Published Date

March 16, 1998

Resource Type

For the Classroom


Teaching Methods

AHA Topics

Teaching & Learning, Undergraduate Education


United States

The key issue for urban university programs whose mission is to provide assistance to students in making a successful college career for themselves is a very basic one that often gets lost in the many services we provide to the students. The key issue is this:

How does a student acquire the self-motivation to make a deep and long-term commitment to his or her education?

Everyone knows of students who are so motivated that they overcome great odds to achieve success and become shining examples of highly focused determination. They come in all colors and ages and we are proud to know them and be part of their lives. Yet, a disturbingly large number of students who attend urban-access universities do not fit this profile, and I believe this may also be true for a growing number of students at traditional residential campuses. Despite their intelligence, sincere intentions, and great potential, many students are often not sufficiently motivated to take full advantage of their access to higher education and the support services available to them.

Those of us who are educators often make the mistake of assuming that if a person is in college, he or she knows what the university is all about and is motivated to succeed in an academic environment. Moreover, thousands of access, bridge, and retention programs have been built on the assumption that, if the doors to the university are only opened to students of working-class and minority backgrounds, our children will rush to satisfy their hunger for educational opportunity and academic achievement. Long-standing barriers to equality of opportunity will be toppled and trampled, hopefully never to rise again.

But what happens when some of our children are welcomed into the university and they are not motivated to the level necessary to become a success in college? What happens when their fears, personal needs, wants, and disconnectedness from course subjects distract and derail them from giving their full attention to why they are here?

Very complex programs of recruitment, retention, and academic success have been designed and are operating all over the country to help students in college overcome all of the past and present experiences holding them back. Yet, it is my impression that too many of our programs have met with only limited success in creating corps of undeterred and skilled high-achievers or even scores of minimal survivors.

Most of the students (of various and diverse backgrounds) who do take substantive advantage of universitywide and specialized programs are generally the students who already have the motivation to do well and who leap at the opportunity to use the services created for the less skilled but less motivated students who fear, disdain, and avoid these same services. Our programs wind up boosting the success of students who most probably would have done well, although less so, without our support programs.

Student support programs that focus on the factors of environment, study skills, and students’ adjustment to them address important issues that are at the base of a good university education. These issues must be tackled and solved. Ultimately, however, there is a deeper core issue to the educational challenge. Student support programs and services can improve their success rates by focusing more concentrated energy on the single factor that is at once the most crucial and the most elusive element in student academic success–student self-motivation. The skills that students can acquire through our programs will best flourish if they are grafted onto a receptive core of determined, undeterred motivation.

Retention and skills development programs are on the cutting edge of a challenge that has universitywide relevancy because the issue of motivation transcends class and race boundaries. Many students who are from middle-class and upper-class economic backgrounds or who are not “minorities” also suffer from the same lack of motivated focus and skills deficiencies as do students from working-class and minority backgrounds. What students from these varied backgrounds often seem to have in common is a practical, vocational perspective that is not a comfortable fit with an educational system that is designed with more abstract components than students believe they want or need. (Consult chapter three, ”The Fundamentals,” for an extended statement on the mission of the university.)

If the problem of success in the classroom was simply one of skills development, it would have been solved long ago, because most students who struggle academically are quite intelligent. The motivational dilemma stems from the dissonance between student expectations and university purpose and, even more seriously, from student dislike for the very activities–reading, writing, and critical thinking–that are the fundamental tools for building a successful academic career. Many students who enroll at an urban-access university find it extremely hard to make the cultural transformation in their identities and in their activities to reach the level of mastery that is necessary for them to succeed as readers, writers, and analytical thinkers in a system of higher education. The transformation is difficult because students have not acquired a taste for the activities and habits that will make the learning experience pleasurable for them. They are accustomed and conditioned to thinking of reading, writing, and analytical thinking as intellectual drudgery to be avoided except when absolutely necessary. The development of the habit of disciplined reflection–which is a special mission of the university–is therefore stunted. (See chapter four, ”When the University Becomes a Jungle Full of Stress,” for an extended definition of “reflection” in this context.)

I am not trying to downplay the economic and social obstacles many students face in seeking a higher education. The great majority of students at an urban university work part- or full-time to support themselves and pay for their education. They often have families to nurture. They may come from high-stress neighborhoods or from families whose immediate need is an income rather than the delayed satisfaction of a better job in the future. Precisely because these are powerful factors, a student will only be willing to overcome the environmental and skills barriers to success when learning is itself a satisfying and pleasurable activity. To be effective, learning cannot be just a job to do in order to get the ulterior rewards. Only a sense of deriving an immediate and direct personal satisfaction from an experience will motivate a person to continue with it in a persistent and determined manner. Students who see reading, writing, and critical thinking as unpleasant tasks are not likely to do well in the university, and there is very little that support services can do for them. The message we try to convey to them–of how to improve their skills and performances–falls on unhearing ears, and our support services go underutilized. Even intensive intervention cannot move minds and hearts that do not have the will and the desire to move themselves.

On the wall outside my office door, I have a sign that has a more diplomatically worded version of the following:

You would not apply to be a car mechanic if you did not like to work with engines, tools, and oil. Why would you sign up to be a college student, if you do not like to read, write, and think analytically?

Of course, a great number of students who do not particularly enjoy school, nevertheless pursue college careers because they have been socialized to believe that this is the best way to gain a decent life in our high-tech, postindustrial society with its accentuated materialistic values. If there is a large grain of truth in this social belief, we need to concern ourselves with the systemic and structural issues created by the large number of students arriving at the gates of an institution that was originally designed for the elite classes in society. The solution does not lie in dumbing down the university, but rather in better explaining its mission and in creating the pathways and incentives to pursuing its benefits.

The best way I can think of how to begin to solve the issue of motivation is to address it directly with the individual student, and to help the student to do the frankest possible reality check on his or her own motivation and on what it means for his or her survival and success at the university. The student must understand that learning is a proactive and participatory experience and that no professor, counselor, or tutor can teach him or her anything that he or she does not want to learn.

To evaluate his or her own level of motivation and commitment, a student needs the most important basic information on what is involved in creating a successful academic profile and college career. Here, as a starting point, are certain qualities a student must develop in order to make the college experience worth his or her time and effort. This is a quick reality check on motivation and preparedness for the student before going on to the complementary documents in this guide that address in greater detail the comprehensive personal adjustment required for success in college.

A successful, motivated, and happy student

1. Is in college because he or she gets satisfaction from the learning experience and is not enrolled solely for ulterior motives like making money or social pressure. He or she

  • Derives (or earnestly wants to derive) satisfaction and even pleasure from reading books, writing essays, and thinking critically about the subjects he or she studies.
  • Can set priorities. He or she does not place studying dead last behind a series of entertainment, social, and work activities when choosing areas of interest.
  • Can follow through on priorities. He or she has the self-discipline to study long hours when he or she would rather be doing other things. He or she acts on the belief that short-term sacrifices will pay off in the long run.

2. Appreciates the difference between a vocational education and a university education. (Consult chapter three, ”The Fundamentals,” for a more complete explanation of the difference.) He or she

  • Knows the university has the additional mission of expanding his or her knowledge of the larger world and of training the mind to be analytical.
  • Knows that it is unfair (and very frustrating to one’s mental health) to judge the university by the standards of a narrowly focused vocational education program.

3. Can identify with the goal of transforming himself or herself into an intellectual, someone who thinks analytically and conceptually. (Consult chapter three, ”The Fundamentals,” for a fuller explanation of “intellectual.”) He or she

  • Studies to learn, to understand, to comprehend–not just to meet the requirements to get the diploma. He or she gets excited about ideas.
  • Immerses his or her mind in the course work–gets his or her head into the subject matter; or more appropriately, gets the subject matter into his or her head.
  • Develops an appetite for books, for deriving satisfaction and pleasure from reading and thinking about the contents.
  • Is obsessed with finding a link between himself or herself–his or her self-vision–and the topics of his or her courses.

4. Develops a sense of pride in his or her academic achievements and derives a sense of empowerment from them. He or she

  • Commits to acquiring and continually improving for life the skills needed to succeed as a student, as a professional, and as a citizen.
  • Commits to doing the studying for a course in a timely and analytical manner over the course of the whole semester.
  • Commits to using all of the support systems and services available to improve his or her educational opportunities.

5. Is willing to make economic and personal sacrifices to get a quality education, rather than use economic and personal challenges as justifications for not doing well in school.

Many students (and their families) seeking a higher education have not taken sufficient time to define these qualities for academic and life success and to make a commitment to incorporate them into a concrete plan of action and self-transformation. If a student does not acknowledge and commit to these qualities, he or she will lead a miserable existence at the university. This is because these traits reflect the true character of the university, a unique institution that exists to deepen and expand the mind as well as train professionals in vocations. Many students have expectations of the university that are better met in schools, for technicians and mechanics. It is important that students realize the difference between the university and other types of schools because all of the qualities identified above are internal and personal characteristics that cannot be forcibly or externally instilled in anyone. A person must not only become aware of these qualities; he or she must voluntarily adopt, acquire, and finely tune them to succeed at the university.

A large number of students in college (even among those who are very academically skilled) never reach their full potential because they rarely see college as an experience in which learning is rewarding in itself. Instead, they see it as a means to an end. Reading, writing, and critical thinking are seen as distasteful chores they must reluctantly complete to get to the jobs and money waiting for them when they get through the educational obstacle course. Frequently, it is only later in life that many individuals come to the realization that learning for its own sake is not as impractical and as irrelevant to the quality of one’s daily life as it may at first appear; that analytical and communication skills learned at the “ivory tower” can be beneficially applied to many areas of one’s life and work. Why should we take the attitude that the end justifies the unpleasant means? Why shouldn’t the means to an end also be pleasurable in itself? And why should proficiency in the means not be a goal in itself? Why should this wisdom come to so many so late in life? It is a communication problem and a dilemma created by our society’s values.

An appreciation for the relevancy and applicability of abstraction is obtainable only on an individual basis. Each person comes to this realization on his or her own personal time frame. While individuals may certainly organize groups and associations to help each other get there, acquiring a taste for the habits and practices that will empower a person to succeed in college is possible only through individual motivation and commitment.Universitywide or specialized projects in social engineering will only succeed if the persons who are the objects of the engineering want to be engineered, or better stated, if they want to engineer and transform themselves with the support of the services we offer them.