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Important Theories & Key Constructs

(How I think about how I do my work)

A growing body of evidence suggests that program interventions developed with an explicit theoretical foundation (or framework) are more effective than those lacking a theoretical base and that some strategies that combine multiple theories and concepts have larger effects. However, after working in higher education for about 15 years, I realized at many colleges and universities, a lot of our work tends to approach interventions with a “fix the student” framework. We focus on what a student “can or can not do” or “isn’t prepared to do,” rather than thinking about the barriers and hurdles we put up for them, especially Black, Indigenous, and women of color.  Therefore, more recently I’ve started to approach the work from a “fix the institution” mindset.

I believe the ultimate goal of any college or university is not just to help students gain new knowledge, but also to help them evaluate, analyze, synthesize, and apply that knowledge and support that development. In order to do so, research has repeatedly shown a holistic approach includes:

  • A Sense of belonging
  • Academic Support
  • Mentoring & Advising

I would posit that in order to develop a holistic approach, it requires institutions to also understand the social-ecological context that students are experiencing. Developing interventions requires an understanding of the factors that influence students to drop out or not want to pursue higher education. In my work, I use a five-level model based on Bronfenbrenner’s (1977) research to better understand various student populations’ context and the effect of potential programs. This model considers the complex interplay between individual, interpersonal, disciplinary community, and societal factors, including federal policies (e.g. financial aid policies). Using this model allows for the understanding of the range of factors that might put students at risk of experiencing barriers. The overlapping rings in this model illustrate how the factors at one level influence the factors at another level.

Besides helping to clarify these factors, the model also suggests that in order to develop effective programs, it is necessary to act across multiple levels of the model at the same time. This approach is also more likely to sustain programs and efforts over time than any single intervention.

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