An Interview with Donald Foss: Graduate on Time

Sep 17, 2013 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy

Donald J. Foss, PhD is a distinguished and award-winning researcher and teacher, and currently a Professor of Psychology at the University of Houston. He is a cognitive psychologist (PhD, University of Minnesota; Post-doctoral Fellow, Harvard University) who has published research and written extensively about language comprehension, learning, memory, and related topics. He also received an all-university outstanding teacher award from the University of Texas at Austin. In addition to teaching and research, Dr. Foss has extensive leadership and administrative experience in higher education. He has been chairman of the Psychology Department at the University of Texas at Austin; a Dean at Florida State University; and Senior Vice-President for Academic Affairs at the University of Houston.

His latest book : “Your Complete Guide to College Success: How to Study Smart, Achieve Your Goals, and Enjoy Campus Life” can be purchased on

In this interview he discusses some of the issues regarding the completion of college and tangential issues.

1) First of all, could you tell us about your experience in higher education and a bit about your background and experience….

Thank you very much for the opportunity to talk about a topic that is important to millions of students and their families, and for public policy. I think it’s a crucial one.

I’m a professor of psychology who has specialized in how we comprehend spoken and written language, and how we remember and use the material presented to us; and now I study how to get through college and provide advice based on the best research. I’ve taught at the University of Texas in Austin, where I also served as Chair of the Psychology Department; at Florida State University, where I was Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences; and at the University of Houston, where I served as Senior Vice President. In these roles, I learned how important it is for students to persist—and learned first hand about the problems they run into. I recently wrote a book that passes this information along to students.

2) Now, I think we all in education want students to graduate on time- but sometimes things get in the way—like pregnancy, delivery, hospitalization. How should a student be preparing for such events?

It’s useful to distinguish between events over which we have little or no control—to take a dramatically sad example, a death in the family; and events that result from what I’ll call “behavioral misadventures”—for example, frequent binge drinking, which is something we do control. It’s clearly good to avoid the latter. I’m highly sympathetic if a student gets sick, or if his or her child gets hospitalized. The best way to prepare for any emergency that crops up is to be up-to-date in one’s studies when it happens so you have a realistic shot at catching up.

Speaking of graduating on time, nothing beats doing that if you want to keep college costs low. Delaying graduation not only means an extra year of tuition and other expenses, it also means a year without the salary from a good job. Giving up that salary is really costly—it’s called an “opportunity cost.” The opportunity cost is so high that it dwarfs almost any other cost factor.

3) Failing a course- particularly when that course is not scheduled or rotated around for another two years can be a very dramatic setback- How should a student handle an F?

Well, of course, the best thing is to not earn the F. I’m serious. There is so much help available to students these days, and we know so much more about how they should study, that most students can avoid failing if they take college seriously. I cover those techniques in my book, Your Complete Guide to College Success. But, sadly, some students aren’t serious, though they may be seriously immature. One freshman fraternity pledge who wrote about being in college said, “…all I really want is just some time to kick back and relax, and as far as I can tell the only time to do that is during class.” He’ll enjoy that for one semester, possibly two, and then be gone.

4) Changing majors and minors can be EXTREMELY problematic–should colleges and universities LOCK students into a major declared in their freshman year- or do they simply need more advising?

Huge numbers of students, perhaps as many as three-fourths of them, are uncertain about their major when they start college. And many, many students change majors at least once (I changed twice, not counting a major my university had called “Undetermined”!). I don’t think this is a big problem IF done in a smart way. That means taking most general education or “core” courses early—they are necessary for most majors so the student makes progress no matter what major he or she settles upon. It also means making use of the assessment tools and, yes, the advising offered on most campuses, as well as efficiently learning about the realities of various careers. In my book I describe in detail how to do those things.

5) Athletics can also be a factor- do you have advice for our student athletes- and if they have another year of eligibility- why SHOULD they graduate on time?

The vast, vast majority of student athletes have no chance of “going pro.” As I’ve mentioned, the cost, especially the opportunity cost, of staying in school an extra year is enormous—whether due to an extra year of eligibility or to the perceived need to have an outside job, or because the student is afraid to take a full load of courses that will enable him or her to graduate on time. Of course, if you can compete at quarterback with RG3 or Andrew Luck, or get signed by a major league ball team, that might change things—and good luck!

6) Some college students fall in love, get married- go on a nice long ocean voyage- and then miss a semester or two—Do you have overarching guidance for these individuals or tell people not to get married during college?

Michael, if I told people not to fall in love and get married they would click away from your site! So I won’t do that. And those who can afford a nice long ocean voyage may not need to worry about the time spent in college. But for most, they should plan that June wedding and be back in summer school for the second session, or by fall at the latest.

7) Death of a parent can be devastating. Should the student just try to muddle through and hope for C’s or should they withdraw from classes and take the time to mourn and grieve and bury their loved one?

The death of a loved one requires some time to process, and people differ greatly in how soon they can cope. It’s not wrong to return to class quickly if you can; indeed, it’s probably what the deceased parent would want, and staying engaged with studies can itself be part of coping. But for some students it will be useful to remember what good generals know: namely, that retreat from a battle is sometimes the best way to win a war. This is an individual decision and I would advise students in this situation to confer with people who know them well and who care about their long-term success.

8)  Parental responsibility for money–in your mind—when should a parent start saving for their child, and in your mind, how responsible is a parent for their son and daughter’s tuition- or is it totally on the college student to be saving when they are say 12 years old and have a paper route ?

Don’t we wish we still lived in a world where in six years a student had a shot at saving enough to pay for college? It’s a family proposition now, especially since for public universities the states have cut back enormously on the fraction of college costs they cover. So parents should start saving early!

It is important to remember two things:

(1) in many, many cases the “sticker price” will not be the actual price a student and family have to pay, and (2) financial resources have to play a role in the choice of a college. Students may not afford their dream college any more than they can afford their dream car. That’s all right: a quality education exists on many hundreds of campuses all across the country.

9) You suggest that study skills, time management and the like may help graduate on time- Should colleges be forced to provide these skills? And why were they not procured in high school?

Many colleges have learning resource centers that can offer helpful tips, but these are usually voluntary. I suspect that most faculty think that such a course is, in effect, remedial learning and they wish to minimize the number of such courses. Since there is evidence that the majority of students, even those coming to some of the prestige schools, don’t have good study skills, this might have to change.

10) Let’s talk for a while about high schools—Do they have ANY responsibility at all in terms of preparing their students for college?

I can’t speak for the high schools, of course, but I think there is widespread belief that students “naturally” pick up good techniques of studying. The problem is that much of what they pick up does not lead to effective and efficient learning. I summarize the best evidence-based study techniques in my book.

11) I know that there are limits on certain things- they only give you I think 7 years to finish the Ph.D.  Should colleges have an upper limit- say 6 or 7 years? Would this help?

In general, my concern about opportunity costs applies to graduate students aiming for a PhD as well as to undergraduates. Finishing sooner is way less costly than finishing later. However, in many programs, especially those in the humanities and social sciences, graduate students are asked to be teaching assistants, composition instructors, etc. in order to earn money, to qualify for reduced tuition, and to be competitive when they apply for jobs as a faculty member. Understandably, that can slow them down. And in many fields the students must have published some scholarly work while in graduate school to be strong candidates in the job market. That, too, can take time.

12) I can hear the liberal left screaming now–But what about the poor poverty stricken kids who need to work part time? Your response to those individuals ?

There is some evidence that working up to about 20 hours per week might be helpful, but trying to do much more than that may be harmful to progress. Given the high cost of stretching out the time it takes to graduate, it often makes economic sense to borrow money to allow one to graduate sooner.

13) Enforcement is always an issue- how can colleges and universities MANDATE graduating in four years? Or should this all be in the sweet suggestion category?

I think colleges can have an effective impact if they are creative about providing incentives for students to graduate in four years. For example, if a student successfully completes a full load the first year, the college might consider holding tuition constant the next year, or having a smaller increase.

14) Even I had to take an additional summer semester to graduate- courses are simply not offered frequently enough, AND there are conflicts- are colleges and universities aware of these factors?

They are. But for the past several years universities have been looking at declining resources from the states. In some cases this has led to negative consequences for the students, even though most colleges have not wanted to get to that point.

15) And, my gosh, cancelled classes- Are universities and colleges aware of what they are doing to maybe a small handful of students?

Classes normally get cancelled for one of two reasons. In some cases (probably a small number of them overall) not enough students sign up to make it cost effective to offer the course. Contrary to some popular belief, colleges and universities are aware that they need to use their resources efficiently. More commonly, especially in the past few years, cancelling classes has been a highly reluctant decision on the part of higher education administrators when faced with the budge reductions they’ve had to cope with.

16) What have I neglected to ask?

You’ve given me a comprehensive set of questions, and I’ve enjoyed discussing them with you!

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