Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.
– George S. Patton
Volume 75 | Issue 6
November 2007

Improving black student retention through social involvement and first-year programs

Richard D. Townsend

The retention of students in higher education is an ongoing problem. According to Swail, Redd, and Perna (2003), half of all students entering higher education will drop out before earning a degree. Tinto (1996) reported that approximately 57 percent of college dropouts leave college before the start of the second year. Because society places great value on obtaining a college education and black college student completion rates have traditionally lagged behind those of whites and Asians (Swail et al., 2003), such a significant departure from higher education not only affects our society in general, but also blacks in particular. Low black student retention rates are also a major concern because withdrawing from college before earning a degree can adversely affect an individual’s quality of life (Swail, et al., 2003). A college education is essential to overcoming barriers of poverty and adverse social conditions and to minimizing the educational and economical disparity that exists between blacks and whites (Swail, 2000).

Retention research in higher education suggests that increased student involvement with campus life leads to greater integration into the social and academic systems of the institution and promotes retention. Educational theorists such as Alexander Astin and Vincent Tinto have long pointed to the importance of social integration, or what is more commonly referred to as social involvement, in retaining college students. Astin (1984) contends that student involvement is a condition for student retention. Based on his theory, Astin (1984) believes that the more students are socially involved with campus life, the more likely they will persist and graduate.

In an effort to minimize the educational and economical disparity that exists between blacks and whites, historical black colleges and universities (HBCUs) came into existence (Davis, 1933). Although HBCUs were established prior to 1965 during a time of racial segregation in America, they continue to provide higher educational opportunities for African Americans who otherwise may not attend college (O’Brien & Zudak, 1998; Sallie Mae, 1999); they enroll 26 percent of all black students; and they produce 28 percent of the black bachelor’s degree recipients (Redd, 2001), 35 percent of the nation’s black lawyers, 50 percent of its black engineers, and 65 percent of its black physicians (Paige, 1999).

Despite these noteworthy accomplishments, many HBCUs still struggle with low retention rates (Wenglinsky, 1997). According to the American College Testing Program (1993), institutions with open admissions policies and HBCUs have the lowest freshman-to-sophomore retention rates among all public four-year institutions. And, though most HBCUs invest in a variety of programs dedicated to improving student persistence, retention rates have not improved over time (Seidman, 2002). Determining ways of improving retention rates of black students at HBCUs will benefit both the students and the institutions as well as society as a whole because HBCUs grant such a high percentage of bachelor degrees to this segment of the population. Are first-year programs be a promising approach to overcoming the retention issue?

Behaviors and activities

Students’ social involvement includes behaviors such as: relationships with staff, building peer relationships at the institution, personal experiences, using campus facilities, and extracurricular activities (Astin, 1984; Tinto, 1975). There are a number of activities associated with social involvement behavior, some of which may be independent of each other while others may overlap.

Students’ activities associated with staff relationships may be formal or informal and range from asking for clarification about an assignment to discussing careers, inviting criticisms, seeking advice, and socializing with a staff member outside of class (having a snack or soft drink, etc.). Building peer relationships may range from making friends with people from different backgrounds and interests to serious conversations with people who have different views. Personal experiences activities range from talking with friends to reading or talking with an advisor. Activities associated with campus facility use could range from relaxing and meeting friends to attending events and meetings, playing games, or devoting effort toward improving skills and performance. Extracurricular activities may include involvement with clubs, organizations, or athletics, and may range from attending meetings to working in or leading organizations, intramural sports, and being a member of a college team.

According to Allen (1992), black students who engage in social activities become a part of the social environment and are more likely to persist. Further, HBCUs have a reputation of socially nurturing students. One reason for this is the effort and support of its student affairs personnel. Traditionally, student affairs personnel at HBCUs have been concerned with creating greater levels of connectedness and fostering a sense of belonging among students (Baird, 1993). These professionals encourage activities and relationships with faculty, administrators, and students which greatly influence black students’ social and academic development.

Reviewing the research

Social involvement has become a strong component of retention studies because many measures of social involvement focus on student behavior. According to Pascarella and Terenzini (1983), social involvement is an important factor influencing students’ satisfaction with college and student persistence. They posit that students who feel that they fit in socially persist at a higher rate than students who do not feel that they fit in. In addition, Griffin (1992), concluded that friendly relationships between students and staff were enhanced by students’ informal contact with staff and that these friendly relationships had a positive influence on students in terms of their personal, social, and intellectual development.

Watson and Kuh (1996) examined the relationships between involvement with campus activities, perceptions of the institutional environment, and educational gains of undergraduates at two HBCUs and two predominantly white institutions. Both were private liberal arts institutions. They found that black majority and black minority students were more involved in campus activities than white majority students. They also found that black students at both HBCU and primarily white campuses spent more time using campus facilities and participating in clubs and other organizations than white students at primarily white campuses. Further, Watson and Kuh (1996) concluded that black majority students benefited more from their investment in college related activities than did black minority and white majority student.

Mayo, Murguia, and Padilla (1995) found that formal social integration (e.g., contact with formal representatives and organizations) had a much greater impact on black students’ academic performance than informal social integration (e.g., participation in the social life of the campus). Berger and Milem (1999) reported that black students’ perceptions of institutional supportiveness impacted their college persistence. This finding is consistent with Allen’s (1991) claim that supportive college environments communicate to black students that it is safe to take risks associated with intellectual growth and development and increase the probability that they will succeed.

And what impact might the caring student affairs personal at HBCUs have on student retention? Davis (1991) concluded that lower attrition rates of black students are associated with increased peer and faculty interactions and increased involvement with organized activities. Flowers (2004), reported that in-class and out-of-class experiences positively impacted student development for black college students. Research clearly supports the notion that black students’ educational outcomes are impacted by the type, quantity, and quality of their student involvement experiences in college (Astin, 1984; DeSousa & Kuh, 1996), however, there are a number of limitations of past black retention research.

First, according to Stith and Russell (1994), there are few studies that examine the retention of black students who attend historically black colleges and universities. Second, Connor (1990) and Davis (1994) contend that most retention studies examine retention patterns of black students enrolled at predominantly white institutions. Third, Davis (1994) argues that the primary focus of research addressing the retention of black students has been on the differential experiences of black students relative to white students. Fourth, both Davis (1994) and Allen (1992) contend that most studies examining black student retention has been conducted in the context of comparing black students enrolled at HBCUs with their counterparts enrolled at predominantly white institutions. They suggest that research on the experiences and outcomes (e.g., retention) of black students in higher education has concentrated primarily on two areas: (1) the differential experiences of black students relative to white students, and (2) the differential effects of attending a predominantly white institution as opposed to attending one that is historically black.

Using data obtained from the College Student Supplement, and employing quantitative analysis, Outcalt and Skewes-Cox (2002) compared the experiences of black students at HBCUs to black students at predominantly white institutions. They found that students who attended HBCUs were more involved with campus life and more satisfied with their campus experience than their counterparts at primarily white insitutions.

Townsend (2006) conducted a study in which he examined the impact of social involvement on student retention at a public historically black university. He surveyed approximately 337 full-time, first-year black students using the College Student Experiences Questionnaire (CSEQ). Using quantitative analysis, he found that social involvement had a significant positive impact on student retention. Specifically, he found that students who are more involved socially with campus life (e.g., experiences with faculty inside and outside of class, used campus facilities, participated in clubs and organizations, personal experiences, student acquaintances, topics of conversation, and information in conversations) are twice as likely to be retained than students who are less involved socially, after taking into account other variables in the model.

The results of the preceding studies suggest that the extent to which students become involved socially at the college or university in which they are enrolled during their first year of higher education is significantly and positively related to the likelihood that they will persist at that institution.

First-year programs

Developing and implementing a comprehensive student first-year program requires a commitment from leaders, faculty, and staff. According to Swail et al. (2003), a comprehensive student retention program should:

1. Rely on proven research
2. Suit the particular needs of the campus
3. Institutionalize and become a regular part of campus service
4. Involve all campus departments and all campus personnel
5. Consider the dynamics of the change process at the particular institution and provide extensive and appropriate retraining of staff
6. Focus on students
7. Ensure that the program is fiscally responsible
8. Support institutional research in the monitoring of programs and students
9. Be patient
10. Be sensitive to students’ needs and target the most needy student populations

There are several promising first-year student programs in higher education that target black students.

Meyerhoff Scholars

One such program is the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland–Baltimore County. It was originally established to increase the numbers of blacks, especially black men, in science and engineering. The first class in 1989 consisted of 19 black male students. The program was expanded to include women in 1990, and by 1996 the program was expanded to serve non-black students. However, the program is majority black and continues to focus on the needs and concerns of this population.

The Meyerhoff program employs a number of interventions and resources to help these high-achieving students succeed. The philosophy of the program is that all of the students selected for the program can succeed in science and engineering as long as the necessary opportunities for support are available. The components of the program include (Hrabowski III, 2001):

  • Recruitment
  • Summer Bridge Program (During the summer preceding enrollment, the students attend a six-week, on-campus program where they have an opportunity to take several classes and
    participate in social, cultural, and recreational activities.)
  • Scholarship support
  • Study groups
  • Program values
  • Program community (Regular meetings are held with Meyerhoff program students and staff to discuss a wide range of issues, including academic achievement and personal concerns.)
  • Personal advising and counseling
  • Tutoring
  • Summer research internships
  • Involving students’ parents and other relatives who can be supportive.

Of the most recent class of Meyerhoff scholars, nearly 50 percent graduated with honors (3.5 or higher cumulative GPA) (UMBC, 2007).

Freshman Year Initiative

Another promising first-year programs is the Freshman Year Initiative (FYI) at the historically black Fayetteville State University (North Carolina). The goal of FYI is to ensure students’ successful transition to college by identifying those students who experience difficulties in their first year of college and providing them with remedial help. The program provides a gamut of academic and personal support services. The key component of FYI is for students to complete profiles and register in a block of courses based on intended major. Some students must complete math laboratory and/or reading/writing center assignments. All students enroll in Freshman Seminar I and II, where a peer academic leader is available. Assessment data of freshman cohorts receiving FYI services reflect improved retention rates and increased student satisfaction (Young, 1999).

Model Institutions For Excellence 

The HBCUs Bowie State University (Maryland), Spelman College (Georgia), and Xavier University (Louisiana) are all part of the Model Institutions for Excellence program. The goal of the MIE program is to serve as a model for successful recruitment, education, and production of quality trained science, engineering, and mathematics baccalaureates. The MIE program provides support for institutional development and student support activities that contribute to the successful recruitment and retention of science, engineering, and mathematics undergraduates throughout the pipeline. Students receive financial aid and participate in academic enrichment activities, early research, mentoring, counseling, and orientation to science, engineering, and mathematics graduate school.

Statistical data from Bowie State for 1995 to 2000 showed an increase in the institution’s science, engineering, and mathematics undergraduate enrollment by 115 percent, from 340 to 743 (Swail et al., 2003). Data also indicated an increase in retention of science, engineering, and mathematics first-year students by 28 points, from 52 percent to 80 percent, and by 39 points for the second-year students, from 26 percent to 62 percent. Science, engineering, and mathematics student graduation rates increased 62 percent, from 56 to 91 percent (Swail et al., 2003).

Future first years

According to Allen (1992), the primary focus of retention efforts at most HBCUs has been academics (e.g., academic advising, academic support, and remediation). However, based on results from recent studies, there needs to be more emphasis placed on the social experiences of first-year black students since social involvement has such an apparent positive impact on black student retention. The underlying purpose of all retention studies should be to determine ways of keeping students in higher education until they earn a degree. Therefore, student affairs staff and administrators should be mindful of the significant positive affect of social involvement on student retention.

Student affairs staff and administrators at HBCUs should continue to provide their first-year students with a variety of opportunities to become involved socially with campus life, which in turn will promote retention. HBCUs should embrace programs that have both academic and social dimensions to them such as service-learning, first-year experience programs, and learning communities/freshmen interest groups. HBCUs and other institutions of higher education should be willing to allocate funds to re-evaluate their existing retention programs to see if they promote the social experiences of their first-year students since student social and intellectual experiences are not mutually exclusive.

To a large extent, HBCUs enroll students who otherwise might not be able to attend college because of social, financial, or academic barriers (Allen, 1992). In an effort to fulfill their special mission of providing a quality education to disadvantaged black students, HBCUs should continue to strive to provide positive social and supportive environments. These environments should consist of an extensive network of friends, numerous social outlets, and supportive relationships. Supportive environments communicate to black students that they can safely take risks associated with intellectual growth and development. Such environments also have more people who provide black students with positive feedback, support, and understanding, and who communicate that they care about the students’ welfare (Allen, 1992). When students encounter experiences provided by such supportive environments as these, they are more likely to remain in college (Davis, 1994).


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