in spirit.” Our young man is a good example of what Berger & Luckman (1966) describe as our capacity to change scripts; our capacity to rethink our lives to reach our goals. We reinvent ourselves as we are moving forward in time, we are editing our narratives, our own sense of who we are, and who we want others to think we are. I like what Confucius said: “They must often change who would be constant in happiness or wisdom.” We take a page, too, from Greenbaum (2008), who looked at students who, unlike our young man, entered college with high grades but ended their freshman year with grade point averages near the bottom of their class. Greenbaum (2008) found that while these students were perceived as failing, like our young man, their perceptions of themselves as motivated, smart, and “going forward” were factors that kept them “going forward”, persisting in their studies.

High grade point average (GPA) and test scores on standardized tests (e.g. SATs) have been the tools historically used for predicting successful academic performance in college, too often correlated with social and economic advantage. However, our young man stepped outside these predictors. “They said it couldn’t be done – but we are doing it, succeeding in school,” our young man says.

In 1966, New York State enacted a bill to provide access to higher education for the “educationally and economically disadvantaged” students in New York State. In 1969, that legislation established the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) at independent colleges and universities in New York State. In 2006, the program was named in honor of former Assemblyman Arthur O. Eve for the crucial role he played in increasing access to higher education in New York State, urging colleges and universities to take a risk on students who otherwise would not have been admissible to college because of low SAT scores and GPAs; students considered to be under-prepared for the rigor of college studies and economically disadvantaged (New York State Higher Education Opportunity Program, 2008).

HEOP began as a groundbreaking “experiment” centered around the notion that given the opportunity for college admission, coupled with financial, academic and personal resources, economically and educationally disadvantaged students can succeed. However much they have been disadvantaged by poor academic preparation, which, in turn has had a dire impact on their academic performance, they have the aspirations and ability. As 80% of HEOP students have grown up in families with incomes of less than $21,151 and 45% with incomes of less than $10,750, the challenge is to clear the way for them to achieve their goals (New York State Higher Education Opportunity Program, 2008).

HEOP boasts a tagline, Leading the Way to Success: HEOP Works. In 2007-2008, approximately 5300 FTE students were served in 60 programs around the state. They are ethnically diverse, with African Americans and Latinos comprising the largest percentage at 35% and 41%, respectively. With over 550 students, NYU is the state’s largest HEOP program, with a graduation rate well above the national average for student completing their degrees within 5 years. More than 32,000 HEOP students state-wide have graduated since the inception of the Program, and over 80% of HEOP graduates stay, work and pay taxes in the state and contribute to their communities. (HEOP Works, 2008; New York State Higher Education Opportunity Program, 2008 ).

The model for success adopted by the NYU Opportunity Program begins with college immersion, a catch up with some of the skills and tools they will need as college students, a bridge during the summer from high school to fulltime study in the fall. When students begin classes, they are fully integrated into the classroom experience with their peers, and are supported academically with academic workshops, intensives and tutoring, advisement and counseling. Our message to students is that they matter, they can succeed.

We are preparing today’s students to succeed academically, develop, grow and thrive personally and career-wise, and educating the whole person for the whole world. Our challenge with students who have been labeled “about to fail” or “at risk” is especially daunting because we are, for the most part, asking Opportunity students to alter negative perceptions and adaptive behaviors, and reinvent themselves to succeed. At the same time, we are also asking our institutions to reinvent themselves as places where all of their students can be successful.

In looking at the Program today within a theoretical framework, a growing body of research informs our understanding of some of the psychosocial dynamics behind the success of the Program. In particular, we draw on the research of Steele,1999, and Aronson, 2002; 2009, who look at the environment and its impact on self-perceptions, expectations and academic performance. We already know that by the time students enroll in college, they have already lived 17 or 18 years of their lives. They have developed perceptions of their world, including the stereotypes that often fuel those perceptions and shape their expectations about their world; they have adapted mechanisms for survival; and created a sense of self, gender and ethnicity playing defining roles (e.g., see Howe & Strauss, 2000). How does the power of stereotypes — here defined as what we think people are like — move us toward behaviors that are self-fulfilling prophesies? How do stereotypes affect social interactions, learning experiences, and academic performance?

When equally capable African American students fail to perform as well as their white counterparts on a difficult standardized test, some see this underperformance as fear of failure (Rothblum,1990) or a process of resistance that enables students of color to maintain their humanness in the face of a stigmatized racial identity (Fordham, 2001, p.3) Steele (1999) and Aronson (2002) explain this underperformance as a result of students experiencing threat of stereotypes about their capacity to succeed. Stereotype threat is a social psychological defense that is rooted in stereotypical images of blacks as intellectually inferior (Aronson, 2009, p.281). Afraid that they may be viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype, and do something that would inadvertently confirm that stereotype — that, for example, they really are less able, less capable (Steele, 1999, p.3) — students indeed perform less well than would be expected otherwise.

These researchers have administered a variety of protocols, testing this notion of stereotype or social identity threat — using evaluative and non-evaluative measures –with simple tasks and manipulating language. For example, black students, equally matched on ability with their white counterparts, when told that a test they were about to take would test their ability, performed less well; when told the same test was a task to study how certain problems are generally solved, their performance matched that of their white counterparts (Steele, 1999, p.5). Stereotype threat was reduced; performance improved. Simply sitting down to take a difficult test of ability was enough to remind black students of their race and stereotypes. Change the language; change performance; alter the threat (p.5)

It is not weaker, but stronger academic identity and skills that expose students to the pressures of stereotype threat. These are the students who may have long seen themselves as good students but, led into the domain of their strengths, they worry that their future will be compromised by society’s perception and treatment of their group (p.7). It is not just a matter of being in a situation and being aware of stereotypes; one must care about the situation or activity, be invested, as it were, to feel threatened or disturbed by the prospect of being stereotyped in it (p.6). For example, “It is important that I do well on this test so that I can be admitted to college.” Aronson (2002) found that stereotypes make students try harder on tests to disprove the stereotype (p.284), and in stereotype-threatening situations, students appear to be thinking about the stereotype – aware of it, and wrestling with the possibility of confirming it (p.284). Even in nonevaluative situations, the mere mention of race can affect performance (p.285) because even when one knows that a stereotype is false, one is still contending with the perceptions of other people (p.288).

Another important factor these researchers point out is that “when strong black students…take a difficult standardized test, the extra apprehension they feel in comparison with whites is less about their own ability than it is about having to perform on a test and in a situation that may be primed to treat them stereotypically.” (Steele, 1999, p.8) Detaching oneself from, or disidentifying with the threatening situation is one way students deal with stereotype threat. When confronted with failure, disidentification protects self-esteem (Aronson, 2009; Steele, 1999). Not speaking up in class and avoiding academic challenges are other adaptations to stereotype threat (Aronson, 2002. p.292).

While this writer has put the focus on African Americans, negative stereotypes surround whichever groups of which we are members: women, the disabled, a particular generation, old white males. In a situation in which one of those stereotypes applies, we know that we may be judged by it. According to our researchers, therefore, we all experience stereotype threat. For African American students in general, negative stereotypes apply in many situations (Steele, 1999, p.3). Stereotype threat and social identity threat research capture the effects the power of stereotypes can have on academic performance (Aronson, 2002, p. 297). Steele (1999) suggests, however, that the more predictive factor in the academic success of black students may rest with the campus climate and building students’ trust that negative stereotypes about their group will not have a limiting effect in their school world (p.8).

With “words” and “deeds” that we hoped communicated high expectations, respect and trust, we knew at the time, each feature of the Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunity Program at New York University, from the time it was first implemented, was positioning students to compete for excellence in a diverse and global community alongside their peers. We did not know, however, that our model for student success was a model for lessening “stereotype threat.”

  • Admitting our young man who showed the potential but was otherwise inadmissible to NYU based on his high school GPA and his test scores on the SAT;
  • Admitting our young man who would not otherwise have been able to afford an NYU education without New York State and New York University’s financial commitment to economic diversity, providing him with a financial aid award, including a monthly stipend;
  • Admitting our young man and giving him a “catch-up”, a “bridge” through a special program the summer before he was to begin fall semester classes;
  • Integrating him into his classes with his peers – sitting next to students who were admitted with SAT scores and GPAs well above his, and whose family earnings may have been 3x the amount his family earned;
  • Integrating him into residential life
  • Providing our young man with academic support through workshops, tutoring;
  • Providing our young man with advisement, counseling and mentoring;
  • Providing our young man with student activities, events, and opportunities;
  • Immersing him in the life of his college;
  • Not labeling him.

I was so excited about going to college. My family background said I couldn’t, but I knew I could do it. I could be successful. Yeah, there have been lots of struggles, disappointments, surprises, pain in growing up…Things other students take for granted when you become a college student, things you bring with you to college like laptops, even living on campus – I wasn’t able to do. In fact, my home life was so complicated, I’m embarrassed to really talk about it, the disgrace I feel. But, you know, I’m on a mission. I have a plan. And I guess my life wasn’t all bad, was it, so here I am…

Aronson, Joshua (2002). “Stereotype Threat: Contending and Coping with Unnerving Expectations.” Improving Academic Achievement: Impact of Psychological Factors on Education. J. Aronson, ed. San Diego: Academic Press, 279-299.

Aronson, J. & McGlone, M (2009). Stereotypes and Social Identity Threat. Unpublished Manuscript.

Berger P. & Luckman, T. (1966) The Social Construction of Reality. New York: Anchor Books, 1966)

Confucius (551BC-479BC). The Analects.

Fordham, Signithia (2001). “In Berlak, Harold. Race and the Achievement Gap.” Rethinking Schools Online, Summer 2001, http://www.rethinkingschools.org/archive/15_04/Race154.shtml

Greenbaum, S. (2008). The Freshman Fizzle. Doctoral Dissertation. University of Pennsylvania.

HEOP Works! http://www.cicu.org/CMT/reports/HEOP.pdf

Howe, N. & Strauss, W. (2000). Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. New York: Vintage Books.

New York State Higher Education Opportunity Program. http://www.highered.nysed.gov/kiap/COLLEGIATE/HEOP/introduction_to_heop.htm

Rothblum, E. (1990) “Fear of Failure.” Handbook of Social and Evaluation Anxiety. M. Leitenberg, ed. NY: Plenum Press.)

Steele, C. (1997). “A Threat in the air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Identity and Performance.” American Psychologist, 52, 613-629.

Steele, C. (1999). “Thin Ice: Stereotype Threat & Black College Students”. The Atlantic, http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/199908/student-stereotype/3

________ (1992). “Race & the Schooling of Black Americans.” The Atlantic, http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/199204/race-education/4