More Than Getting to the Door: Non-Academic Supports to Ensure Students Graduate from College (Part 1—An Overview)

by Stephanie Suarez
December 7, 2020

Photo of Celebrating graduates

The transition from high school to college can be difficult in the best of times, let alone during a global pandemic. Our previous post on Supporting Postsecondary Transitions During COVID-19 offers practical resources for supporting students and families navigating the college application and enrollment process during the pandemic. In this 4-part series, we address non-academic support strategies colleges can use to retain students once they enroll. These strategies are particularly critical during the pandemic, when students are experiencing financial and emotional hardship that may result in leaving school. Part 1 explores the scope and nature of the challenges that lead students to drop out of college while subsequent posts will dive into specific supports and solutions colleges can offer students.

Only about 60% of students earn a college degree within 6 years.1 Even when students complete all steps necessary to enroll in college, many face challenges as early as the summer before their first semester of college. Between 10 and 40% of accepted students do not show up to their college campus in the fall.2 Of those students that do make it to their first semester, non-academic barriers related to financial challenges, lack of institutional knowledge required to navigate higher education systems, and lack of self-efficacy (a component of social-emotional learning), can prevent them from completing their programs of study.3, 4, 5 Higher education institutions can support students by implementing non-academic strategies to counter the barriers college students face. This blog series begins by making the case for early interventions to reduce non-academic barriers to college completion. Subsequent posts will dive into three types of non-academic barriers that many students—especially those from underrepresented communities in higher education—face, as well as early intervention strategies colleges can implement to address them.

Why do early interventions matter for college success?

Early college retention interventions are critical to degree completion because students are more likely to abandon college within the first four semesters.6 Ensuring that students—especially first-generation students—are aware of and have access to resources to address financial, institutional, and social-emotional barriers can help ensure that more students achieve degree completion. In addition, targeted interventions for first-generation, low-income students are likely to be effective for the general student body as well.

Supporting students to complete their programs of study creates greater access to job opportunities for them, both in terms of higher wages and benefits, that otherwise are not accessible to youth from underserved communities.7 While the costs and benefits of earning a college degree vary widely across individuals, a postsecondary degree or credential is often associated with higher labor market earnings. In the 50th percentile of 2011 earnings distributions across all major sector occupations, for example, bachelor’s degree holders earned about 67% more than those with a high school diploma.8 These benefits are also experienced at the associate’s degree level. On average, students who earned an associate’s degree at a public or private college achieved an earnings gain of about 15–17%.9 Students who are fortunate enough to follow a fulfilling career path are not only able to earn higher salaries, but they also have access to a set of employee benefits that are conducive to a better standard of living such as comprehensive health benefits, paid time off, and paid sick leave—benefits that are not available to all low-wage workers. These lifestyle opportunities are often contingent on degree completion, which is why every college student deserves the opportunity to excel in their college career.

The additional blog posts in this series delve into successful strategies that address barriers related to each of the following non-academic dimensions:


1 National Center for Education Statistics. (2020). The Condition of Education.
2 Castleman, B. L., & Page, L. C. (2014). A trickle or a torrent? Understanding the extent of summer “melt” among college-intending high school graduates. Social Science Quarterly, 95(1), 202–220.
3 Kelchen, R., Goldrick-Rab, S., & Hosch, B. (2015). The costs of college attendance: Trends, variation, and accuracy in institutional living cost allowances. The Journal of Higher Education, 88(6), 947-971.
4 Karp, M. M. (2011). Toward a new understanding of non-academic student support: Four mechanisms encouraging positive student outcomes in the community college (CCRC Working Paper No. 28) Community College Research Center, Teacher College, Columbia University.
5 Robbins, S. B, Lauver, K., Le, H., David, D., Langley, R., & Carlstrom, A. (2004). Do psychosocial and study skill factors predict college outcomes? A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 130(2), 261–288.
6 Thayer, Paul B. (2000). Retention of students from first generation and low income backgrounds (ERIC ED446633). Opportunity Outlook (May), 2-8.
7 Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. (2016). America’s divided recovery: College haves and have-nots.
8 Oreopoulous, P., & Petronijevic, U. (2013). Making college worth it: A review of the returns to higher education. The Future of Children, 23(1).
9 Oreopoulous, P., & Petronijevic, U. (2013). Making college worth it: A review of the returns to higher education. The Future of Children, 23(1).

Topics: Access and equity Community colleges First-generation college students Low income Opportunity youth Students of color Transition to postsecondary

Tags: Social emotional learning