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Author: Joseph A. Kitchen and Zoë B. Corwin

Higher education often struggles to meet the needs of at-promise students—that is, those from low-income, first-generation, and racially minoritized backgrounds (Kitchen et al., 2021). Colleges and universities graduate students from these backgrounds at much lower rates than their peers despite myriad efforts over the decades to remedy these inequities (Cataldi et al., 2018; Shapiro et al., 2018; Tinto, 2012). The failures of colleges and universities to significantly improve at-promise student success in meaningful ways results from one-size-fits all approaches to student support, siloed and difficult-to-navigate campus environments, and deficit-oriented campus cultures where educators treat at-promise students and their needs as problems that need fixing to “fit the mold” of a successful college student. Leaders in higher education continue to wrestle with these seemingly intractable disparities, and many have piloted novel models to support at-promise students as they navigate postsecondary education.

Working closely with practitioners from a large comprehensive college transition program that serves thousands of at-promise students at three University of Nebraska campuses, researchers recently documented a new, evidence-based model for fostering at-promise student success called ecological validation (EV), which offers a new direction for higher education leaders interested in advancing equity and the success of a diverse student body (Kitchen et al., 2021). In the model, a key mechanism driving at-promise students’ success is that practitioners across campus contexts (e.g., classes, advising, financial aid, student affairs) adopt a validating approach to how they interact with students. In this process, educators and staff (1) learn about students’ backgrounds and experiences; (2) affirm who students are and the value of what they bring with them to college; (3) acknowledge that each student has what it takes to succeed academically and personally; and (4) recognize in both words and actions their potential for college success (Rendon & Muñoz, 2011). Practitioners and faculty who participate in EV coordinate campus support that is tailored to students and is responsive to their multifaceted needs and goals. Validating support from multiple educators over time immerses students in an environment that empowers to succeed and creates synergistic effects where the impact of validation is greater than any one validating interaction alone. Our research team found this approach to student support promotes students’ success, including their sense of belonging, feelings of mattering, and confidence in their major and career paths (Hallett et al., 2020; Hypolite et al., 2020; Kitchen, 2021; Melguizo et al., 2021).

In the EV model, practitioners and educators

  1. reach out to students proactively, learn about their backgrounds, and cultivate genuine, trusting relationships in which students feel comfortable sharing who they are, what their unmet needs are, and what they hope to achieve in college;
  2. leverage the trusting relationships they have built to identify and anticipate the challenges students may encounter in college and to collaboratively identify students’ short- and long-term goals as well as opportunities for students to realize those goals;
  3. affirm that students have what it takes to overcome challenges and achieve their goals;
  4. empower students to succeed by connecting them to campus support tailored to their unique identities, needs, and goals, where other educators continue to validate and encourage them; and
  5. take a long view to students’ success by maintaining a caring, trusting relationship with each student, periodically checking in to ensure that they receive the support they need, and encouraging them by communicating sincerely held beliefs in their capacity to succeed.

While higher education has a history of seeking out silver-bullet interventions and programming solutions to address disparities in at-promise student success, EV places emphasis on how educators deliver support and creating a culture where faculty and staff interact in validating, proactive ways with students and collaborate with their colleagues on support. An emphasis on process over any one intervention or program component (e.g. learning communities, first year seminars, mentoring programs) offers a promising direction forward for higher education. Our research suggests that processes such as validating students’ capabilities for success and coordinating support to empower students can be learned by educators across contexts and scaled up at colleges and universities to better serve at-promise students.

Higher education leaders play a central role in scaling this model at their colleges and universities. Below we outline several recommendations for implementing the EV model (Kezar et al., in press; Kitchen et al., 2021).

For more information about the EV model and other promising practices identified in the Promoting At-Promise Student Success study, visit pass.pullias.usc.edu.


Cataldi, E. F., Bennet, C. T., & Chen, X. (2018). First-generation students: College access, persistence, and postbachelor’s outcomes (NCES 2018-421). U.S. Department of Education.

Hallett, R., E., Reason, R. D., Toccoli, J., Kitchen, J. A., & Perez, R. J. (2020). The process of academic validation within a comprehensive college transition program. American Behavioral Scientist, 64(3), 253–275. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764219869419

Hypolite, L., Kitchen, J. A., & Kezar, A. (2020, April). Developing major and career self-efficacy among marginalized students: Impacts of a comprehensive college transition program. Paper for the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), San Francisco, CA.

Kezar, A., Perez, R., Hallett, R., & Kitchen, J. A. (in press). Scaling success for low-income, first-generation, and/or racially minoritized students through a culture of ecological validation. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education.

Kitchen, J. A. (2021). Promoting college students’ major and career self-efficacy through validating support. Journal of College Student Development, 62(4), 422–437. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.2021.0045

Kitchen, J. A., Perez, R., Hallett, R., Kezar, A., & Reason, R. (2021). Ecological validation model of student success: A new student support model for low-income, first-generation, and racially minoritized students. Journal of College Student Development, 62(6).

Melguizo, T., Martorell, P., Swanson, E., Chi, W. E., Park, E., & Kezar, A. (2021). Expanding student success: The impact of a comprehensive college transition program on psychosocial outcomes. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 14(4), 835–860. https://doi.org/10.1080/19345747.2021.1917029

Rendón Linares, L. I., & Muñoz, S. M. (2011). Revisiting validation theory: Theoretical foundations, applications, and extensions. Enrollment Management Journal, 5(2), 12–33.

Shapiro, D., Dundar, A., Huie, F., Wakhungu, P., Bhimdiwali, A., & Wilson, S. (2018). Completing college: A national view of student completion rates—Fall 2012 cohort. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. https://nscresearchcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/SignatureReport16.pdf

Tinto, V. (2012). Completing college: Rethinking institutional action. University of Chicago Press.

Joseph A. Kitchen, PhD, is an assistant research professor at the University of Southern California Pullias Center for Higher Education whose research focuses on the role of college transition, outreach, and support programs and interventions in promoting equitable outcomes and college success among first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students.

Zoë B. Corwin, PhD, is a research professor at the University of Southern California Pullias Center for Higher Education whose research focuses on college access and success, games and technology, skateboarding, and how historically marginalized students navigate educational settings.