New study highlights value of on-campus social support

Supportive relationships with teachers, advisors, and other staff members help students to develop hope, a key factor that impacts a student’s ability to persist and succeed in college, according to a new study published this month by researchers from Dominican University of California and the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

The study of 994 undergraduates, which appears this week in the Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, explores the role of hope and social support in predicting college students’ academic progress and perceived ability to graduate and achieve educational goals.

The study complements existing literature demonstrating the role of hope and social support in predicting GPA. It comes as colleges are looking for ways to prevent dropout and encourage on-time graduation, says co-author Dr. Veronica Fruiht, assistant professor of psychology at Dominican University of California. This paper was co-authored with Dr. Deanna Guthrie of the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater.

“Our findings highlight the value of supportive relationships with faculty and staff on campus and demonstrate the need for opportunities for students to build these relationships in many capacities,” she says.

However, the researchers did find evidence of a “support gap” in which students from underrepresented ethnic minorities (URM) were far more likely to report that they had no support from educators on campus.

“White and biracial/multiracial students were the least likely to report having no on campus support, while significantly more African American students and Latino students reported having no on campus support,” Fruiht says.

Hope theory maintains that when working toward a goal, a person must have a strong sense of agency to achieve the goal and also believe in his or her ability to carry out the plan. Individuals with higher levels of hope are better able to come up with plans to achieve their goals and modify those plans in the face of obstacles, notes the study.

“Just as supportive relationships can promote success through building both connections with the campus community and academic skills, the results suggest that another way to increase student achievement and retention may be through building hope,” Fruiht says.

Colleges can help develop hope by adopting a hope-based curriculum in first-year experience courses or building support groups in which students learn about hope and see the successes of others. Faculty and staff can build hope in students by spending time with them, setting clear goals for classes, praising student effort, and providing a clear plan to achieve course goals.

“Professors can embed goal setting and pathways thinking skills into classes by asking students to set explicit goals for a course and develop a plan to achieve these goals,” Fruiht says.

Meanwhile, strategies for building supportive relationships on campus include mentoring and coaching programs for students in which they work closely with adults, as well as “high impact practices” such as first-year experience programs, undergraduate research.

At larger institutions, federal TRIO programs like Student Support Services are intended to create a sense of community and support for first-generation students and students with fewer financial and social resources. Students in these programs often learn practical research and academic skills – but the greater value to URM students could be the support they receive from mentors, says Fruiht.

A growing number of smaller universities are creating wrap-around advising and mentoring models in the hopes of supporting and retaining students by establishing relationships on campus. Click here to read a Chronicle of Higher Education story about Dominican’s success developing The Dominican Experience for All.

In addition to formal programs, an emerging body of research suggests the value of support from a network of naturally occurring mentoring relationships for student success.

A recent study by Fruiht and Dr. Thomas Chan from Johns Hopkins University notes that naturally occurring mentoring relationships between young people and adults already in their lives may be a more practical avenue for educational success than formal programs designed to support first-generation college goers. This study recently was published in the American Journal of Community Psychology.


May 21, 2018