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High school juniors and seniors are now experiencing a world that is different than the world we experienced in college a decade ago, or longer.

This generation of college students has more significant distractions with their smartphones and social media interactions. As parents, you may have noticed that the technological gadgets hook individuals for long periods of time and often distract them from other vital areas of life that require cultivation and effort.

As you consider your student’s next level of education, I want to share with you one of the seminal works of higher education research that points us to the shape of student success in the collegiate environment, particularly among first-year students.

You may ask, “what are the positive characteristics associated with success as a first-year student?” I often attribute success to the extent to which students take advantage of learning opportunities, both in and outside the classroom environment.

Alexander Astin published an empirical research study in 1984 that focused on students’ investment in their learning and development. Astin’s theory of involvement emphasized the behaviorally-manifested characteristics of student academic engagement within a college or university. Students who attended classes, participated in lectures and labs, read course materials, critically examined and understood class content, and engaged with other classmates in forming study groups were more likely to benefit from the learning opportunities presented to them by their post-secondary institutions.

These behaviorally-manifested characteristics also included visiting faculty during office hours, sending emails to faculty to clarify, asking questions about course assignments, coming to class prepared, and asking questions during lectures. In essence, one of the key ideas this theory presents is that the amount of psychological, physical, and social involvement students experience on campus relates to the seriousness with which they engaged in their learning activities.

Astin’s research reveals that the effort, time, and resources students actively invest into learning, and in co-curricular activities, improves their cognitive growth. He describes student involvement as “the amount of physical and psychological energy that the student devotes to the academic experience” (p. 518). Subsequent research also demonstrates that students’ commitment to, and integration into, the educational environment’s social and academic spheres also affects their learning and personal development. Thus, research stipulates that the time and energy students spend on their academic and intellectual tasks are reliable predictors of student learning and cognitive development, as well as their spiritual, civic, and moral development.

The first-year students who attend classes, participate in lectures, engage with faculty, and actively spend time studying and learning are more likely to succeed academically. Astin’s findings demonstrate that when students dedicate their time and energy to their college experience, the returns on this investment include the enhancement of their intellectual development and a subsequent comparative advantage over those who are less involved and invested in their collegiate education. As you are selecting where your son or daughter plans to enroll after high school, make sure you have a conversation with them about investing in their learning through hard work, dedication, and—especially—active involvement inside and outside the classroom.

Astin, A. (1984). Student involvement: A developmental theory for higher education. Journal of College Student Development, 25(4), 297–308.


Dr. Oscar Espinoza-Parra serves as Dean of Enrollment Services at College of the Desert. He holds a Ph.D. in Higher Education from Azusa Pacific University, a master’s degree and dual bachelor’s degrees from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and Reno. He is a faculty member at Maryville University.