Study Reveals Strategies for College Success


College SuccessEager to have a family picture taken, 18-year-old Natasha Atencio nearly sprinted, in heels, through the West Broward Church of Christ lobby toward her mother’s Bible study class. She knocked on the closed door, opened it and motioned for her mother to come out.

“That’s Natasha,” said Melvern Atencio, Natasha’s mother, who excited the room with a serious expression. “When she wants to get something done she’ll get it done no matter what!”

Natasha is one of more than 25,000 Broward and Palm Beach high school students graduating from high school this spring. And her determination to achieve her goals exemplifies a key characteristic of successful college students, according to research conducted by Dr. Joseph B. Cuseo, professor emeritus of psychology at Marymount College in California and co-author of the book Thriving in College and Beyond: Research-Based Strategies for Academic Success & Personal Development, published in 2013 by Kendall Hunt.

Although the college years can be challenging to the point of frustration, Cuseo found that the most successful students are:

  • actively involved in their education,
  • use campus resources consistently,
  • develop high-quality relationships, and
  • cultivate the habit of self-reflection.

“These are the four essential principles of academic success in particular and college success in general,” said Cuseo, who travels the country as an educational consultant for AVID, a global nonprofit organization that trains educators to use research-based practices to prepare students for success in high school, college and the working world.


Active involvement

Being actively involved in their education means spending enough time on schoolwork and expending mental and physical energy in the learning process. In other words, “going to class and always staying on topic of schoolwork,” said Adam Saxon, 23, who attended Summit Church during his college career. “When I had an assignment to do that was due in two weeks, I got on it right away.”

Saxon, who attended Community Christian Church in Tamarac during his high school years, graduated from Coral Glades High School and enrolled at the University of Central Florida through their Supporting Teacher Education Pre-professionals (STEP) early admission program.

STEP, developed to help students interested in a teaching career transition successfully into UCF, is the type of program that helps freshmen start college with a focused plan and with like-minded students. With a clear plan for his entire college career, Saxon earned his teacher education degree in four years, a feat accomplished by fewer than 40 percent of U.S. students, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) reports that nationally 57 percent of students graduate with a bachelor’s degree within six years of entry to the institution where they started as full-time, first-time students. In Florida, 55 percent graduate within six years, according to the DOE.

To be specific, active involvement in college means attending class consistently, studying effectively outside of class, and taking quality notes on lectures and reading assignments, said Dr. Nohemi Sadule, a former nursing professor who taught undergraduate students for Florida Atlantic University and Palm Beach State College.

“My most successful students really had a passion for what they were studying, and it motivated them to be diligent,” she said. “They also were goal oriented and had to develop a thick skin because students encounter many discouraging situations in college.”


Campus resources

Besides developing a stronger character, Cuseo advises students to learn about campus-based resources, such as the library, learning labs, counseling services, student activities programs, health services and advising services. At least one local university educational leader agrees.

“It’s always a challenge to get students to use campus resources,” said Joe Murray, director of University Advising Services at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. “When students come into the advising center early enough, we have time to speak with them about their interests, strengths and provide coaching instead of just helping them schedule their classes.”


Social interaction & collaboration

Students’ interaction with academic advisors is one of four types of relationships that should be nurtured during the college years, Cuseo says. Students who develop high-quality relationships with other faculty members, mentors and other education-focused students demonstrate greater satisfaction with the college experience and are more likely to graduate.

Bethany Bertram, 18, who graduated from Santaluces High School in Palm Beach County on May 18, is looking forward to collaborating with students and getting advice from faculty at Freed-Hardeman University in the fall, where the faculty to student ratio is 13:1. She chose the school because of its good reputation among a number of her former youth group friends who graduated from the 1,900-student Christian university, founded in 1869. Bertram said the school will provide a “faith-promoting environment surrounded by other people who want to help me get to heaven.”

Also a strong Christian, Natasha and her mother are looking for a good church family in Vermont to help the teenager stay focused throughout her trek through a five-year combined bachelors/master’s architecture program at Norwich University. Since she was a child, she has wanted to become an architect so she could design a board school where “homeless children could live a better life and not be bullied at school,” she said.

“My only concern is that there might be temptations, but they come when your focus is on having a social life,” she said. “I plan to focus on the books and on building a strong relationship with God.”

Melvern Atencio says she hopes that Natasha’s years of Godly training, as well her strong academic preparation in high school honors classes, will help her finish the college race.

“If your child doesn’t have a solid foundation that’s built on relationship with Christ, you are pretty much leaving them unguarded,” she said. “But I do want to find a Christian family up there that can look out for her and encourage her.”

Saxon, the UCF graduate who will soon interview for a position at an elite school in New York City, agrees that having strong convictions and close family ties are vital to college success.

“My faith definitely kept me on the right path,” he said. “My family and God were with me throughout my tough and trying times and helped me to deny the temptations that were all around me in college.”



Saxon’s reflecting on what helped him stay focused is an example of the fourth key strategy of successful students. Star students monitor their own performance, use feedback provided by faculty members, and reflect on their future, Cuseo said.

“To achieve success, students need to focus not only on the perspiration of daily routines but also on the ‘big picture,’” Cuseo said. “Long-term goals and dreams inspire motivation.”

Words ‘long-term’ and ‘five-year degree’ are not really on Natasha’s mind right now, she said.

“I’m not really concerned about how long it will take to get my degree because the longer I study the more I will learn,” she said. “I pretty much am excited to just get my hands on drawing and put my ideas on paper.”


Dr. Steve J. Rios, a long-time advocate for youth in and from foster care, owns Rios Research & Evaluation and co-founded Florida Reach, a state-wide network of education and child welfare professionals that promotes post-secondary success for emerging adults from foster care. He can be reached at [email protected].


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