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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Unpacking College Readiness: An Investigation of the Predictors of Postsecondary Success Among First-Time Freshmen through Structural Equation Modeling

  • Author(s): Iler, Terri Marie
  • Advisor(s): Christie, Christina A
  • Hansen, Mark P
  • et al.

Despite increases in college enrollment nationally, student postsecondary outcome data are less impressive. Among the root causes identified in the research as contributing to prolonged time-to-degree and low graduation rates lies a core problem: students are un- or under-prepared for college. College completion data also speak towards an undercurrent of inequality, as the higher education sector remains stratified along racial and socioeconomic lines. This study centered on the interrelationships between multiple “college readiness” factors and the complex process by which they collectively influenced college success. While the construct of college readiness tends to be conceived as a conglomerate of abilities and knowledge that are universally needed by all students, I strove to explore the ways predictors of postsecondary success vary by student group (i.e., sex and race) and field of study.

In this study, I sought to unpack college readiness through the investigation of the interrelationships between the contexts, dispositions, and habits of incoming first-time freshmen (FTF) and their long-term postsecondary outcomes. As I investigated multiple independent and dependent variables, I employed structural equation modeling (SEM). SEM was particularly well suited to the exploration of this complex phenomenon as it allowed me to specify a number of measurement models – each with multiple indicators – in my analysis of variable relationships, which cannot be performed through traditional regression analysis. To achieve my study aims, I partnered with California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), and utilized a dataset for the Fall 2008 incoming FTF cohort (N = 1793). Data culled from the students’ responses on the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) Freshman Survey were merged with postsecondary outcome variables to allow for a longitudinal analysis of students’ multiple-year trajectories at the University.

Overall, among the 2008 FTF cohort at CSULB, contextual affordances of students’ pre-college environments (i.e., their communities, schools, and families) exerted influence on their academic and standardized test performance in high school. In addition to the impacts of context, the frequency with which students engaged in productive habits of mind positively influenced their high school performance. In turn, traditional academic preparedness metrics impacted students’ formation of their academic self-efficacy as well as their expectations of future performance in college. While academic self-efficacy ratings and performance expectations were relatively high for this incoming cohort, these factors were not significant predictors of students’ eventual postsecondary performance and culmination. Instead, measures of academic preparedness appeared to be the most salient. Furthermore, an investigation of these interrelationships across student groups (i.e., sex, race, and major) revealed both commonality and divergence; however, further analysis should be conducted to parcel out the ways college readiness takes shape at the nexus of sex, race, and major.

Ultimately, findings from this study can provide K-12 and higher education institutions (particularly large, public four-year universities) a more nuanced understanding of the complex inner workings of college readiness indicators and their varying impacts on students’ postsecondary success. These findings can also empower educators in their efforts to more seamlessly prepare and support students as they progress along the K-16 continuum, so students are better positioned to succeed in college.

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