Academic journal article Community College Review

UCLA Community College Review: Campus Environment: A Missing Link in Studies of Community College Attrition

Academic journal article Community College Review

UCLA Community College Review: Campus Environment: A Missing Link in Studies of Community College Attrition

Article excerpt

This paper explores the overlooked influence of campus environment in community college attrition. It discusses the campus ecology perspective, which raises awareness that the myriad of mutually interdependent relationships among community college inhabitants, environments, and activities can support or hinder the traditional goals of student growth and development. After decades of focusing primarily on student-based measures of attrition, the article proposes that the influence of the community college environment might be key to understanding student attrition. The remainder of the article, drawing on the author's experience as a nontraditional community college student, offers examples of possible environmental enhancements that can support retention and success for students.


These are challenging times for community colleges. Enrollment is up, funding is unreliable, and colleges are increasingly held responsible for learning outcomes of an ever more diverse student population. Community colleges serve 53% of all first-time students enrolled in public higher education, including disproportionate numbers of working, first-generation, adult, and other traditionally underrepresented students (Snyder, Tan, & Hoffman, 2004). Nine of ten first-time community college students intend to earn a certificate or associate's degree or to transfer and earn a bachelor's degree. However, only 36% achieve a formal credential within 6 years, although an additional 8% are still enrolled at that time. Of the remaining, 11% never intended to earn a certificate or degree, and 45% leave without achieving their original educational objectives (Hoachlander, Sikora, & Horn, 2003).

High levels of first-year attrition are a longstanding problem. About half of all first-year community college students leave higher education before the beginning of their second year--a rate that has held steady for over 40 years. Although many scholars have examined the forces that contribute to student attrition throughout the college experience, Tinto (1988) noted that "the forces that shape departure during the first year of college, especially during the first six weeks of the first semester, are qualitatively different than those that mold departure in the latter years of college" (p. 439).

Community college attrition--especially early attrition--deserves serious attention, since access to higher education and the resulting private and public benefits are undermined when students do not achieve their educational objectives (Bowen & others, 1977; Cohen & Brawer, 2003). Attrition interferes with individual, institutional, and social well-being, depleting the future pool of skilled workers and educated citizens needed to participate in an increasingly sophisticated economy and complex civic life (Merisotis, 2005). Children of students who drop out are less likely to complete high school or college than are children of college graduates, which suggests that the harmful effects of attrition are intergenerational (Astone & McLanahan, 1991; Kojuku & Nunez, 1998). Moreover, institutional planning, budgeting, and economic stability become less manageable in colleges with excessive attrition (Ansalone, 2002).

Economic, societal, psychological, organizational, and interactionalist perspectives have shaped most studies of college student persistence (Braxton, 2000). Tinto's (1975, 1988, 1993) interactionalist model of student departure is probably the best known, modeling attrition as a lack of fit between student characteristics and the requirements of college. In this person-environment fit model, student characteristics such as poor academic preparation, part-time enrollment, full-time employment, and delay in beginning college after high school graduation predict lower levels of academic and social involvement or integration and, therefore, higher levels of attrition (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1998; Tinto, 1975, 1988, 1993). …

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