I Wish My College Knew …

By Cecilia Le

We asked thousands of college students what they wish their college knew. Here’s what they said …

Every year, Denver teacher Kyle Schwartz invites her third-graders to share on a Post-It note an answer to the prompt: “I wish my teacher knew …” The responses offer poignant glimpses into their young lives, revealing struggles with poverty, absent parents and social isolation. After Schwartz shared some of their stories online, #IWishMyTeacherKnew went viral, leading other teachers to adopt the lesson and gain insight into their students’ lives outside academics.

When our team at Persistence Plus heard about this, we knew we had to extend the question to students in college. Like third-graders, college students are dealing with many things outside the classroom. Like third-graders, their connection with their educators impacts their success. Unlike third-graders, they sit in large, impersonal lecture halls, wander campuses of thousands of students, and take some or all of their classes online. Though we know colleges care deeply about their students, college students are probably even less likely than third-graders to simply be asked what’s going on with them.

So we asked.

Persistence Plus works with colleges and other partners to support students with personalized behavioral nudges that increase retention and completion. Because we’re already engaging with tens of thousands of students over text messaging, we had a ready audience. Our students attend community colleges, four-year universities and online schools. They live in dorms, commute to campus or attend college virtually. They are young adults straight out of high school and older students returning after years in the workforce. And all come to college with their own set of challenges, whether that’s being the first in their family to navigate college, emerging from the foster-care system, having their own children to care for while trying to do schoolwork and keep food on the table, or feeling like they don’t measure up to the students around them.

Sure, some students told us they wish their college knew how bad the cafeteria food is. But we got more than one response that said “How much I am struggling.” As texts poured in, five themes emerged from #IWishMyCollegeKnew that illustrate what it’s like to be a typical college student today.

While we knew that 70% of college students work while enrolled, and a quarter of working students are both employed full time and enrolled full time, many students’ responses painted a detailed picture of what it’s like to juggle their responsibilities.

Some finished the sentence “I wish my college knew” this way:

“[That I] work full time, six days a week, one income and have four children while studying”

“That I take care of my very ill partner, work full time, am a full-time mom and study full time”

“I’m determined to finish my degree even though I have two children under five and work full time”

Some students shared with us about their economic hardship. They are far from uncommon, with nearly half of respondents in the Community College Survey of Student Engagement reporting that lack of finances is an issue that could cause them to withdraw.

They completed the sentence:

“How much students struggle to pay for tuition”

“How freaking poor I am”

“How hard it is to pay the student fees”

As researchers are spotting a decline among college students’ mental and emotional well-being, we got some answers that illustrated that trend.

“That the stress of university has made my eating disorder really bad”

“That I’m feeling overwhelmed and trying my best but I’m not achieving the grades I would like”

Other students revealed logistical barriers to their success or had ideas for improving their college experience with suggestions such as:

“How to group night-shift workers into the same learning groups, so it is possible to work with people who aren’t only active when I am asleep”

“There should be one more school bus running between 3:15 and 6:00 pm”

And some students simply want their college to know who they are. For example:

“My gender orientation”

“That I am struggling with a new environment in a new country and a new education system as a whole”

“What I’m capable of”

“The change my generation will bring”

“How bad I want my degree”

What can colleges do with these insights? The exercise gave us a few ideas.

First, students simply need to be heard. We learned a lot about students from this question, and they were eager to connect. Across our partner colleges, students report that just getting supportive texts and being able to share their experiences in response makes them feel like their college cares and is looking out for them. More students would welcome a chance to respond to #IWishMyCollegeKnew, whether as a writing prompt in class, an exercise at an orientation or advising session, a question in an online survey, or a conversation at office hours.

Second, they need to know they’re not alone. Students, especially those questioning whether they belong in college, can often feel like they’re the only one struggling. One of our behavioral strategies to support students focuses on helping them see that other students like them have faced and overcome similar struggles. Research shows that helping college students reframe adversity as common and transient leads to improved academic and health outcomes. Colleges could use responses from #IWishMyCollegeKnew to start a campaign normalizing common student challenges and connecting students to resources that can help.

Third, asking students how they experience college often reveals barriers and misconceptions that campuses can address. Professors, advisors or administrators who try #IWishMyCollegeKnew may find this leads them to start an emergency grant program, change the way they structure late fees, or simply have more context for why a student has been missing class. Our partner colleges are typically eager to learn more about the student experience through nudging, and to unearth insights that can drive their student success and retention efforts. The challenges that students reveal can have systemic implications for a college: At one partner campus, we found that 15% of students approaching completion weren’t sure whether they were eligible to graduate that term, which led the college to redesign how it communicated to near-completers about their status.

If you ask your students what they wish their college knew, please let us know what you find out by tweeting to us @student2grad with the hashtag #IWishMyCollegeKnew … After all, third-graders aren’t the only ones who need their voices heard.

Cecilia Le is director of strategic engagement for Persistence Plus, a Boston-based social impact venture that applies behavioral science to help colleges increase retention. @student2grad


Related Posts:

Targeting Behaviors and Student Success: A Q&A

The Student Experience Brought to You by … Students!

How to Develop Learners Who Are Consistently Curious and Questioning

Guided By Voices? Conversations with Underrepresented Students


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