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“Fitting In” and Rising Graduation Rates at UT Austin

Senior Fellow Craig Wacker wrote this piece in July. We're reprising it with the announcement that UT Austin's on-time graduation rate has climbed from 52 to 66 percent since 2013.

David Laude has failed many students in his long, celebrated tenure as a chemistry professor at the University of Texas at Austin. But five years ago university officials asked Laude to help more students graduate from Texas's flagship public university.

Barely half of UT Austin’s students were earning diplomas in four years, and a disproportionate number of students failing to complete their degrees were Pell Grant-eligible students, were the first in their families to attend college, or were students of color. Today, the university's four-year graduation rate stands at 61 percent, and Laude and his colleagues are hoping to reach 70 percent when this spring's numbers are released later this year.

How did they get more students to the finish line?

In 2011, then-President William Powers, Jr. created a graduation task force composed of students, professors, and administrators. A year later, the group produced a report that recommended reforms across university functions, from student advising to financial aid.

Among the principal recommendations in the report was the enhancement of the first-year experience, including students' "social integration." Many students don't take easily to campus life and frequently worry that they don't fit in. This "belonging anxiety" is a particular problem for the sorts of students who were disproportionately failing to complete their studies at UT Austin on time.

Powers then appointed Laude to lead the implementation of the task force's recommendations. Laude, it turns out, had spent two decades studying students who struggled in his classes. He found that they typically had a combination of low test scores, low parental education attainment, and low socioeconomic status. In response, he had created a pilot program for students that provided academic supports and peer mentoring to reinforce a common message: You can succeed at UT Austin.

The program served as a building block for some of the university’s new graduation initiatives launched in response to the task force report. Under Laude's leadership, for example, the university now uses predictive analytics to identify over 2,000 first-year students who might benefit from additional support. Through a series of programs known as Student Success Initiatives, students receive a mixture of financial scholarships, academic counseling, team-building projects, and peer mentorship.

The combination is intended to provide traditional academic supports, but also to reinforce that students belong at UT Austin and can thrive there. To complement these programs, all incoming UT Austin students now participate in 360 Connections, a program that organizes students into small peer groups to discuss college life.

[Read More: The Surprising Sources of Racial Gaps in Higher Education]

Laude’s intuition about fitting in has been borne out by social psychologists such as David Yeager, a fellow UT Austin professor who began in 2012 to explore how belonging anxiety shaped student outcomes at the university.

During the same year the task force delivered its plan, Yeager launched a study around the online orientation provided to all 8,000 incoming first-year students. Students were randomly sorted into four groups—one that received messages reinforcing belonging, another that received messages about brain elasticity and improvement through effort (growth mindset), a third that received messages about both belonging and improvement through effort, and a control group that got unrelated information about college life. The “belonging” messages were framed as testimonials from older peer students intended to communicate that feeling out of place or unsettled is natural and something that they overcame.

The study, administered with Stanford University researcher Greg Walton, found that Latino, African American, and first-generation students receiving the belonging messages were completing their first year at UT Austin at a higher percentage than their peers in the control group—86 percent versus 82 percent. The substantial impact of the relatively brief exercises—Walton estimates that students took up to 45 minutes to complete them—has invited some skepticism. But the results are similar to those demonstrated in other studies of social belonging among first-year students of color.

Together, Laude and Yeager have pointed to the importance of a sense of belonging to students' capacity to complete college, especially students of color, students lacking a history of college-going in their families, those from low-income families and others with a sense of being outsiders on campus. And the impressive early results of UT Austin's Student Success Initiatives—and the severity of the college completion challenge nationally—suggest that the university may have important lessons to teach other campuses.

Craig Wacker is a FutureEd senior fellow.