How Honest Should we be to College Students?

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

This week at EPI’s International Conference on Student Success (Retention 2011), I attended a session by Tom Mortenson, Senior Scholar at The Pell Institute and editor of Postsecondary Opportunity. Tom looked at the issue of predicted versus actual persistence and graduation rates at US four-year colleges and universities. Interesting stuff.

The data launched us into a dialogue about what responsibility college officials—including administrators, professors, counselors, and advisors—have to tell students where they stand with regard to prospective graduation and college success. Every institution houses the data and technology to run every prospective student through a real-time regression analysis to provide a predictive rate of success. That is, we can come up with the odds of a particular student’s chance of graduation from any institution.

If we can do this, the question is what do we do with that information? On one hand, we can surely use it to determine whether we admit or reject that student. We do that now. But for most of the institutions that are either open admission or have liberal admissions policies, these data have other potential services. In this case, if we know that Student A has a 36 percent chance of success at our institution, then what do we do with that data? The participants in Tom’s session were dialoging about whether we tell the student what we already know: that they are at risk.

One participant was adamant that it would be morally apprehensible to tell students that their odds of success are low. It would, in her words, crush their motivation and thus put them at even greater risk of failure.

I disagreed. In fact, for years I have counseled just the opposite. At our Retention 101 workshops, I advise participants that we have a moral and ethical responsibility to advise students exactly where they stand, what they need to do to succeed, and how we are able to support them.

Let’s go back to Student A (Stephan), who just walked into my advising office at The University of Virginia Beach (no, it isn’t real!). I believe that we should do a number of things for Stephan. First, we need to let him know that, given his past academic performance, the rigor of his past course taking during high school and/or postsecondary experiences, and his scores on social inventories (e.g., attitudes, work ethics, etc.), that two thirds of students at our institution with similar attributes did not complete their degree program at UVB. I feel strongly that we owe it to students to be direct and brutally honest with them about the hurdles ahead.

However, if we just do that alone, then I do agree we do a disservice to students. Thus, the important piece is what we choose to do next. After advising the student about where they perhaps fall short, we must then illustrate to them how students like them managed to success at UVB. We can do this in a conversation, but we can also provide students with a two-page handout, developed specifically for them, which provides ratings in a variety of areas, but showcases strategies they can utilize for success. With this paper in hand, the conversation may go like this:

Stephan, let’s take a look at your academic record. As you can see, you did okay in high school and you completed all the requirements for admissions here. Given this record, we compared your record with those of other UVB students. Look at Section I on the first page. Thirty-six percent of our students who had similar records to you ended up graduating with a degree here. Another 20 percent ended up transferring to another institution and received a degree there. And 44 percent did not graduate, by our records.

You are here because you want to earn a degree, and we want to help you. We want you to be part of the first group: those who graduate from UVB. However, our primary interest is in helping you reach your goals. In the future, that may be elsewhere, but we’re going to do what we can to help you succeed here.

An important point for you to understand is that just because 64 percent of students who looked like you did not receive a degree from UVB does not mean that you can’t. In fact, we’re counting on your success. We have some strategies and practices that we want you to consider here at UVB that others have used very effectively. If you do these things, while we can’t guarantee your success, your propensity for success will increase exponentially.

Stephan, when we looked at other students like you who succeeded, here are some of the things they did on the pathways to success:

  1. They attended classes. It seems simple; seems obvious, but students who miss class increase their odds of dropping out by 250 percent. Go to class. Make good use of your time. Listen. Engage. Talk to fellow students. Talk to the instructors. Talk to the RAs. Engage.
  2. They studied at least 20 hours a week. You are a full-time student taking five courses this fall. You should probably plan on studying about 4-5 hours for each of these courses per week, knowing that sometimes it will have to be more, and sometimes you can afford less. But you need to study. Students who don’t study, and don’t study enough, drop out of UVB. You need to study, and study hard. Your job is to be a student, and successful students study.
  3. They used our tutoring services. During our orientation, you were introduced to the math and writing tutoring center located in the Student Union Building. The center is staffed by juniors and seniors as well as full-time professions whose job it is to help you and others with academic challenges. College is tough. We all need help at some time from some one. Sometimes a lot of help. We plan on that and have provided that support for you and other UVB students. Use it. It’s free and we work with your schedule. I want to schedule an appointment now for a diagnostic of your skills. We’ll do that later, okay?
  4. They used our academic support center. In addition to our tutoring services, our academic support center provides other important skill development opportunities, including time management and study skills. To succeed here at ABC, you need to know how to make the most of your time. You need to learn how to study so that you increase your efficiency in reading, writing, and comprehending your assignments and tasks. Our successful students are organized. They keep logs and calendars for not only their classes, but for their “studies.”
  5. Make friends. Our successful students made friends with other students. They would hang out with them, study with them, and yes, even party with them. They joined clubs, volunteered, and played in intramural sports and academic challenge groups. They had fun as a UVB student and they ended up being more satisfied and happier with their experience here than other students. We want that for you. As you can see on our webpage, we provide numerous opportunities to connect you with other people on campus. Reach out and try. And, if you want, we can help you make the connections. This is a fun place and the people are great. Get to know them. They may end up being your best friends for life.
  6. They studied when they weren’t on campus. When our successful students went home on break or for the summer, they kept their head in the game. They read a related book. They worked ahead on a paper due the following semester. They had fun, they relaxed, they hit the beach or the slopes, but they kept on track and didn’t kill too many brain cells.

Stephan, there are some of the things that you can do to help you succeed. If you do these things, we see you walking down the aisle with a cap and gown in four years from now. Perhaps even earlier, depending on your schedule. We are confident that the support we provide will give you the tools you need to succeed. But success only happens if you do the things that you need to do for success. Success doesn’t happen by osmosis. Just “being here” doesn’t mean a thing. It just means we are collecting your money. Success depends completely on the effort that you put into your studies. We’re here to help, but we need your engagement.

So, Stephan, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on what I just said…

Before Stephan leaves, I go over the part of the document to Stephan that states basically what I just told him, complete with detailed steps, as above, with contact information and locations to get the support he may require. I also tell him what meetings I have already scheduled for him. His diagnostic session at the tutoring center. His initial visit at the academic center.

As I stated, I believe institutions have a moral and ethical responsibility to advise students in a real and unvarnished manner. We do not need to sugarcoat anything. They are big boys and big girls of all ages. Even our adult students. They need to know their chances of success and what it takes to be there. We must illustrate, with example, what they need to do to succeed. And we need to target our most at-risk students and make sure they use our services. If we just suggest services, most of them won’t use them. At-risk populations are the least likely to ask for help. We have to help them with the “ask.” We need to get them to session number one.


About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at
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One Response to How Honest Should we be to College Students?

  1. Steve Fishman says:

    I agree that “institutions have a moral and ethical responsibility to advise students in a real and unvarnished manner” however, if we know (due to past academic records) that success for a high percentage of students is unlikely, why do we accept them in the first place. Don’t institutions have a moral and ethical responsibility to accept students who odds of graduating are high?

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