The Psychology of Student Success

Last year, in one of my messages, I introduced you to Garien. In brief, Garien grew up in Gary, Indiana, raised by a single mom, and experienced the challenges associated with the instability of limited resources and housing insecurity. He enrolled at a community college to run track, and then transferred to Indiana State University, where I worked. College was an endless ordeal of past-due bills preventing registration, navigating loan applications, not eating regularly, and at times living out of his car. I got to know him as a sophomore, became a mentor, and took him out regularly for breakfast or lunch at Denny’s. He persevered, obtaining his bachelor’s degree, and then two master’s degrees, and now works for the local school system as a behavioral intervention specialist and head track and field coach. Throughout that time, he would speak about these objective challenges with some anxiety, but they paled in comparison to what was most debilitating for him: the psychological ones. In sum, feelings of inadequacy and lack of belonging.

Having read the extensive literature on student success, the very best statistical models generally explain no more than about 20 to 30 percent of the variance in the dependent variable, retention. And those studies nearly always focus only on what is easiest to measure: student demographics, high school and first semester performance, and other items that can be found on an admissions or financial aid application. Few at scale measure psychological forces, and nearly none do so via a random-control design. Given the extent of unexplained variance, and from what I have come to observe over years of student success work, archetypically captured in the person of Garien, I believe it is in this arena that EACH of us can work and realize extensive gains in retention, student performance, and persistence to degree. We can’t fix poverty, but we can change the internal narrative.


The College Transition Collaborative, a group with which I have had an affiliation over the years, works in this space and has curated research studies that zero in on the psychological forces that impact students, typically utilizing a random-control design, and often focused on the effects on historically marginalized students. And if I had to pick my three favorite articles in this arena, they would be these:


Belonging at a broad access university:


Post-college outcomes of belonging:


The mentor’s dilemma:


If you, like me, keep in touch with friends via Facebook, we often see pictures of food being made or eaten, a group picture, or a cool place visited. Garien’s Facebook page has none of that. He’s zeroed in on the psychological forces that hold a person back. Here’s just a sample from the past week:


  • People can alter their lives by altering their attitudes.

  • Repetitive complaining will attract things for you to complain about. Repeated gratitude will attract things for you to be thankful for.

  • You never really know someone until you have listened to the soundtrack of their soul.

  • Thinking of my students on this day. Praying they are all safe and provided with the things they need to sustain. My heart as an educator doesn’t turn off after I leave the building. The privilege to be an educator and to impact lives gives me gratitude.


As we go into the final push before the holiday break, take a moment to tell a student that while college is hard, they were admitted because we believe they are capable and that as a community, we are better for their being here. I was, and am, better because of Garien.

Academic News

What Works Conference is right around the corner! The second annual conference (virtual) is set for Monday, December 12. Here is a link for details; scroll down in the site to see the schedule at a glance.


Faculty as Mentor Task Force Formed. The Provost and Chair of the Faculty Senate are co-chairing a task force to develop the core roles of faculty mentors vis-à-vis professional advisors. A report will be presented to the Faculty Senate in February 2023. Members of the task force consist of the Advisement and Registration Council of Faculty Senate and the director of the Pesce Family Mentoring Institute.


Process for Certificate Development by Departments. Associate Provost Lincoln recently distributed a document designed to inform the development of certificates at William Paterson. As part of the Strategic Plan, all departments are to explore such possibilities. A link to the document is found on the Provost’s Office website. And, come to the national webinar on micro-credentials we are hosting on Thursday, December 1 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Library Auditorium.


REMINDER on Grading: Final grades are due Saturday, December 17.

Fact and Figures

10 percentage points higher. Difference in first-year retention for socially disadvantaged (Hispanic, African American, Native American, and first-generation) students randomly assigned to the treatment vs. control condition of a social belonging experiment. (Belonging at a broad access university study, listed above)


p=.002. Significant difference in current career satisfaction and success between African American treatment and control condition graduates from a random assignment social belonging intervention while in college 8.5 years earlier. (Post-college outcomes of belonging study, listed above)


“This is not an argument against trying hard, or against choosing the stressful path. There is no development without effort; and there is seldom great achievement, or boundary breaking, without stress. And to the benefit of us all, many people have stood up to these pressures...The focus here, instead, is on what has to be gotten out of the way to make these playing fields more level. People experiencing stereotype threat are already trying hard. They're identified with their performance. They have motivation. It's the extra ghost slaying that is in their way.”

Claude M. Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us


“Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: ‘I do not belong here.’”

Sonia Sotomayor, U.S. Supreme Court Justice

The Provost’s Office is Lissette, Claudia T., Claudia C., Jonathan, Kara, Sandy, and Josh. You can reach us at 973.720.2122 •

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