Cultivating Self-Efficacy to Improve Community College Student Success

Lynn Tincher-Ladner
Learning Abstracts

A decade ago, community colleges in the U.S. made a unified shift from a student access mission to both a student access and student success mission. This shift was in response to President Obama’s education agenda and challenge for community colleges to educate an additional 5 million students with degrees, certificates, or other credentials by 2020. In April 2010, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT), Center for Community College Student Excellence (CCCSE), League of Innovation in the Community College (League), National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD), and Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society (PTK) signed Democracy’s Colleges Call to Action to embrace the completion agenda as a national imperative and central to the future work of community colleges, while also holding firmly to traditional values of access, opportunity, and quality (Boggs, 2010).

Because of its roots and, to a larger extent, because colleges needed a way to measure it, student success was, and still is, often defined as the product or output of attending college—the institutional-level aggregate rates of completion and transfer. For states and colleges with access to longitudinal data, it also encompasses earnings and employment outcomes. Over the past few years, the term has evolved to also describe the process of improving those highly desired outcomes, including initiatives to increase access and equity, improve instruction, expand services, help underprepared students, engage faculty, and connect students to work and transfer. To people working in community colleges, the term “student success” captures and communicates all efforts to impact students in a positive way.

Operationalizing Student Success

While Obama’s challenge was the most significant driver of the student success agenda, it is not a new concept for the community college sector. The beginnings can be traced back to the concepts and pioneering community colleges featured in A Learning College for the 21st Century (O’Banion, 1997). This book served as a roadmap for the League’s Learning College project in 2000, where 12 institutions transformed into learning-centered colleges. The League’s work was influential in the creation of Achieving the Dream (ATD), which now supports over 160 colleges in their efforts to embrace a student success mission.

The most recent student success framework specific to the community college is the Guided Pathways model, outlined in Redesigning America’s Community Colleges (Bailey et al., 2015). This model calls for a broad effort to help students navigate college by providing highly structured and integrated learning environments, or pathways, leading to student success. The pathways movement has received support throughout the sector; community college national leadership organizations—AACC, ATD, CCCSE, League, and NISOD—have responded by developing training to help colleges understand, implement, and institutionalize the Guided Pathways model.

Embracing a student success mission has helped community colleges move the needle on completion by adding an additional 2.5 million degrees over the past decade, as indicated in the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) completion surveys from 2010 to 2019. This progress is encouraging, but has fallen short of Obama’s 2020 goal, and current rates are not keeping pace with attainment goals that now exist in 44 states (Lumina Foundation, 2020). Pushing higher outcomes will involve expanding what we know about student learning and achievement. In his Reflections on Student Success, Tinto (2017) points this out by noting that current and past frameworks are from the perspective of what institutions can do to keep students in college, and not from the perspective of the students. He explains this by asserting that students do not think of themselves as being retained, nor do they consider themselves on a pathway—instead, they speak of self-motivation and persistence.

Figure 1: Associate Degrees and Certificates Awarded at Two-Year Public Colleges

Digging Deeper Into Student Success

In 2019, CCCSE provided results from the first large set of survey data on mindset in community colleges in A Mind at Work: Maximizing the Relationship between Mindset and Student Success. The report analyzed students’ responses in four areas of mindset: growth versus fixed, self-efficacy, relevance of academic experience, and sense of belonging. Forty-one percent of students rated themselves in the middle of the mindset composite score, and 28 percent rated themselves lower than average. A key finding in the study was that a productive mindset correlated with a higher grade point average (GPA) (Center for Community College Student Engagement, 2019).

Looking at where community college student success is the highest, PTK[1] students yield some helpful insights. In a national study tracking 11,000 members over six years (Marlowe et al., 2016), PTK students were found to have a 91.4 percent rate of success. Student success was defined as the sum of completion (85.9 percent) and transfer (5.5 percent) rates. Being a member in the honor society was significant. Using the same definition of student success, the National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES) most recent survey of beginning postsecondary students (2017) found that students starting at a community college and achieving a GPA of 3.5 or higher in their first year of attendance had a 68.1 percent success rate. PTK attributes its high rate of student success to impacting student self-efficacy through recognition and programming that promotes cocurricular learning; service and leadership activities with a diverse peer group; and interaction with faculty and staff advisors, and college administrators.


Self-efficacy is defined as a person’s belief about their ability to perform a desired behavior that leads to a desired outcome (Bandura, 1997). Self-efficacy has its roots in social cognitive theory (SCT). SCT was developed to explain human behavior, particularly the behavior of learning (Bandura, 1977). At the core of this theory is reciprocal determinism, which states that humans are influenced by three things—the person, the environment, and the behavior—which also influence each other (Bandura, 1997). Bandura is referring to more than students’ prior learning, social status, and physical and genetic dispositions; reciprocal determinism also encompasses their feelings, emotions, beliefs, and self-efficacy.

Research has established a strong link between self-efficacy and student achievement (Bandura, 1997; Hsieh et al., 2007; Pajares & Miller, 1994). Self-efficacy has also been linked to student persistence and motivation; studies show students with higher self-efficacy more readily identify goals and work harder to accomplish tasks (Bandura, 1997; Pajares, 2003; Schunk, 1991). These findings are significant to improving student success, but we learn from CCCSE that community colleges have largely not implemented direct efforts to influence student self-efficacy (2019). Ultimately, people tend to avoid activities they feel they cannot do well; therefore, a deeper understanding of cultivating community college student self-efficacy is important for improving student success.

Building Self-Efficacy

According to Bandura (1997), there are four sources of self-efficacy. The first and most powerful way to increase self-efficacy is through performance experiences that enhance a person’s successful control over their environment. If a student does well and receives a high mark or is rewarded in some way, then self-efficacy is strengthened. Behavior modeling—observing others performing a behavior successfully and emulating that behavior—is the second source of self-efficacy. A third way to improve self-efficacy is through social persuasion. Bandura (1977) asserts that encouragement by others is a powerful influence on desired behavior, particularly if the encourager is important to the individual receiving encouragement. Lastly, emotional and psychological states influence self-efficacy. If we feel good about doing something, we are more likely to perform and/or repeat the behavior (Bandura, 1997).

Self-Efficacy of High Achievers

Increasing student self-efficacy may happen organically—a faculty member offering encouragement, a fellow student complimenting a peer student’s speaking skills, a college president taking time for a conversation with students. It can also be intentional. PTK attributes its high rates of student success in large part to the provision of experiences that leverage all four building blocks of self-efficacy.

1. Performance experiences: Many students who walk through the doors of community colleges have already been told they are not college material and are, therefore, at risk of dropping out (Center for Community College Student Engagement, 2019). This is also true for many PTK members. Almost half have taken at least one developmental course, 45 percent receive Pell grant monies, and 30 percent are first-generation college students (Marlowe et al., 2016). Students are notified of eligibility at the first evidence of academic achievement—in many cases after the first or second semester. For some students, this is the first time they have received formal recognition for doing well in school. The membership offer improves academic self-efficacy, even if students cannot afford to join. Evidence of this can be seen every day on social media—students regularly celebrate their PTK invitation on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. PTK is one way for students to reinvent themselves; to have a new set of friends; and to replace old labels, like drop-out or convicted felon, with new ones such as honor student and leader.

2. Behavior modeling: Motivation to increase self-efficacy becomes even more potent when a student sees other students like them doing well in college. But the achievement gap among community college students tells a different story. The most recent data from the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study (2019) shows the student success gap between White and Black students to be 9 percent. A recent study by National Student Clearinghouse (Shapiro et al., 2017) found the gap between Black and White students to be as high as 24 percent.

PTK (2017) made improving diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) outcomes a primary goal of the organization. DEI learning outcomes are a significant part of PTK’s advisor certification training and are embedded into the curriculums of all PTK Edge courses. Access to membership for low-income students was improved by fundraising membership fees. Some colleges utilize foundation funds to help students pay for membership, and in Mississippi, the Woodward Hines Education Foundation subsidizes membership for all students unable to afford membership (2018). Nationally, the diversity of PTK’s membership reflects the diversity of its member colleges and PTK’s student success outcomes are equitable across racial groups. Black and Latino members have a 93 percent overall student success rate, and members who receive Pell grants have a 90 percent student success rate compared to 92 percent for non-Pell members (Phi Theta Kappa, 2020).

Table 1: Student Success Rates* of PTK Members and Community College Students With GPAs of 3.5 or Higher

3. Social persuasion: Being in PTK increases student opportunities to interact with faculty, staff, administration, and each other. Chapters broaden members socially as well as academically through the work of 3,075 advisors across 1,274 active chapters in nearly every community college in the nation. Advisors are primarily from faculty ranks, with some from staff and administration. They work as navigators to encourage behaviors like staying enrolled, taking the right classes, completing college, successfully transferring to a four-year institution, and preparing for job interviews.

In 2014, Black and Latino males from PTK took part in focus groups as part of CCCSE’s research on men of color. The study found that PTK participants had backgrounds like those of other focus group participants. They came from similar neighborhoods, had comparable K-12 experiences, had similar levels of interaction with the criminal justice system, and so on (Center for Community College Student Engagement, 2014). PTK men of color pointed to strong relationships with people on campus who pushed them to do better than they thought they could. “They stayed in my ear,” was a comment from one participant (Center for Community College Student Engagement, 2014, p. 10).

4. Emotional response: Positive emotional responses are a continuous part of the member experience. In studies of success outcomes of its scholarship participants, PTK found the emotional response of receiving a scholarship to be just as important as the financial benefit of the award. Recipients of competitive scholarships ranging in amount from $500 to $7,500 had completion rates of 96 percent, regardless of the amount of the award amount.

One of the most scaled ways PTK boosts self-efficacy by emotional response is through service projects and volunteerism. Volunteerism has been shown to enhance social well-being by providing opportunities for students to meet new people, establish friendships, serve as a role model for others, and obtain more social support; volunteerism also makes individuals happier and combats depression and anxiety (Alspach, 2014; Segal & Robinson, 2016). Nearly all PTK chapters participate in service—a founding hallmark of the Society.


Student success rates among PTK members indicate that increasing individual self-efficacy can help these students overcome barriers. While PTK membership is not for all students, the higher-than-average student success rates among PTK members demonstrate the impact that self-efficacy has on community college student success. Just as PTK has intentionally developed a framework and programs that are built around boosting student confidence and creating a sense of belonging and connection between peers and college staff, we believe that these same principles can be applied to other student groups and organizations using the following recommendations:

  • Assessment of Self-Efficacy: When students enter college, their level of academic readiness is determined by formal testing, GPA, prior coursework, student interviews, and other assessment measures. Yet we know that academic readiness is not the only predictor of student success. Along with these measures, colleges should consider assessing student academic, and perhaps even social, self-efficacy. These measures could be used to guide the student and the institution toward a more personalized student experience—one that intentionally bolsters self-efficacy.
  • More Than Grades: Making student self-efficacy a priority is not about having only positive feedback for students; it is about faculty providing feedback in a way that allows the student to continue to make progress. The role of faculty in influencing self-efficacy is critical and means having an arsenal of pedogeological methods; assignment types; and high-touch, structured feedback for students.
  • Cocurricular Experiences: A successful student organization will be at the intersection of the mission of the college and the mission of the student organization. This shared support of student success makes the difference between a club and a meaningful and impactful student organization with a well-defined mission and framework for impacting student success. Student organizations like Student Government Association, SkillsUSA, Model United Nations, and PTK provide students access to scholarships, employment skill development, and travel opportunities that colleges might not otherwise provide.
  • Sponsors/Advisors Matter: Behind every strong and supportive student organization is a caring advisor/sponsor dedicated to improving efficacy and a sense of belonging, and cocurricular activities that make a difference in the lives of students. In order to leverage the student- and campus-level benefits of these organizations, these positions must be vetted by college leaders and not from the standpoint of extra duties as assigned. The larger and more active the student organization, the more likely it will need more than one sponsor, and colleges need to look at the diversity of their advisor team. These positions are most effective when they have prestige, and whenever possible, financial support in the form of time or salary supplements and general organizational support for the student activities associated with the group. This financial support allows students to focus their time and energy on programming and learning, rather than on fundraising.
  • Social Settings Matter: Transactional learning does not always bring about a change in behavior, but transformational learning does. And while much of the learning that takes place on college campuses happens inside a classroom, allowing for physical and virtual learning spaces where students can engage in meaningful learning experiences and interactions is critical to making learning stick in a more transformational way. Overall, if we look at the four ways to build self-efficacy, we see they largely take place in a more social context—outside of the classroom. Creating a campus culture that highlights the importance and value of student activities increases the likelihood that students will also prioritize these types of experiences and be transformed by them.

Final Thoughts

Those of us responsible for increasing community college student success rates work under the unwavering belief that student success is, in many ways, a science. We know that certain behaviors increase the likelihood that a student will complete a degree or transfer to a four-year college or university. Increased interaction with faculty and staff members, participation in extracurricular activities, full-time enrollment—all these things are known to impact student success rates. These behaviors are examples of the science of college completion, but the science of student success is only part of the story.

Student success is also an art that weaves together behaviors and actions with transformational experiences, including participation in student government, volunteerism, undergraduate research projects, and any experience that provides students with an opportunity to learn not only about the subject matter, but also about their own abilities. These transformational interactions ultimately increase student self-efficacy and serve as an internal driver that moves students closer to their educational and career goals.

Contact Lynn Tincher-Ladner for more information.


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[1] To become a PTK member, students generally must have a GPA of 3.5 or higher and 12 semester hours of credit, and pay a one-time fee on average of $85. Each year, approximately 10 percent of enrolled students are eligible for PTK membership.

Lynn Tincher-Ladner, Ph.D., is President and CEO, Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, in Jackson, Mississippi.

Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.