AEFP 45th Annual Conference

Toward a Meaningful Impact through Research, Policy & Practice

March 19-21, 2020

Examining the Relationship between Psychosocial and Academic Outcomes in Higher Education: A Descriptive Analysis

Tatiana Maelguizo, University of Southern California,

Postsecondary institutions are being pulled in multiple directions regarding the skills, knowledge, and experiences they should create for students. Increasingly, states are tying funding to easily quantifiable outcomes, such as retention and graduation rates (Holly & Fulton, 2017), even as employers emphasize the importance of psychosocial skills (The Aspen Institute, 2019; Hart Research Associates, 2013), raising the question of whether these outcomes move together or in competing directions. Prior work (e.g. Yeager et al. [2016]) has demonstrated that short, one-time interventions targeting social belonging can have large, positive impacts on academic outcomes, particularly among first-generation and minoritized students. Our work examines the relationship between psychosocial outcomes and involvement in a two-year, comprehensive college transition program (CCTP). Additionally, we explore whether student achievement is mediated by the program’s impact on psychosocial outcomes.
We utilize data from an evaluation of the Thompson Scholars Learning Community, a CCTP implemented in the University of Nebraska system. We have survey and administrative data for students who applied to the program and entered college in 2015 or 2016. Students were randomized into one of three treatment arms: scholarship and college transition support; scholarship only; or a control group (Angrist et al., 2016; Melguizo et al., 2019). For our descriptive analysis, we pool together the three RCT arms as well as a fourth group of students who applied for and were awarded comprehensive support outside of the randomization process to examine the relationship between students’ psychosocial skills, cumulative GPA, and persistence in each semester of their first three years on campus. Then, we restrict our analysis to students in the experimental sample. We use structural equation modeling to examine whether the impact of the program on students’ academic achievement and persistence is mediated by its impact on students’ psychosocial outcomes.
Initial analyses show positive correlations between students’ sense of belonging to campus, mattering to campus, academic self-efficacy, and cumulative GPA in each semester examined. Additionally, we find positive correlations between students’ social self-efficacy and cumulative GPA at the end of their first and second years on campus. The psychosocial constructs we examine are positively associated with first year cumulative GPA across all student groups, except continuing-generation students. However, we see stronger associations between psychosocial skills and cumulative GPA among first-generation, students with below-median EFCs, and among students with below-median ACT scores. These correlations persist even in a regression framework including student background characteristics and campus-by-cohort fixed effects. While descriptive, our analyses also indicate that being assigned to the CCTP is associated with a 0.16-point increase in first-year GPA; this is slightly larger than the 0.09-point increase in GPA found by Yeager et al. (2016). Prior work has found the program led to significant increases in sense of belonging and mattering. We use structural equation modeling to explore whether the program’s impact on psychosocial skills mediates its relationship with student academic performance among students randomized to the TSLC, COS, or control groups.
Our work provides additional evidence on the relationship between psychosocial outcomes, which are valued by employers and which educational psychological theory suggests are related to richer on-campus experiences, and traditional academic outcomes, which are increasingly prioritized by states subsidizing the cost of college. Our work can help institutions understand whether their efforts to improve outcomes in one domain will be associated with improvements in the other, or if they should pursue separate strategies across domains. Our initial results indicate that psychosocial outcomes, particularly academic self-efficacy and sense of belonging, are positively correlated with students’ cumulative GPA, even after controlling for students’ background characteristics.
Angrist, J., Autor, D., Hudson, S. & Pallais, A. (2016). Evaluating post-secondary aid: Enrollment, persistence, and projected completion rates. NBER Working Paper 23015.
Hart Research Associates (2013). It takes more than a major: Employer priorities for college learning and student success. Washington, DC: Hart Research Associates.
Holly, N. & Fulton, M. (2017). Policy Snapshot: Outcomes-based funding. Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States.
Melguizo, & T., Martorell, F., Chi, E., Park, L. & Kezar, A. (2018). The effects of a comprehensive college transition program on psychosocial factors associated with success in college. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Education Finance and Policy, Portland, OR.
The Aspen Institute (2019). From A Nation at Risk to A Nation at Hope. Washington, DC: The Aspen Institute.
Yeager, D., Walton, G., Brady, S., Akcinar, E., Paunesku, D., Keane, L. […] & Dweck, C. (2016). Teaching a lay theory before college narrows achievement gaps at scale. PNAS, 113(24), E3341-E3348.



These are interesting questions about the relative importance of academics and social-emotional factors. You start off stating "Performance-based funding emphasizes retention and graduation rates" - who is targeted by the performance-based funding in this context? With regard to the academic outcomes, are you able to control for academic performance in high school? Descriptively, it might be interesting to look at whether accuracy of academic efficacy perceptions is related to outcomes of interest (in particular, I'm wondering if lower performing students who know they're low-performing perhaps work harder to make up for it). Given the importance of belongingness as a predictor of dropout, is there data that can help us understand why some students have relatively high or low levels of belonginess? Does first-year housing play a role? Thank you for sharing your work! If you have any questions about my comments, you can reach me at

Interesting work Elise! Like the prior comment I was wondering if you had controls for ACT or high school grades.

Thanks for sharing this work! I was going to comment then saw that Cara hit on one of my major questions: what is the housing scenario for students? There's lots of good research out there on whether students live on or off campus and their sense of academic and social integration with their institution. One of the latest overviews was probably the Braxton et al. book Rethinking College Student Retention (2014 I think?). I think the residential status of students could play a large role in how social belongingness shifts. This may have been in the model somewhere but I couldn't find the covariates listed when I looked. I commend y'all for exploring these psychological factors and their role in success for students. Thanks again for sharing and let me know if there's any way I can be helpful in the future!

Very interesting. Have you explored the extent to which institutions can affect students psycho-social skills, i.e., the feelings that they matter and belong to campus and have academic and social self-efficacy. That is, can and do institutions boost these skills?

Very interesting. Have you explored the extent to which institutions can affect students psycho-social skills, i.e., the feelings that they matter and belong to campus and have academic and social self-efficacy. That is, can and do institutions boost these skills?

Thank you for doing this important work. I was wondering how/if you modeled treatment status. I see you described it in the text but not in the poster. If so, did you reach baseline equivalence? I agree with previous comments, those with higher scores in these psychological constructs may also come from families with access to more or better resources. In the text I thought you were testing whether the Intervention contributed to increasing these psychological factors, but the poster mentions nothing about such an intervention. Once more, great work.

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