We Know What Works to Close the Completion Gap

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Lately, when I think about the persistent gap in graduation rates by race and ethnicity, I’m reminded of the opening line from a recent book on an equally intractable topic: "Nearly everything we understand about global warming," writes Nathaniel Rich in Losing Earth, "was understood in 1979."

The same could be said of one of the most persistent and damning problems facing higher education in the United States: the gap in college completion between white undergraduates and their fellow students from underrepresented minority groups. Six-year graduation rates for white students at American colleges and universities are still nearly 30 percentage points higher than for black students, and nearly 20 points higher than for Hispanic students. Those numbers should outrage anyone with an interest in American higher education.

With both climate change and college completion, the problem is not a lack of knowledge about what needs to be done, but a lack of other things: will, effective collaboration, money, luck.

A good example of what I mean can be found in a recent article in The Chronicle about efforts to reform large introductory courses at the University of Michigan. Such courses at research universities are notorious for a lot of reasons, not least because they so often seem to be at the center of college-opportunity gaps. As the article reported: "The students who struggle in gateway courses are disproportionately lower-income, first-generation, or from underrepresented minorities." Michigan is looking to change that through a $5-million project that is designed to transform courses taken by 80 percent of the university’s undergraduates.

Yet what struck me most while reading about the project was how little novelty there was in the reforms being put into place at Michigan. Don’t get me wrong: The university is adopting some effective practices. But they are not revolutionary ideas:

  • Some of the intro courses are integrating peer mentors.
  • Other courses are explicitly teaching metacognitive skills and study strategies.
  • For an intro class in business administration, the professors agreed on three significant learning goals and then used them to "backward-design" assessments and class activities.
  • An intro physics course is trying out small classes in which students solve problems rather than memorize formulas from lectures.

Peer mentors. Study strategies. Backward design. Small, problem-solving courses. Those are precisely the kinds of things that teaching centers — like the one I work for — recommend all the time. Michigan is betting that an investment in effective teaching practices will lead to outsize changes in outcomes for students.

What is, frankly, shocking is how rarely colleges and universities take such an approach even though we know it works.

Nearly every institution in higher education has as a stated goal: Create a welcoming and diverse environment for all students. Some go further and explicitly aim to close achievement gaps between privileged and underprivileged groups of students. Go to the website of any major university, and it’s easy to find an ambitious initiative to improve the success of underrepresented students and reduce completion gaps.

What’s not so easy to find are diversity initiatives that have anything to do with teaching.

Sure, you’ll find commitments to hire more minority faculty members and vague intentions to "enhance the curriculum by including the contributions and perspectives of different races, cultures, and gender." But in most campus-diversity plans, it’s rare to see any attention paid to teaching practices or to find any real investment in helping faculty members improve their teaching in ways that will help underrepresented students succeed.

All of that is even more surprising given how much research has been conducted in recent years on closing academic-achievement gaps within college courses. Here’s some of what we now know:

  • So-called "highly structured" courses have been shown to lead to significant gains in academic performance for students from educationally and/or economically disadvantaged backgrounds. "Highly structured" means that each class session is designed as a time when students work. They have to prepare for class, participate in active-learning exercises throughout class, and complete regular, low-stakes assessments throughout the semester. Those techniques worked to narrow the achievement gaps in large classes, and didn’t require much in the way of financial resources to adopt.
  • A simple "values affirmation" intervention — jargon for asking students to write about their most important personal values — can have a surprisingly strong effect on academic performance for students who typically struggle in college. Studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of this strategy among first-generation college students, underrepresented-minority students, and women in STEM disciplines. Although researchers warn against seeing this as a magic bullet, it does seem that giving students an opportunity to reflect about what they most value can go a long way toward mitigating the effects of stereotype threat (the fear of confirming stereotypes about their own group).
  • How you as the professor view your students and their capabilities has a real impact on which ones succeed in class. In a 2019 study, researchers at the University of Indiana found that a professor’s mindset — a belief that intelligence is either fixed or malleable — was the characteristic that most influenced achievement gaps by race in STEM courses. In short, students were more successful in a class where the professor believed their ability could be improved with practice than when the instructor treated their ability to learn as fixed.

There’s also reason to believe that helping underrepresented-minority students succeed in class will have an outsize effect on their graduation rates. A remarkable study, published in 2018, analyzed longitudinal data to better understand the persistent college-completion gap between white and black students. When the researchers studied those populations before they entered college — looking for factors that best predicted success in college — they found, unsurprisingly, that differences in income and school quality were the biggest contributor to the graduate-rate gap by race.

But they found something different when they looked for the factors that had the biggest influence on achievement once students were in college. What mattered most was academic performance. In contrast with earlier studies, which suggested that social engagement was the key to student persistence, this study found that differences in GPA explained "most of the discrepancy in black and white students’ completion rates." That is to say: If you help these students succeed academically in their college courses, you help them to graduate.

Will changes in how we teach result in the elimination of college-completion gaps? Probably not. There are still far too many forces outside of an institution’s control, ensuring that inequality will continue to mar almost all sectors of American life.

But what about within the realm we do control?

We have a pretty good idea of how to teach in a way that narrows gaps in academic achievement. What we don’t have are institutional cultures that spread this knowledge and resources that support instructors in making these changes. Help faculty members teach better, and you’ll help more students succeed.

David Gooblar, a former lecturer in the rhetoric department at the University of Iowa, is now associate director of Temple University’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching. He writes about teaching for The Chronicle. His new book, The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You About College Teaching, was published in August by Harvard University Press. To find more advice on teaching, browse his previous columns here

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