Category Archives: equity

The Fear Factor in College Completion

Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Author, I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide

In an interesting discussion with a group of students recently I was sharing what I call the ten key elements for college success. One of them is that it is alright to fail. And this one caught their attention. I explained that I did not mean that it is OK to fail courses but that when you fail an exam or fail to do as well as you have hoped it is a time to regroup. It is a moment to ask questions and find out what you did wrong so that you can do better next time.  But fear of failure creates paralysis that keeps students from doing the very things that they need to do to succeed.

When we think of F the word that comes to mind is failure. When you think of F in relationship to college life it is a screaming panic letter invested with all kinds of power. Who knew that your entire life was wrapped up in one little letter of the alphabet? But in reality F before it becomes failure (which is not, by the way, a terminal state) also can stand for the fear that can lead to failing grades—which can also lead to failing to complete college.

Fear—the fear of looking dumb is one of the biggest barriers to college success that there is. This is the fear that translates to not asking questions whether in class or of advisers. It is fear that  prevents students from getting the help they need.

Youth (broadly defined as anything under 40 in my book) is a time when belonging and fitting in, finding one’s place are crucial life passages. Eric Erikson, noted psychologist, mapped life phases and this period of needing to belong as a rite of passage. It is why teams, gangs, cliques, clubs, and frats thrive. Even the military plays on this need to belong.  And who wants to be seen as the loser that no one wants on their team or in their gang? So being cool, savvy, cute or smart – or all of the above– become prized values.

So college life has this contradictory feature—it is a place where it is OK to make mistakes (within reason) if they become teachable moments. The reality of faculty life is that their research is a constant quest for answers and an engagement with trial and error. It is about ongoing inquiry. That is what is valued in college. Curiosity is good.

Truth is that as an employer I am going to prefer the employees who ask for help, learn from mistakes and have humility enough to know what they don’t know and how to access those who are smarter than they are.  So the kind of inquiry engaged in in college is again part of the dress rehearsal for the rest of your life.  But that is not how students engage it.

On many campuses first year biology is a course that is taken by students who think they want to go to medical school or enter the health professions (often not because it is a real passion but because of other pressures—more on that in a different blog post). In any event, a large number of students take bio and a large number fail. When I have spoken to these students after the fact it turns out that from day one they did not understand what was going on, but assumed everyone else did (since no one was asking for explanations) and so everyone sat with material flying over their heads and the fear of being thought dumb keeping them from asking for the help and explanations they needed. And as much as half the class will fail.

I have even known students of color in particular,  say explicitly that their fear of asking questions or for help in or out of class is about the fear of triggering a stereotype that all Black or Hispanic or immigrant students are dumb. It is pure stereotype threat as described by Claude Steele. The fear of looking dumb trumps the fear of failing.

This then extends to accessing other resources like tutoring centers or faculty office hours or advisers. In the minds of these students being seen in the writing center would suggest a deficit in writing as opposed to a desire to improve oneself.  The cool factor creates a fear of doing anything that might look geeky, or “white” or stupid.

What students don’t understand about college is that it is set up to deal with the lack of knowledge. It expects you to come in knowing not very much and to leave knowing a great deal. But that won’t happen unless students get that message.

The message is that the faculty is there to teach you things you do not know and so asking is part of that process. No one will think you are dumb if you ask. They are more likely to be impressed. The teachers, the advisers –called advisers because their job is to advise you –, the deans, upperclassmen, tutoring centers are all there to answer questions and see that students get the information needed to succeed in college and beyond. And on top of it students pay these salaries with tuition dollars and so it would be dumb not to use what they are paying for. It would be like paying for the hamburger and leaving the meat behind.

Like many other aspects of the college experience this message is not made explicit. Asking needs to be rewarded in class and visibly.  Students need to know that colleges are low-risk environments compared to the “real world” where  making a mistake can get you fired. This is where you can actually learn the right way to make mistakes and build the capacity to overcome the fear and take calculated risks.

The message that most successful entrepreneurs have seven failures behind them is not what we see. We only see and value the successful outcomes and not the painful processes that lead to those successes. College, ironically, is a safe space to fail. Not engaging in college and its resources can lead to leaving college and failing for real. For the student seeking to make it to the top they need to remember that fear begins with an F and ask begins with an A.


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The Academic/Financial Nexus of College Completion

The Academic/Financial Nexus of College Completion

By Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Author, I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide


For years the common wisdom cited often in places like the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education was that low-income, first generation and students of color in particular dropped out of college for financial reasons. Certainly as the cost of college—even public colleges –has risen dramatically and the weight of debt has taken its toll in a straitened job market, the economics would seem to be a daunting challenge to overcome. Now however, comes a report from “Community College News Now” (May 2, 2012) of a study by the Louisiana Board of Regents showing that academics play a greater role in college attrition than finances. And I am not surprised.

It has for some time been my contention that academic problems were masquerading as financial problems. My evidence is purely anecdotal based on 20 years of student conversations as a dean and senior administrator in a wide range of institutions.

First, not to fully discount the purely financial, I have been very glad to see the rise of programs about financial literacy and have written part of the curriculum for one called “Winning Play$” myself. Students come to college and take on debt without understanding it. They do not understand the implications of interest rates for one. There are students whose families are culturally averse to taking loans but will put tuition on a credit card not realizing that it is, in fact, a very high interest compounding loan. They do not think to correlate the amount of debt to the profession they may end up pursuing. They do not or– if in the gray economy- cannot take advantage of tax breaks for education. They may not know they exist. These same populations may not be able or willing to fill out the FAFSA giving them access to federal financial aid programs.  They may not know about loan forgiveness for certain careers or programs like teaching in high risk or underserved areas. Students try to pay as they go, dropping in and out while deferring higher earnings and often complicating their academic progress.

This takes us to the key point. First generation, low income and students of color, especially coming from urban or poor K-12 systems do not understand the ways in which their academics affect the financial side. Therefore, there has begun to be recognition that required remedial courses most often taken in Community Colleges and public institutions chew up valuable credits that are needed for degree completion. Pell funds only allow for 8 semesters of full time attendance at college. So if a student has both general education requirements to meet and then major requirements the additional remedial work may add credits and time to degree completion which would then use up some of those 8 semesters, leaving some to be then paid out of pocket. Obviously, it would be better if high schools actually graduated students college ready but that is a whole other matter. Given the current reality that students are primarily entering state and city colleges under-prepared we should be able to offer the remediation as non credit bearing in some way or as part of a specially funded summer experience so as to not use up the valuable federal or state funds.

Most students however, do not know that they only have 8 semesters of Pell funding or that the new rules are that they may not use them during the summer. Further they do not know that they are being accessed on the basis of normal progress to a degree. Therefore, if they fail too many classes, have GPAs below 2.0, or drop to part time status they cease to be making normal progress to the degree and risk loss of Pell funds (and often state funds.) If they are lucky enough to have private scholarships those also have rules and usually stipulate that a GPA in the area of 3.0 is a requirement. Now the academic problem becomes the financial problem.

Additionally, when students for whatever reason—work demands, poor grades, being overwhelmed—decide to drop out either from a course or school all together they can create a bigger problem. Legions of financial aid officers, advisers and registrars can attest to the numbers of students who just walk away from a class or a school thinking of themselves as having dropped out. But unless they have told a dean, professor or registrar they are still technically on the rolls and what they get next will be an F (or several) and a bill for courses they think they did not take. The academic again becomes a financial problem. Unless these bills are paid or resolved the student cannot progress further.

Given that the price tag of college keeps going up, students need to be very savvy about how their college dollars are spent. There are ways to address this problem to some degree within our colleges. First is to expand the idea of financial literacy such that students are made very clear about all the processes within a school that can have financial impact and the ramifications and the ways to approach these processes and procedures. This can be part of orientation, on the financial aid website, and in materials designed for this purpose. There can be reminders at key times—the drop/ add period or after midterms or when FAFSAs are due, for example.

Without becoming financial aid experts, which would not work, there is still a role for faculty in helping students navigate financial mine fields. Just knowing where students can find financial information is key. Each professor can also create a relationship with  one financial aid officer to whom they feel they can refer students when the issue seems to be financial.

In discussions with struggling students professors can ask questions that may  uncover financial issues underlying a surface problem such as absences that are job related. The goal is to use one’s instincts to try to avoid a student’s dropping out before the student does it. It has been very helpful to me when students were referred to the dean or advisor’s office because the professor noted danger signs like a lack of engagement or frequent absences. Often we have been able to salvage the academic situation before it became a financial crisis.

Advisers, deans and faculty can offer solutions to academic problems that protect students financially—maybe more forbearance in an absentee policy, offering incompletes, suggesting drops before the drop/ add period ends so a student can change courses, suggesting pass/fail when appropriate, being sure a student is placed properly in courses like math or languages, getting students help like tutoring so they don’t have to drop classes. We need to let them know that we  know the risks they bear so they are more likely to approach us.

Having a more strategic approach to financial literacy that connects the dots between academic performance and actions helps create more willingness for students to get the support and help  they need. College completion is about a complex web of interrelated issues and the financial/ academic nexus is a key one.  Academics may be, in fact, the financial side of college completion



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A Question of Potential

By Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Author, I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide

A long time ago I took on the role as head of the Academic Achievement Program at NYU.  The program was small and targeted Black and Hispanic students in the college. But it was not then clear about whether it was remedial or quite what it was. Giving it some thought the question in my mind was why would Black and Hispanic students who had gotten into NYU in the first place be assumed to need remediation. The idea implied that there was something about them that needed to be fixed. That did not make any sense. And so that was the question that we decided to take on. The positioning of AAP became the program that would prove that Black and Hispanic students could thrive at a predominantly white institution despite what anyone thought ( and to be honest, despite the evidence of lower retention rates for these students.) But we said we were going to disprove this myth that these students could not survive. And so we did.

We took an attitude that was frankly defiant and a bit arrogant. We said that these were in fact high potential students who could go the distance anywhere. And so they did. In fact, most from those early cohorts that I knew well are now PhDs, MDs, JDs, social workers, business leaders and educators. I assume this is true for later cohorts as well. We not only retained students, we showed that they could achieve at full potential.

At Princeton we identified women and minority  students who never thought of themselves as being much and led them to win top honors as Rhodes, Marshall, and Fulbright Scholars among others. They had all come in for the discussion about their potential with the question – “what me, really?” And then they went on to do it.

Over and over I have seen what can happen when students are told that they have actually got lots of potential. They begin to blossom. Infused with that shift in attitude which many have never experienced they begin to walk taller and dream bigger.

A student at Hunter whose dreams were of being a Physical therapist, was spotted by a professor who saw his potential in his lab work. The student is now pursuing his doctorate.

The media representations of people of color has so denigrated the image of the potential for success that it not only seems alien but defiantly black males especially reject the idea of their own promise. Students in the CUNY Black Male Initiative have spoken of the program as their safe space to be smart. They could not have the same conversations or envision their real dreams in the communities they come from because the idea of having potential has been lost. It may have been beaten out of them in unloving schools or by parents whose own aspirations have been shattered.

But there are many of us, including Yvette Jackson, author of the Pedagogy of Confidence who believe that if you infuse students with a sense of confidence and belief in themselves and that someone else believes in them too they can do extraordinary things.

We have seen it over and over. I saw the light shining in his eyes recently when a young black man was accepted into an honors program that he never envisioned for himself. He is brilliant but did not know how much or that he belonged in a community of other brilliant people. When you say the words—heartfelt—“you can do this. Let me show you how…”  miracles happen.

We all have potential far greater than most of us imagine. But for some of us the threshold of imagining is lower than for others. Our national crisis of educational performance may be actually a crisis of confidence.

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Teaching to the workplace: A paradigm shift for faculty

By Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide

Students now come to college not to get a degree or even knowledge, but to get a job. That is all students—whether at Yale or Phoenix. Vocationally oriented community colleges and for-profit schools have got this piece very right. This reality is driving much of their popularity. This is especially true for first generation, low income and students of color. Their families want them to get the traditional job—doctor, lawyer, businessman.  I  remember one student at Princeton who grew up in the Bronx and was getting his doctorate in bio physics at Columbia and his parents kept asking when he was going to get a real job. They could not understand that his job was to spend time in the library and to sit waiting for his experiments to gel or whatever they were supposed to do. This is not the vision of work that most  families have.

Large research universities and liberal arts colleges are creators of knowledge, but are often slow to adapt to new things themselves.  They create the  trends and then may be the last to jump on the train.  So while the world has changed in term of the workplace and career paths and the financing of education and even who goes to college, the faculty in these institutions have not necessarily caught up. So they may not appreciate the vocational focus and anxiety that students and their families are now bringing to the academy. Part of it is driven by the vocational uncertainty that is now part of the work landscape in ways it was not in the past.

It used to be that if Uncle Joe was hired by IBM  in 1955, he worked there until retirement—maybe moving up along the way—and then got his gold watch after 50 years and went home to play golf. Now when somebody graduates  from college it is likely that they will have as many as 15 jobs and several careers, maybe even one after retirement and maybe a period of unemployment.

My own story is a bit like that. I graduated with a degree from Bryn Mawr in Political Science. I first taught middle school for a year. After that I landed a job in advertising, went on to a position in corporate public affairs and then marketing.  I spent 15 years advancing in the corporate world in jobs I had never envisioned in college.  A pretty typical scenario. Then in my late 30s I switched totally. I took a job at NYU, earned my doctorate there and have been a professor, senior administrator and dean at 4 different schools and  am now consultant and author.

People move around even more now and into fields that did not exist years ago—like social media marketing – hard to believe but 10 years ago there was no facebook or twitter.

How did Ken Chenault, history major, get to be CEO of American Express? Or Gerald Levin, former head of Time Warner, get there as a Religion major. Jamie Dimon CEO at JP Morgan Chase was a Psychology major. Carly Fiorina studied philosophy and medieval history.  The folks in power positions typically have liberal arts degrees and varied majors.  Even college presidents come from diverse majors– Princeton President Shirley Tilghman is a biologist and Brown’s Ruth Simmons did comparative lit—but they all use the same skill sets.

Both faculty and families—key influencers for students,  don’t necessarily understand that people change jobs and careers over the 50 or so years that most people work. If they did not go to college families may not get the translation of skills like critical thinking to the skills that lead to career advancement.  But because the work that faculty do is in the academy they may not appreciate the ways in which the skills they teach translate to the external workplace. And they have not until now been challenged to defend what and how they teach relative to student (and family) vocational aspirations and needs.

Families and students do not realize that employers do not expect students– other than those at entry level in fields like medical data entry–to come in with specific job knowledge. Those hiring at the entry level of the management ranks don’t expect graduates to know  how to do particular processes in a particular firm or field. They do want to know that a potential employee is smart and teachable (good GPA) and can learn the processes and procedures of that firm or industry and of new jobs as one moves up.  They also want to know that a candidate has basic skills like communications, critical thinking, research, problem-solving,  human relations, and organizational/ time management. Those are the skill sets of a liberal arts degree in a well rounded college program.

Some faculty may  understand these things but may not have shared it explicitly.  But today faculty have to be the change agents – different kinds of professors for a different kind of student in different kind of world.

They will have to be the ones who understand that students today need to know how to relate education to work and how to justify the price tag for a philosophy major in a world where college comes at a higher price than it ever has.  They will have to explain that knowing dates and data have merit but that knowing how to find information and analyze that data and write and present a stellar report are going to be the critical skills for getting ahead.

The bottom line is that we will need the teachers who make college relevant– the ones  who will have students know why they are paying for the experience, the ones  who will liberate them to enjoy the learning because they will see that it has some purpose  relative to their vocational aspirations regardless of the discipline.

Here are three strategies to consider for faculty to become the teachers students need now—especially those students who are first generation to go to college at all.

  • First.  Teaching  vocationally  — explaining how skills get applied in  the workplace. It is important to engage students in experiential, applied  and community based learning opportunities to show how disciplines are  applied in the  “real world”.  Students today learn differently.  They learn online, they have shorter  attention spans and so the pure lecture format is not always the best. One  course I taught did not come together until the students had to go into  the community to do projects that helped them see for themselves how the  disparities of social class really functioned beyond the texts I had  assigned.  This  is especially useful for adult learners  who can relate better to experiential learning.  And adult learners or returning students  is a growing number – maybe the majority of students now entering college.

Part of teaching vocationally is to be interdisciplinary and to use teams. Collaboration  with colleagues in different  departments  to team teach is exciting.  Take an example—Civil Rights. What if that were team taught by professors from Economics, History, English and Art.  How cool would that be for a student.  It is how the real workplace functions— in teams of people coming from many different perspectives. Students should be given team based projects where they bring their own diversity of skill and experience to problem-solving on an assignment and they should see this as a workplace simulation.

Teaching vocationally also means using technology  to build technology  skills among students. Students use technology every day.  Those skills can be pushed  in the work assigned. Employers not only check to see if students have an online presence on facebook or linkedin (a clean one) but also how adept they are at using varied forms of social media like tumblr, or doodles to schedule meetings, or powerpoint, or video conferencing, or researching on lexus/nexus  or using excel and other tools as a baseline for employment.

  • Second,  partner with  other college offices –career office, counseling services, even the library.  Faculty can help students to take  advantage of the resources they may not on their own. They  can encourage students to go to events   (often under-attended regardless of how much pizza we serve) where high  profile individuals or alumni will be speaking. This is a networking  opportunity for students. Sometimes  faculty can take the class or make it  part of an assignment.  I used to  make one class session meet in the library prior to assigning final  papers.  Professors can direct a  student to the writing center.  Professors should ask the Career or  Alumni office for a list of alumni who majored in their field and what they have done with their degrees so they can answer the “what to do with  this major question” with real stories.
  • Finally,  we have to make fewer assumptions about  what students know. For example, we cannot assume they know what a      syllabus is. Students may come from backgrounds where asking questions or  asking for help is not valued. So it is important to spare them the pain of having to confess that they don’t know and anticipate the things they may not know. That is one of the things I do in my book, I CAN Finish College. I give the answers to questions students may not even know to  ask. We need to let students know they can come to a professor. One friend  of mine was a graduate student in sociology and still did not know what a  variable was and fortunately the professor was very wise and realized from  the glazed expression on my friend’s face that she was in trouble and  invited her to come meet with her. My friend went on to earn a doctorate and  head a division of a major federal agency. But the key is to take the onus  from the student and spare  them the embarrassment. Further it gets them into the habit of asking questions and seeking collaborators which is what the smartest leaders do in the  workplace.

The term vocation is often a dirty word in higher education.  But  we won’t really  help our students today unless we can connect school work with job work, especially now that the public considers jobs to be the rationale for education.  It is essential that  faculty take up the challenge to make college  vocationally relevant and clear to students who will mostly be working outside the academy.

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