What is college fluency?

For the purposes of this research project, we define college fluency as the knowledge and corresponding set of abilities that enable students and staff to effectively locate and use relevant college services, programs, and resources, which can help students to successfully engage with and self-advocate within the culture and bureaucracy of higher education institutions in order to achieve their goals.

Our research complements that of Dr. Africa Hands, who defines the related term college literacy as “the possession of knowledge that assists one in making informed decisions to navigate higher education systems,” in her IMLS-funded research study Public Library Support of College Literacy in Appalachia.

Chaotic graphic with phrases and headings capturing difference aspects of higher education with arrows connecting ideas
The challenge and opportunity of higher ed systems and bureaucracy
(image: “The Future of Higher Education: Visual” by World Economic Forum is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The stakes of college fluency are high for students and librarians; the culture, nomenclature, and organizing principles of U.S. higher education are often opaque to students, and even sometimes to staff ensconced in departmental silos. This opaqueness can make navigating the services a college offers a challenge, especially for non-curricular needs that are served by myriad offices with unfamiliar names (e.g., Bursar, Registrar, Provost, Dean, etc.).

One student, interviewed during prior IMLS-funded research conducted by BMCC and Ithaka S+R, astutely describes the complicated landscape of college: “For me the college is just so big. Sometimes you get bounced back and forth from departments to departments… you get lost in bureaucracy… sometimes you don’t even know how to navigate the whole system.”[1] In fact, first-generation students in particular indicate that non-curricular information needs—that is, needs related to navigating information for support outside of the classroom with issues like food security, financial aid, and technology assistance—are often a bigger concern for them than academic ones, such as discovering scholarly content for a research assignment.[2]

[1] Wolff-Eisenberg, C. & Braddlee. (2018). Amplifying student voices. Ithaka S+R. https://sr.ithaka.org/publications/amplifying-student-voices/

[2] Brinkman, S., Gibson, K., & Presnell, J. (2013). When the helicopters are silent: The information seeking strategies of first- generation college students. Imagine, Innovate, Inspire: ACRL 2013 Proceedings, 643–650.