WSU study shows best factors predicting success





PULLMAN – A recent study of the academic performance of nearly 6,000 WSU students who enrolled as freshmen here in the fall of 2002 or 2003, found that men and women participating in varsity athletics are more than twice as likely as similar non- athletes to graduate within either five or six years of their initial enrollment.
Similarly, the study concluded that – all other influences being equal – students enrolled in science or engineering programs or affiliated with either a fraternity or sorority were nearly three times as likely to graduate as similar students who were not.
Predictable attributes of success
Intended to identify student attributes predictive of successful academic performance at WSU, the study was conducted by Vicki McCracken, a professor with the WSU School of Economic Sciences, Fran Hermanson, WSU associate director of Institutional Research, and Diem Nguyen, a WSU economics doctoral candidate.
Using statistical techniques to assess student performance at the end of the first semester of their freshman year and again at the time of their graduation, the study was intended to ascertain how factors such as a student’s prior academic performance, gender, financial circumstances, race and ethnicity, and various academic and non-academic activities and affiliations can be used to reliably predict whether a student will succeed in earning a degree from the university,” McCracken said.
Multiple factor focus
“Our work differed from a number of prior studies in that, rather than looking at the influence of a single factor – like student race or ethnicity – on the probability of successful graduation, we looked at a wide range of potential influences,” said McCracken. “What we wanted to determine was which of those factors would prove statistically significant in predicting graduation success and which would not.”
Interestingly, McCracken said one of the researchers’ findings was that race and ethnicity were not statistically significant in predicting whether students would succeed in obtaining a degree from WSU.
“What we found was that, when all other factors are fixed, race and ethnicity alone were not useful predictors of graduation success for our students,” said McCracken. “What did prove useful in predicting academic success were factors such as financial and socioeconomic status, which are sometimes related to race and ethnicity. We found, for instance, that students who received federal Pell grants – which are available only to those who meet certain low income criteria – were roughly 20 percent less likely to graduate than those who did not.”

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McCracken cautioned that the predicted graduation rate for each subgroup of students examined in the study represents only the effect of a single, selected influence on students whose actual academic potentials are inevitably determined by multiple influences.

Not one-dimensional
“The research reflects the fact that students aren’t one dimensional. Often, what might seem the most defining, or most easily defined, influence on their academic performance isn’t what’s really driving whether they succeed,” she said.
“One of the things revealed in our research is the fallibility of a number of persistent stereotypes. Participation in varsity athletics, for instance, is actually a very positive influence on a student’s graduation potential. So, if varsity athletes as a group aren’t graduating at the predicted rate, you need to look among the many other factors influencing those students for an explanation.”
Enrollment breaks
Hermanson said other significant conclusions of the study included the finding that students who maintained their fulltime enrollment status during the period were approximately seven times more likely to graduate than students who suspended their attendance for one or more semesters.
SAT an insignificant predictor
“One of the findings that may have implications for how we craft our admissions criteria is that, while high school grade point average was a significant predictor in assessing a student’s graduation potential, SAT scores were not,” Hermanson  said. “SAT was a solid predictor of a student’s first semester grade point average, but really had no significant impact on the probability of a student completing a degree program.”
Roughly 68 percent of the students who began as freshmen on the Pullman campus in 2002 or 2003 received a degree from WSU within six years or less. According to the Center for Institutional Data Exchange and Analysis, University of Oklahoma, the latest reported six-year graduation rate (2000-2003) for public Doctoral/Research-Extensive universities, a classification which includes WSU, is 67.2 percent.
Best poster award
The WSU research project received the “Best Poster” Award at the 2010 Association for Institutional Research 50th Annual Forum this year in Chicago.