Volume 84 | Issue 5
September/October 2016

Perceived Barriers and Benefits to First-Year Student Involvement

Cat Placencia

Read the print version [pdf] of this article.

Experts in higher education have long established that involvement on campus is beneficial to student success. Astin’s 1984 Student Involvement Theory utilizes a practical approach, framing involvement as energy expended by students. Astin goes on to list elements of involvement such as quality of involvement, quantity (frequency) of involvement, resources, and the impact that college personnel can have on students. A group of Canadian researchers further identified societal benefits of high school involvement, as involved students were more likely to attend college, vote in political elections, and give their efforts to the community, Higher Education reported in 2010. Institutional benefits of involved students include decreased drop-out rates, more students continuing to pursue their education, fewer failed classes, and fewer suspensions, the researchers found. They also indicated that personal benefits to the students involved may include enhanced retention and critical thinking, social, and leadership skills. Students who participate in cocurricular activities grow both cognitively and emotionally, according to Ricardo Monelongo’s 2002 literature review in the Journal of the Indiana University Student Personnel Association. This is important because an engaged social life for college students could affect how they view their college experience as a whole. While practitioners know what Astin considers to be involvement, less is known about what actual college students consider to be involvement. Additionally, even though the benefits to involvement are well established, there is a lack of research regarding perceptions among specific populations, such as first-year students.

The research on involvement is important because participation in cocurricular opportunities boasts many benefits. For example, Joyce Walsh-Portillo’s 2011 doctoral study on emotional intelligence and student success revealed involvement as a catalyst in helping students broaden their perspective and gain empathy. Researchers often reference Randi Levitz and Lee Noel’s classic finding that the most crucial part of a new student’s transition occurs within the first two to six weeks of their first semester. While previous predictors of college success were considered to be grade point average and standardized test scores, factors that contribute to student success may actually lie outside of academic life, Larry Sparkman, Wanda Maulding, and Jalynn Roberts asserted in a 2012 College Student Journal article. Therefore, it is crucial that experts in the field consider potential barriers to involvement and showcase the benefits of involvement to best serve students.

Recently an assessment project on first-year student involvement at California State University–Northridge aimed to add to the minimal research in this area, specifically by revealing perceived barriers and benefits.

About the Project

The study at California State University–Northridge (CSUN) investigated what first-year students consider to be involvement as well as perceived barriers and benefits to involvement. Forty-five sections of the University 100 (U100) freshman seminar course participated in the study. U100 classes have a maximum enrollment of 25 students. An estimated total of participants was 1,000—about a fifth of the incoming freshman class at CSUN. If the sample enrolled U100 is representative of the entire freshman class’s demographics, as collected by the institutional research office, the following demographics can be assumed to be characteristic of those who participated in the data collection: CSUN admitted more than 5,000 first-year students in the fall of 2015. About 54.7% of the students were women. The top five largest racial and ethnic groups were 57.5% Latino/a, 12.5% white, 10.1% Asian, 8% international, and 6.1% African American. With regard to age at entry, 78.1% were under 18 and 21.8% were 18–22 years old. Only .1% were older than that, and this stayed within the range of 23–25 years old.

As part of each class’s tour of CSUN's Matador Involvement Center, students were asked three questions:

  • What comes to mind when you think of involvement?
  • What are all the possible reasons not to get involved?
  • What are the benefits to getting involved?

During the visit, a student would write their class’s responses to each question on a large flip chart. After the class discussed each of the three questions, the flip chart papers were saved for data recording.

With no existing model to account for barriers to first-year involvement, one was developed. It was based largely on the developmental domains of socioemotional, mental, physical, and environmental, but also included study-specific categories for commonly reported reasons like time constraints and motivation to get involved. A model categorizing the perceived benefits of involvement was derived from the Council for the Advancement of Standards (CAS) Learning and Developmental Outcomes: Practical Competence, Knowledge Acquisition, Self-Development, Interpersonal Comp-etence, Cognitive Complexity, and Humanitarianism and Civic Engagement. An Extrinsic benefit category was added as well.


Figure 1: Perceived barriers of cocurricular involvementPerceived Barriers
The results for the perceived barriers are as follows: 131 reports of socioemotional barriers, 126 time-related barriers, 70 environmental barriers, 69 motivational barriers, 31 mental barriers, and three physical barriers (See Figure 1). Anything related to relationships was categorized as socioemotional and included family responsibilities or wanting to spend time with friends. Many responses in this category were related to being afraid to get involved because of shyness, social anxiety, or doing something new. Environmental barriers included students living far from campus and having transportation issues as well as financial reasons for not being able to be involved. Mental barriers were composed of two different responses: not knowing how to be involved and not being aware of opportunities. Physical barriers to involvement were students considering that some might not be able to participate because of differing abilities. Time-related barriers included responses where students simply mentioned not having enough time, which was common, and activities that greatly reduced their time including homework, school, and employment. If students reported something that they wanted to do more than get involved, it was categorized as a motivational reason, whereas if students reported something that they needed to do more than involvement, it was a time-related barrier. Responses were categorized as a motivational barrier when students mentioned not being interested, not being motivated, or being lazy.

Figure 2: Perceived benefits of corricular involvement categorized using the CAS Learning and Developmental DomainsPerceived Benefits
Practical Competence, which includes career development, living a purposeful and satisfying life, and maintaining wellness, was most highly reported perceived benefit of involvement, with 138 out of 468 responses. Next, Intrapersonal Development, encompassing self-exploration and identity development, garnered 132 out of 468 responses. Interpersonal Competence was important to students, with 116 responses discussing meeting new people and gaining communication skills. Knowledge Acquisition, the category that includes learning new information and making connections to new understanding, received 39 responses. Next, Humanitarianism and Civic Engagement totaled 25 and included social responsibility and understanding others’ background. This category manifested mostly through talking about having pride or spirit for the community of the school with a few responses of perceived benefits in which students talked about how it “just feels good to help others.” A category for extrinsic motivators was applied when students indicated priority registration and free food as reasons to get involved (18 responses). Lastly, no students reported perceived benefits of cocurricular involvement for Cognitive Complexity, which included critical thinking, reflective thinking, reasoning, and problem solving.


Regarding barriers to involvement, in the first six weeks of the semester, the students’ reasons why someone would not get involved largely dealt with social fear (e.g., shy, scared, afraid of meeting new people). As the second half of the semester approached, students began to indicate their friends’ lack of interest in involvement as a barrier to their own involvement. Some examples of answers here were: “Your friends won’t go with you” or “You want to go join a club but the friends you have don’t want to.” While previously a barrier to involvement was lack of social resources to getting involved, their answers evolved to having social support, but that very support now served as a barrier to involvement. The project also revealed a need for improved marketing as many students indicated they were not equipped with enough information about how to get involved. Another interesting trend was many students citing “lazy” as a reason not to get involved. While this is often a valid reason for not completing a certain task, such candidness was unexpected.

Categorizing the benefits of involvement showed that students believed involvement would help them improve themselves (Intrapersonal Development) and be a more competent person (Practical Competence). Relationships and social development were also important to them, with many students reporting perceived benefits like making new friendships. The rest of the categories showed a significant drop from the hundreds to 39 and below. When coding the data, no responses could be categorized as Cognitive Complexity. The closest response was from a student who stated that preparing for graduate school is a benefit of involvement, but this related to career development (Practical Competence) more than Cognitive Complexity. Perhaps students do not view cocurricular involvement as an avenue for Cognitive Complexity, or they may believe that they “get enough” of that in their class. Developmentally, first-year students recently out of high school might not yet have the language to articulate or experience to demonstrate the Cognitive Complexity gained in cocurricular involvement. “Learning new things” was a common response, categorized as Knowledge Acquisition. However, it is not surprising that students who graduated high school three months ago did not report that they believe involvement will help them use complex information to aid in problem solving, even if that occurs in their experiences.

Figure 3: Frequency of students' responses to perceived benefits of involvement categorized with CAS Learning and Developmental Domains

Overall, the findings showed that socioemotional factors both highly encouraged and discouraged cocurricular involvement, students’ laziness is precluding them from getting involved, today’s college students are pressed for time and/or need to improve time management, and students are looking for cocurricular involvement to benefit their careers.

Limitations and Future Research

The study has many strengths including a large and likely representative sample size of first-year students at CSUN, but limitations were present and could have affected the findings. The main limitations of this project were the design of the assessment, possible researcher bias, a few non-student responses, and lack of an established model in which to theme the data. Efforts were made to simply paraphrase students’ ideas rather than provide them a “springboard” for new ideas during the discussion. The purpose of this project was an individual assessment and report, but the individual process also demonstrated the necessity of a team in avoiding researcher bias, dual roles, and ensuring reliability.

In a focus group, the facilitator is also better able to focus on participants’ responses rather than a more naturally occurring dialogue as this. A great example is clarifying students’ responses to benefits of involvement when they responded with answers like “gain new experiences” to find if they mean gaining experiences related to learning material, enriching their lives with culture, gaining field experience at a job site, and so forth. The current process did not afford this opportunity, so data were coded based on which category best fit and using more than one category for benefits if necessary.

Additionally, fellow students’ responses could have affected the way the conversation led to certain responses; however, this is true in a focus group as well. Because the data were taken from a class discussion, not all participants were required to participate, making this study a voluntary response rather than soliciting data from every individual enrolled in each class.

Another limitation was that the professor’s responses were included in the data approximately five times. These few responses from professors are unlikely to sway the data, but could have influenced the “train of thought” of the student group by providing a faculty perspective.

Lastly, the models created to categorize the barriers and benefits have not been empirically tested. Both models were effective for the purpose of this research and structured the data in an informative way, but they require more extensive review to be considered valid. Future research should test such models or provide an improved way of categorizing perceived barriers and benefits to involvement or perhaps another educational activity. Any research measuring students’ ideas about why they believe students get involved would be a major contribution to the field because of the lack of research in this area. Following up with first-year students during their last year in college to assess the real barriers and benefits they received from getting involved would also provide important data to see how their perceptions matched their reality.

Despite limitations and the need for future research, the study has provided an in-depth look at CSUN’s first-year students’ perspectives on what they know involvement to be, factors that could stop them or others from getting involved, and the benefits they believe cocurricular involvement would afford them. Having such information allows practitioners to have more meaningful conversations with students and market the university’s programs in a language that highlights the benefits students want or believe they will gain. Overall, having a clearer understanding of what might inhibit or motivate a student to enhance their college experience will help promote student success.



Cat PlacenciaCatherine Placencia,
Cat (Catherine) Placencia is a graduate of California State University–Northridge (CSUN) where she earned her Master of Science in counseling, with a specialization in college counseling and student services. At CSUN she worked in the Office of Student Involvement and Development where this research was completed. Now, she works at California Polytechnic State University–San Luis Obispo as the leadership and program coordinator for university housing. Her academic passions include student involvement, leadership, social justice, and peer programs.