Man trapped behind chain link fence. Many barriers prevent or interfere with success in college.
[ Empowered Learning ][ Learners ]

How to Overcome 10 Common Barriers to College Success

Over 100 students returning to college were surveyed between May and November, 2017 on their barriers to success. They rated 60 skills, attitudes, and life situations from very low to very high. These 60 areas contribute to doing well and are known risk factors. I list the top ten most frequently identified challenges and discuss solutions. Please post your experiences with students in the comments and identify what you believe is worth solving.

10 Common Barriers to College Success

Each of the listed numbers is the percentage of students rating themselves low to very low in a skill/attitude/life area. Learning from failure, for example, was identified by 61% of students as an area for improvement.

Tied for Ninth Place (61%): Learning from Failure.

Colleges, for the most part, are set up to create failure. Each student starts with an “A”, but loses points on assignments and exams. The ability to learn from failure and not become demotivated depends on having a growth mindset and the tools to turn mistakes into learning opportunities. The newest article on this subject is The best students actually love it when they fail. The article, Are you learning the slow way? 6 Steps and 4 Elements to PowerUp Learning & Performancecovers this skill, as does this humorous one: Educational Vampires — PowerUp to Protect Yourself and Loved Ones.

Tied for Ninth Place (61%): Engaging in School

School can be boring. Not every expert in a subject has expertise in teaching. But that shouldn’t stop us as learners. Successful students work to make any subject interesting so that they maintain enthusiasm for learning. The feeling of boredom (or worse) indicates you’ll suffer at learning that subject. The post Are You Engaged in What You Do? How to Level-up on the 5P Engagement Scale gives suggestions for turning any boring situation on its head.

Eight Place (62%): Intimidated or Ineffective at Persuasive Speaking.

Being heard and influencing others depends on the power of persuasion. Yet, as the joke goes, people fear speaking in public more than death. I don’t have a post on this subject, yet, but suggest from experience that getting into the habit of critical thinking and asking the 5Ws (who, what, when, where, why) helps learn better and organize your thoughts for better speaking and writing. As you review your learning, put it in your own words. As yourself why you believe it. You’ll do better at speaking and essay exams. And you’ll remember it, too.

Seventh (65%): Lack of Role Models

Students with role models have a head start on building their identity as a student and/or professional. Lack of a role model often comes with a lack of experience and support for the rigors of college. First generation college students lack parental role models and support and are at a special disadvantage. It pays to be friendly and build friendships with students who want to succeed and inspire you. A future post will discuss finding a mentor to help you learn to navigate the barriers and thrive in college.

Sixth (66%): Focus on memorizing vs. creating personal meaning.

A common mistake in reading and learning in general involves memorizing vs. constructing meaning. As you read, ask yourself what relates to your reading to identify existing knowledge and to make ties with it. Ask how the reading can help with your application of concepts to solve problems. Make a list of terms and questions from a quick scan of the reading, then read with purpose, answering the questions in your own words. Then, use these questions to study for exams. See Wasting your time studying? How to and How not to Study for more tips. Dr. Pooja K. Agarwal writes at about effective ways to use spaced repetition or retrieval practice and to go beyond memorization.

Fifth (69%): Reading without a Plan

Research shows that highlighting and re-reading are ineffective learning methods compared to critical thinking while reading. As suggested for sixth place, don’t memorize. Put new knowledge into your own words. Practice asking questions of your readings. What’s the point of the reading? Can it be applied elsewhere? What terms are defined? What are the significant questions in the reading? How do they apply to other areas in the course. Also see Wasting your time studying? How to and How not to Study for more tips.

Fourth (72%): Not Assertive Enough.

Assertiveness helps a student own their learning. It reflects a confident spirit and contributes to persuasive speaking (above). Being passive (see Are You Engaged in What You Do? How to Level-up on the 5P Engagement Scale) leads to being passive in school because you let others define your learning agenda. You may find others take advantage of your time and passivity to control your schedule (see the third most frequent barrier, below). Find your voice and make your choice!

Third (73%): Ineffective Time Management

Students overwhelmingly have trouble focusing on what’s most important and prioritizing their activities in the time that they have. Games and socializing easily distract them from school work. The antidote includes:

Tied for First (75%): Life Out of Balance or Life Crises

A high percentage of students struggled with life crises or at a minimum, keeping their life, work, and school in balance. Good time management (see the third place recommendations above) can help as can assertiveness (see fourth place, above).

But nothing can prevent life crises. Problem solving skills (a future topic) are needed to deal effectively with the crisis, changing priorities, at least for a while until resolved, and having sufficient money saved to ride a crises through to solution are some strategies to overcome barriers.

Tied for First (75%): Cramming & Scrambling.

Cramming is ineffective at creating durable learning. It may help you get through the next test, but it won’t take advantage of the expensive and precious opportunity of college. Since you’re spending time, use the techniques above for time management, life balance, full engagement, and effective studying to make the most of college.

Next Steps

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You can take the same survey and compare your results in our free course: College Success Factors.


The Academy of Process Educators publishes a related journal. Under the leadership of Dr. Dan Apple the academy has developed a number of learning techniques over the last thirty years. Dr. Apple used them in a learning to learn academic recovery course where the survey data was collected (2017). We plan a number of articles.

Photo by Mitchel Lensink on Unsplash.

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About Author


An innovator in online higher education, David Leasure has led online university programs, problem-based approaches to online learning, and competency-based education. He has served as provost at Western Governors University, Colorado Technical University, and Jones International University. Leasure earned bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in computer science and was associate professor of computer science at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, where he turned his interests from artificial intelligence to teaching and learning with technology. Leasure led the creation of CTU Online, served as CTU’s doctoral chancellor, and also as president of Jones International University.

His core belief is that all students can learn and his passion is helping them and their institutions succeed.

His current mission is to promote self-growth to empower 10M learners and 1M mentors and faculty by 2028.

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