Five Factors of Undergraduate Student Success

Library Resources | Janine Y. Swenson| June 26, 2019

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Key measures of academic success are retention and graduation rates. What factors directly contribute to students staying the course long enough to graduate?

Across all academic channels, retention and graduation rates are among the top demonstrators of success. But what specific factors bring students to the finish line?

Some studies suggest that being a first-generation college student is a negative indicator. However, using my own college career as a barometer to academic success, being a first-generation college student was neither a negative nor a positive indicator. My parents did not assist me in my academic high school career, and I did not expect support in college.

Rather, my success factors included how well I acclimated to my university, surrounded myself with peers and academic support, maintained my intrinsic motivation, stayed confident in my ability to succeed and maintained the ability to finance my program (with scholarship, financial aid, loans and work-study programs). These all played a bigger role than my high school standing or grades, where I lived on campus or even external motivations such as making my family proud by achieving a college degree.

The success I orchestrated, not surprisingly, is predicted in many studies, even decades following my graduation. One study notes that intrinsic motivation and self-discipline are twice as likely to be responsible for achievement than an individual’s IQ (Barclay et al, 2019, p. 60).

Further supporting my experience, a 2018 study by Millea, Wills, Elder and Molina contends that retention and graduation rates are not influenced by demographics, attendance or living arrangements (p. 309). Instead, the researchers found that universities could improve graduation and retention rates by investing in smaller class sizes, scholarships and financial aid infrastructure (p. 309) and that “instructional and library spending positively impacts graduation rates” (p. 310).

It’s no surprise that students who have a mindset for learning and lifelong education and are better prepared academically for college have the highest likelihood of graduation. While it may seem that the research is simply stating the obvious, the question is: how can institutions best help those unprepared to prepare?

The most common method of retention is the focus on study skills and habits.

Freshman retention factors — which ensure that students return after their first year — include best practices such as “academic success workshops, enhancements to the freshman experience course, establishment of learning communities, peer mentoring, a CRM-supported early alert system, and academic support in high risk courses” (Hurford, Ivy, Winters & Eckstein, 2017, p. 302). Barclay et al. (2018) point to studies showing that students with good study skills tend to experience higher academic achievement than students with poor study skills (p. 63).

In addition, several studies suggest that colleges should incorporate bridge programs into secondary schools to help prepare and motivate high school students for the challenges of transitioning into college (Petty, 2014, p. 262).

While my own experience may be decades past, the traits and skills I developed then are those that students still need today − academic preparedness and self-confidence in their own ability. 

Consider the following five factors when devising a strategy to help your students stay the course and achieve academic success:

  1. Programs at the secondary level for college preparedness and a life-learning mindset
  2. Smaller class sizes
  3. Guaranteed financial support (scholarship, financial aid, loans and work-study programs) for the length of the program
  4. Peer and academic support and development of soft skills such as study skills
  5. Mentorships to help students with self-confidence and self-efficacy

EBSCO LearningExpress offers a range of e-learning products to assist secondary and post-secondary academic institutions in supporting the development of study skills and soft skills. Find more information on our website.


Barclay, T. H., Barclay, R. D., Mims, A., Sargent, Z. & Robertson, K. (2018). Academic retention: Predictors of college success. Education, 139(2), 59-70.

Hurford, D. P., Ivy, W. A., Winters, B., & Eckstein, H. (2017). Examination of the variables that predict freshman retention. Midwest Quarterly, 58(3), 302-317.

Millea, M., Wills, R., Elder, A., & Molina, D. (2018). What matters in college student success? Determinants of college retention and graduation rates. Education, 138(4), 309-322.

Petty, T. (2014). Motivating first-generation students to academic success and college completion. College Student Journal, 48(2), 257-264.

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Janine Y. Swenson
Director of Marketing, EBSCO LearningExpress

Janine Y. Swenson, Director of Marketing for EBSCO LearningExpress. She graduated Purdue University with a B.S. General Management, completed post-graduate science work at the University of Michigan, and received an M.S. Marketing from The College of St. Elizabeth.

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