Student persistence is one of the most widely studied areas of higher education (Fisher & Engemann, 2009; Tinto, 2006) and has become an increasingly hot topic in Canadian post-secondary education, as it supports our government and institutions in their goal of managing highly functional and well integrated education systems that provide students with opportunities for success (Conrad & Morris, 2010, p. 2). While the concept of student persistence has been around for some 50 years, the perspective on retention changed significantly in 1970 (Tinto, 2006) and has continued to evolve over time, particularly as students, families and all levels of government invest in the Canadian post-secondary sector (Canadian Council on Learning, 2011). Unfortunately, over the past two decades, Canada’s average dropout rates have been approximately 20% - 25% from first year to second, and only approximately 60% of an entering cohort persists to degree completion (Grayson & Grayson, 2003). These statistics cause some citizens to question the high investment in higher education, particularly because each student who does not proceed to the next academic year costs Canadian institutions at least approximately $6,282 annually (Dietsche, 1990). That cost has likely increased significantly over the past twenty-five years, and these statistics are particularly problematic knowing that student persistence is often viewed by society as a primary measure of student success and institutional success. Therefore, institutions are focusing on student persistence, as a positive and increasing retention rates is often thought to be the result of an improved quality of student life and learning on campuses, and demonstrates the value of the investment (Noel-Levitz, 2008).
Across Canadian institutions, many student service programs have opportunities available to assist students with the transition to post-secondary education and increase first year student success and retention (Grayson & Grayson, 2003). Researching and understanding the effectiveness of various retention strategies can provide a solid foundation to student affairs professionals when implementing programs that support student persistence. As identified in a study conducted by Fisher and Engemenn (2009), the strongest determinant of student retention is student engagement. Looking at the relationship between student persistence and engagement, this paper seeks to determine if high impact student engagement programs, including living learning communities, peer mentorship programs, and experiential learning opportunities, are effective strategies to improve overall student persistence at Canadian post-secondary institutions.
Literature Review: Retention Theories in Post-Secondary Education
To effectively understand how student engagement programs can impact student persistence, it is essential to have an understanding of the literature in the field on post-secondary student persistence and attrition. The research on these concepts spans well over five decades, and continues to become more advanced as scholars form a more thorough understanding of the complexities that shape the student experience and overall persistence (Tinto, 2006). Research in this area began to change in the 1970s, once theorists started to shift their views of retention from the abilities of a student, to the influence of the environment in a student’s choice to stay or leave an institution.
The most popular model of student attrition to emerge during this time was Tinto’s (1975) Student Integration Model (Grayson & Grayson, 2003), and is still considered one of the most popular in the field. The Student Integration Model was unique at the time, as it focused on identifying multiple factors involved in student persistence, whereas previous studies had primarily focused on one single concept (McGivney, 2005). Based on different sets of factors that affect persistence, the first phase of the model looks at a student’s background, individual attributes, and commitments to personal goals and the institution. Once enrolled, students engage with academic experiences, intellectual development, as well as social integration. In particular, Tinto (1975) states that it is critical to integrate opportunities for interaction between a student and other members of the institution, both faculty and peers, in the first year of post-secondary education (Tinto, 2006). Tinto’s (1975) concept became heavily connected to what became known as the “age of involvement”, and theorists such as Aston, Pascarella, Terenzini reinforced Tinto’s (1975) focus on social integration and student involvement. Tinto’s (1975) research also influenced practical recommendations to create student persistence programs, encouraging institutions to employ practices that would increase academic values and social support (Bean & Eaton, 2001).
Furthermore, the model generated a great deal of inquiry into student attrition, particularly from first to second year (Grayson & Grayson, 2003). This inquiry paved the way for further research on student retention in the years to come.
In 1985, Bean and Metzner created their Student Attrition Model, which included additional factors that were not included in Tinto’s (1975) Student Integration Model. In the Student Attrition Model, the attrition factors are divided into three areas: academic, social-psychological, and environmental. While many of the factors included in this model are also present in Tinto’s (1975) work, Bean and Metzner (1985) added environmental factors not previously discussed, such as finance, opportunity to transfer, and outside friends. Despite the fact that the Student Attrition Model includes many of the same concepts as Tinto (1975), the utility of the two models is employed quite differently (Grayson & Grayson, 2003). As pointed out by Cabrera, Castaneda, Nora and Hengstler (1992), both models look at persistence over time and argue that pre-college characteristics affect how students will adjust to their institution. However, unlike in Tinto’s (1975) diagram, the Student Attrition Model emphasizes the importance that external factors play in influencing attitudes and decisions. Furthermore, “…whereas the Student Integration Model regards academic performance as an indicator of academic integration, the Student Attrition Model regards college grades as an outcome variable resulting from social-psychological processes” (Cabrera et al., 1992, p. 145). In the final analysis of their research, Cabrera et al. (1992) identified that while the Student Integration Model has had more of its hypothesis validated, Bean and Metzner’s (1985) model better assists in identifying the importance of external factors, and future research should look to combine the insights from both theories (Grayson & Grayson, 2003).
Almost two decades later, Swail (2004) did look to Tinto’s (1975) and Bean and Metzner’s (1985) models as the foundation for his framework on student retention, The Geometric Model of Student Persistence and Achievement. This model also focuses on three factors: cognitive, socio-psychological and institutional, which are very similar to Bean and Metzner’s (1985) academic, social and environmental variables. The difference in Swail’s (2004) model is that it places the student at the centre of the model, rather than as an indifferent element to a flow chart (p. 13). The framework acts as a visual reminder that all three factors must be equal in order for a student to have a balanced experience, through a combination of student-specific features and institutional resources. Based on Swail’s (2004) model, rarely does a student come to a post-secondary institution with a balanced triangle. It is more common for a student to arrive as an isosceles or scalene, and they often require institutional supports or programs to transform into an equilateral polygon by the end of their post-secondary career. Therefore, the equilibrium of a student’s triangle is based on, “the ability of the institution to deliver the appropriate level of support services to counter the strengths and weaknesses of the student” (Swail, 2004, p. 18). These types of institutional services are more thoroughly discussed than in previous models, and emphasize the important role of various services on campus, including financial aid, student services, recruitment and admissions, academic services, and curriculum and instruction (Swail, 2004). The equilateral triangle is a reminder to post-secondary educators of their role in supporting students, and highlights the importance of assisting students in connecting all three factors together.
Student Engagement and Persistence
There is a prominent connection between Tinto’s (1975), Bean and Metzner’s (1985), and Swail’s (2004) factors of social integration and the concept of student engagement. Astin’s (1984) notion of student involvement “refers to the amount of physical and psychological energy that the student devotes to the academic experience” (p. 297). As paraphrased by Grayson and Grayson (2003), the greater the student involvement, the more positive the outcomes. Moreover, the connection between persistence theory and student involvement is further discussed by Terenzini, Pascaella and Bliming (1996), as their research concluded, “academic and cognitive learning are positively shaped by a wide variety of out of the classroom experiences” (p. 157). These experiences represent student engagement opportunities, which Kuh, Kinzie, Buckley, Bridges and Hayek (2007) argue combine the time and energy students invest into purposeful activities and the effort institutions devote to efficient educational practices.
Furthermore, research conducted by Seidman and Brown (2006) proposes that students learn more in a non-academic setting, as students spend the majority of their educational experience outside of the classroom (Kuh, Schuh, Witt & Associates, 1991). In fact, it has been argued that co-curricular experiences account for approximately 70% of what students gain from post-secondary education (Kuh, 1993). This confirms the notion that outside of the classroom engagement on a post-secondary campus positively affects learning and student development in a number of ways (Terenzini et al., 1996). In fact, in Hughes & Paces’ (2003) study, it was confirmed that students who are less engaged outside of the classroom than their counterparts are less likely to persist. In a more recent study, it was also evident that all students attending institutions with complementary initiatives and purposeful educational practices are more likely to be more satisfied, perform better academically, and persist to graduation (Kuh, et al., 2007).
As there becomes heightened awareness about the relationship between student engagement and persistence, co-curricular experiences become increasingly more important to student affairs educators, whose primary role is to create meaningful learning experiences for students outside of the classroom (Goodman, 2014). The mission of student affairs departments is typically to facilitate opportunities to create a holistic student experience through student development and social interactions (ACPA & NASPA, 2006). In her study on the effectiveness of outside of the classroom experiences, Goodman (2014) concluded that student affairs work does have a positive effect on multiple areas of student development, and should continue to find ways to support students in making meaningful co-curricular experiences that encourage connections with faculty and peers, interactions with students who are different than themselves, and relate their in-class knowledge to other experiences. Furthermore, the value of student affairs programs is “the application of human development concepts in post secondary settings so that everyone involved can master increasingly complex developmental tasks, achieve self-direction, and become interdependent” (Miller & Prince, 1976, p. 3). When intentional and well-designed, effective practices in these areas can include living-learning communities, peer mentoring, and service learning opportunities (Kuh, et al., 2008), and positively impact student satisfaction and persistence. These opportunities were identified as high-impact practices (HIPs) in the 2014 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which evaluates over 1500 universities and colleges in the United States and Canada.
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A creative educator striving to enhance the holistic student experience and committed to exploring personal strengths and fulfillment.