A Communal Approach to Retention: Birmingham Southern College
Henderson, Shellana M.
Burton-Krieger, Meagan C.
McClendon, Mark E.
In attempts to understand and then maximize its student success rates, Birmingham Southern College (BSC) has asked a team of Vanderbilt doctoral candidates to conduct a study of retention on its campus. The Vanderbilt team created a mixed methodology study that aims to empirically answer two questions: (1) what characteristics distinguish BSC students as likely to persist, and (2) how do students’ perceptions about their degree of social integration affect their likelihood to persist or leave? Guided by Braxton, Hirschy, and McClendon’s (2004) Revised Theory of Student Retention at Residential Colleges and Universities, we used three methodologies: a trend analysis, a quantitative survey, and qualitative interviews. The trend analysis utilized data that BSC already collects on its students in order to derive a collection of student characteristics, or profiles, that illustrate which students persist and which departs. The trend analysis provided a preliminary understanding of BSC’s retention patterns that informed the quantitative and qualitative studies. The quantitative study surveyed BSC’s entire fall 2015 student body in order to assess the policies and practices that shape students’ campus experience. Utilizing Braxton et. al. (2014) survey, we were not only able to capture students’ experiences at, and perspectives of, BSC, but we also able to assess the relevancy and accuracy of Braxton, Hirschy, and McClendon’s (2004) model on a small, residential, liberal art college in the Southeast. Finally, the qualitative study used purposeful sampling to further examine the experiences and perspectives of BSC students; additionally, it collected the experiences and perspectives of BSC faculty and staff as they pertain to students’ experiences at BSC. The trend analysis and quantitative survey addressed our first study question. First, the trend analysis found that retention rates decline as students move into their second, then third, and fourth year. Retention and four-year graduation rates are highest among female students, when compared to their male counterparts. White students have higher retention and four-year graduation rates over Black/African American students. Further, students with higher high school academic achievements, such as high school GPA and ACT scores, have higher retention and graduation rates. There seems to be little sizable trend difference in retention and graduation rates among athletes and non-athletes; however, women athletes have higher retention and graduation rates than male athletes and non-athletes. Finally, students who do not participate in Greek organization have lower retention and graduation rates; and females in Greek organization have higher retention rates than males in Greek organizations and those not in Greek organizations at all. Then, our quantitative study found that students’ race and gender are significant factors in the likelihood that BSC will retain them. The quantitative and qualitative studies addressed our second study question. Both studies found that communal potential, “or the degree to which a student perceives that a subgroup of students exists within the college community with which that student could share similar values, beliefs, and goals” (Yorke & Longden, 2004, p. 95), is a significant factor of students’ social integration, which influences their decision to persist. At BSC, communal opportunities could be found in the classrooms, student organizations and clubs. Informed by these findings, several recommendations are offered to the BSC staff and faculty. These recommendations discuss the policies and practices of Institutional Research, Academics and academic support services, academic advising, and the Office of Student Development