Academic journal article Higher Learning Research Communications

The First Year: A Cultural Shift towards Improving Student Progress

Academic journal article Higher Learning Research Communications

The First Year: A Cultural Shift towards Improving Student Progress

Article excerpt


Student retention is a critical issue in higher education and institutions are under an increasingly heavy weight of expectations to take measures that will help facilitate their students' success. Of course, a student's likelihood to persist is influenced by a complex set of interpersonal, social, academic, financial, and institutional factors and thus, colleges and universities are often left trying to address challenges over which they seemingly have little control (Simpson, 2004). Yet much opportunity does exist for colleges and universities to raise the bar on delivering an exceptional student experience, and it is their obligation to create processes and policies that support the long-term success of the students they enroll. But it wasn't until the last half century that this institutional responsibility was embraced or even acknowledged.

Seidman (2005) provided a thorough historical perspective of American education over the last 400 years, identifying the emergence of retention as a major institutional focus in the 1960s. During this time, studies tracking reasons for dropout largely concentrated on the individual, with little consideration for the broader complexity of the student experience (Seidman, 2005). Spady's (1971) work was the first to directly bridge the gap, asserting that variables such as educational background, academic performance, and interpersonal relationships influence a student's decision to persist or drop out. Tinto (1975) expanded Spady's work, emphasizing that a student's likelihood to retain was directly correlated with his or her level of integration, both socially and academically. This opened the door for researchers to begin looking more holistically at the issue of attrition and beyond the view of isolated studies of student characteristics related to drop out.

While there is much research to support Spady's and Tinto's early theories, the changing landscape of higher education (including the rise of distance education and the complexion of the student population) calls for a more comprehensive model that includes factors beyond social and academic integration. Researchers building on these early theories have shown that incoming academic proficiency (Seidman, 2005), financial stability (Swail, 2004), and institutional support (Kuh, Cruce, Shoup, & Kinzie, 2008) also greatly influence a student's likelihood to persist, and more recent theories (i.e., Astin, 1993; Braxton, 2000; Milem & Berger, 1997; Titus, 2004) have incorporated these interpersonal, institutional, and environmental circumstances in predicting student outcomes. Despite these gains in a comprehensive understanding of student success outcomes, there still exists a gap in what organizations know and what they effectively do in terms of improving student progress.

Student Progress and Retention in Online Higher Education Programs

With solid theoretical foundations on student retention nested in traditional campus-based environments and traditional college-aged students, it begs the question as to how generalizable the tenets of these theories are to the diverse educational modalities and student populations that exist today. In a recent review of the literature across various institutions and populations in higher education, Jobe and Lenio (2014) posited that there are many commonalities in the challenges of attrition risk (i.e., increasing student support needs), and asserted that these similarities outnumber the unique differences. Recent research grounded in the early works of Spady, Tinto, Seidman, and others have reinforced the principles of these theories and the utility to diverse populations and institutions. While most barriers to student success may be shared issues and the theoretical bases may apply broadly, for the purposes of this article, it is worthwhile to highlight some of the unique challenges that online, non-traditional students face in successfully completing their programs. …

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