Getting to Graduation: Positive Psychology for Higher-ed Student Retention

By some standards, college attendance in the US is a remarkable success story. After all, nearly 4 out of 5 high school grads will enroll in college within 8 years of their high school graduation. Sadly, retention of these students is quite low. Nearly a quarter of the undergraduates in the United States are placed on academic probation at least once during their college tenure, and of these students, close to 40% do not go on to graduate from college.

The Costs of Attrition

Many undergraduate colleges and universities have first-year programs in place to prevent academic struggles. These may focus on remedying academic under-preparedness; reluctance to seek help; interference from known disabilities; and financial, family, personal, or social challenges. But many students–as many as 25% of freshman–end up on academic probation. The costs of this are high–in raw dollars spent, defaulted loans, and unrealized dreams. Families, colleges, lenders, employers, grant providers and government are all affected. To the student, the costs stretch far beyond the financial.

New Pathways to Success

The application of Positive Psychology holds great promise for students of all ages who have learning challenges. In addition to having studied at UPenn with Martin Seligman and numerous experts in the field, I have over 30 years of experience working with struggling students across the age span. This includes college students who are in academic difficulty. They may have many reasons for struggling, including undiagnosed learning challenges, lacking necessary skills, or being emotionally under-equipped to self-motivate. And that is the short list.

However, by teaching students to identify the strengths and resources they already have, and help them also reach out to new resources of which they might not be aware, my struggling students have gone on to succeed and graduate from college, and even professional schools. I am currently exploring whether and how what I have learned about embedding positive psychology can be made more broadly applicable to help students who cannot access a full one-on-one coaching engagement.

Could You Be First?

My first goal is to find a group of students currently enrolled in a single college or university. Who might benefit from this more broad-based approach that embeds positive psychology success science into best practices the college or university already offers? Perhaps you! I am already testing my curriculum with athlete groups as part of a research study. My approach is unique. Since I have never lost a student to dropping out, I’d like to see this work extend more broadly, beyond my own work as a successful coach and consultant.

Your input is needed in customizing the design for this new approach. What can be most helpful and engaging to students, and in what form, while potentially maximizing the value of their college education? I look forward to input from a variety of stakeholders, especially students. Are you or your college or university struggling with retention? Let’s talk.

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