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Five Weird Ways to College Success

By Jay Mathews_Washington Post Staff Writer_Tuesday, June 13, 2006; 11:26 AM

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/13/AR2006061300628.html

Like many education reporters, I get an unbelievable number of boring books in the mail. Some are so dull they slow the space-time continuum. I feel like I am swimming in molasses as I try to lift my arm and drop them in the waste basket.

But I look through them anyway, because some surprise me. Take, for instance, "College Student Retention: Formula for Student Success," edited by Alan Seidman and published by the American Council on Education and Praeger. It has a green, white and black cover with many words but no pictures. It is full of charts and mathematical formulae. It is very expensive. (When a book costs $49.95, you know the publisher really doesn't expect to sell very many, except to the authors' relatives.) And it has 19 contributors, another sign of an academic snooze fest designed to pad the authors' curriculum vitaes.

But "College Student Retention" turns out to be a page-turner, at least for those of us worried that nearly half of students who start college still haven't graduated six years later. For some particularly thought-provoking research, turn to page 245 and read the paper by Alexander W. Astin and Leticia Oseguera of UCLA.

Astin is a very big deal in higher education research, with 20 books to his credit. Oseguera until recently was a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, founded by Astin, which produces a marvelous annual survey of about 400,000 college freshmen across the country. Their chapter, "Pre-College and Institutional Influences on Degree Attainment," uses some of the survey data, and research by others in the field, to identify factors most likely to lead to failure to get a bachelor's degree.

I know this may offend these fine scholars who have done all this hard work, but I think the clearest way to present their most intriguing findings is to render them as a list: Five Weird Ways to College Success.

Here is what might help you get a degree. (Note to all those statisticians who love to remind me that correlation is not causation: I realize that whatever the numbers say, these choices might have very little or nothing to with graduation rates in the real world, but they are too provocative to resist mentioning.)

1. Pick a college with lots of Catholics.

This conclusion is based on Astin's own research, and like all such factors, it is only one of many things that might improve your chances of college graduation. Astin and Oseguera do not say why the presence of so many students with that religious preference would make a difference, but I suspect it is because colleges with the most Catholic students tend to be run by Catholics, and Catholic educators see their jobs as doing God's work, and thus take it very seriously. (One of the colleges I attended was started by Presbyterians and the other by Congregationalists. These happen to be the two religious groups my family has found most congenial, but I don't remember God mentioned much at either of those campuses, except at exam time and during particularly stressful football games.)

2. Don't smoke.

Astin and Oseguera examined the graduation rates of 56,818 students at 262 colleges, a huge sample, and reported that smoking had one of the largest negative associations with degree completion. As a life-long non-smoker and, more importantly, rabid anti-smoker, my biases tell me this is as it should be. (Astin told me: "Smoking is probably a crude proxy measure for partying, what we used to call 'hedonism.'")

3. Don't read for pleasure.

Those readers who consider me a statistical ignoramus are going to be very concerned about this one, but I am only giving you what it says in the Astin-Oseguera report. This finding surprised me too, and it will hopefully lead to some useful follow-up research. Could it be that undergraduates who read for pleasure are the most likely to resist undergraduates' weary routine of lectures and sections and required reading lists, and drop out college to work on their novels while waiting tables in Manhattan or write sonnets while growing strawberries in Oregon?

4. Don't consider yourself artistic, creative or understanding of others.

Again, a rigid focus on your upcoming exams and papers seems to improve your chances of getting a degree. Being aesthetic and empathetic does not. Astin and Oseguera said such results have been noticed by other researchers. All I can say is, try not to go overboard with the watercolor painting and song-writing when you get to college.

5. Don't major in engineering.

This is one I understand. We liberal arts majors shuddered at the sight of an engineering textbook -- all those numbers, and you actually had to get the EXACT right answer or airplanes would fall out of the sky. We admire our friends who took on this challenge, but it is easy to see why they could not, like us, slide through school with minimal effort.

There are in the Astin-Oseguera paper, and several others in the book, some less surprising reasons why students graduate from college. Among the most useful things to do to make that happen, the research says, is to select rich parents happy in their marriages and get good grades in high school. Working part-time in college (but only on campus) or doing lots of student activities also helps.

There are many other factors in this complex and important college-going process you might find interesting. Those who don't have $50 to buy the book might look for it in the library, where it is also a bad idea to smoke.

2006 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive

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