While more students than ever choose to head to college after high school, a striking number never complete their education, dropping out years before they obtain their degrees. As a result, student retention has become a major issue for colleges who want to do what they can to stem this tide and help keep students in school until they can complete their studies, an outcome that benefits students and schools alike.
For decades, research has been pointing to social engagement as a key factor in helping improve student retention. While much progress has been made in working toward easing students into the college experience, supporting them, and getting them active with their peers, there’s still much more that can be done, as social engagement can be a pivotal factor in whether a student sticks around to finish his or her studies. Here, we examine some of the research that has been done on the topic and some of the noted effects social engagement has on student retention, highlighting the importance of making students feel safe, happy, and at home no matter what school they choose to attend.
There’s a well-documented record of the impact that participation in community-based educational experiences can have on students’ academic performance and their persistence in obtaining a degree. A number of studies have shown that when students take part in service-learning courses they are considerably more likely to reenroll for courses the next semester than their peers who didn’t share these experiences. The social engagement, personal development, and community involvement achieved by participating in service learning can help make students feel more confident, in touch with peers, and a vital part of the both the university and the community at large, all factors that encourage them to stay in school.
The first year of college plays an incredibly important role in determining whether a student will follow through to getting a degree, regardless of how many more years he or she attends before dropping out. Freshman year builds a foundation for students that all of their future college experiences will rest on, and studies suggest that it is the most critical year for social engagement in college. Students need to build relationships with faculty and staff but more importantly with their peers who will be their support system and social group for the next few years of study. A study by Upcraft, Gardner, and Barefoot in 2005 found that first-year students who are supported academically, experience a seamless transition from home to college, and are involved outside of the classroom typically have higher grades and a greater likelihood of graduation.
A 2004 study by Kuh and Love found that students who made cultural connections through social groups that reflect their culture of origin were more likely to persist in higher education. Those in minority groups can often feel alienated from their peers, especially if there are few others who share their ethnic or cultural backgrounds on campus. Social engagement with others from similar backgrounds can be critical in making these students feel at home on a college campus and a key factor in whether or not these students, some already at risk, will continue through to graduation. While some groups will form organically, colleges can also play a role in fostering this kind of beneficial social engagement.
Asking students to go above and beyond can be challenging, but most students can attain even lofty goals if they’re given adequate help and support along the way. Basic skill courses, tutoring, study groups, and academic support services can go a long way toward helping students feel they can tackle the rigors of college study. With the right support from staff and faculty, studies suggest that even students who start college insufficiently prepared can rise up to the challenge of difficult course materials. Those left on their own, however, tend to become frustrated, unhappy, and often drop out.
There are also social factors out of the control of colleges that influence student persistence, including previous high school experiences and the support or lack of it from family. While colleges can’t change these factors, they can help students overcome previous difficulties, establish support systems at their new school, and develop programs to help specific student needs. While these kinds of services can’t overcome all issues with which students arrive to college, it can help ease their impact and create an environment that fosters a commitment to education.
Nearly all college students these days use some form of social media. As a result, colleges are meeting students where they already congregate in an attempt to foster connections between staff and students before many ever even arrive on campus. Students can use social media sites to talk with advisors, learn about their campuses, join clubs, or even make new friends, helping many to ease the transition between high school and college life. By building a network of friends and others who can provide support for students on campus, many already feel connected when they arrive, a critical first step to social engagement and better student retention on campus.
Colleges don’t only need to provide for the academic needs of students if they want them to continue through to graduation; they also need to provide support for emotional, social, and community issues. The transition to life at college can be rough for some students, especially those who are balancing work or familial obligations or those who are far from home. Providing students with social support in the form of counseling, mentoring, and a diverse assortment of student organizations can help make the adjustment much easier and greatly reduce the stress put on students. Research suggests that these elements should form a critical part of how any college approaches student retention.
Support from a college’s faculty and staff can be immensely helpful in fostering social engagement and helping improve social retention, but peer relationships are far more important, research suggests. Students who are able to find a group of like-minded individuals, whether through informal meet-ups, courses, clubs, tutoring, or organizations, are much more likely to stick with their college education. Researcher Dr. Alexander Astin states that student-student relationships are "the single more powerful source of influence on the undergraduate student’s academic and personal development." While colleges can’t make friends for students, they can help the socialization process along, with courses that require collaboration, campus events, and other social engagement opportunities.
In a study of 51 four-year colleges, researchers found that establishing friendships with peers and undertaking intellectual growth experiences were more important than any other factor in predicting student success. Another study indicates that the more actively engaged students are with college faculty, staff, other students, and the subject matter, the more likely they are to achieve their academic goals. While it’s tempting to think of socialization at college as a distraction from academic goals, it can be an immensely positive factor, too, increasing success in school and in turn motivating students to stick with their education until graduation.