September 15, 2015

By Peter Collier

When college students leave school without completing their degrees, there are far-reaching negative impacts on multiple levels of society. It is therefore critically important to understand what happens to students after they enter college that affects their decision to complete their degrees or to drop out.

Traditional students

Traditional college students are between the ages of 18 and 22 and enter college immediately after graduating from high school. Two useful models for understanding traditional college student persistence are Astin’s student involvement model and Tinto’s student integration and persistence model.

According to Astin, the extent to which a student is engaged and involved in the actual process of her education is an excellent predictor of academic success and degree completion.  Involvement refers to how much physical and psychological energy the student puts into her academic experiences. Academic experiences can be very general, such as involvement in campus activities, or very specific, such as studying for a midterm examination.

In Tinto’s model, the author proposes that the degree of fit between a student and the institutional environment has a significant effect on whether that student departs from college prior to graduation. For Tinto, academic and social integration are important predictors of whether the student decides to persist or drop out of college. With all other factors held constant, the more academically integrated a student feels at school, the more committed that student will be to completing a college degree. Similarly, the more socially integrated students feel, the more they will commit to completing degrees at their current colleges, rather than transferring.

Tinto’s and Astin’s models provide insights into traditional college students’ persistence-related experiences, and both models have been used to inform student support efforts. However, traditional students are actually in the minority in college campuses as the number and percentage of nontraditional students are rapidly increasing. As a result, different models are needed to assess the new majority of nontraditional students

Nontraditional students

Although the details of the definition of nontraditional students may vary, typically age (i.e., older than 24), enrollment status (i.e., part-time), and background characteristics, particularly race and class, differentiate nontraditional from traditional college students.  This distinction is important for understanding persistence-related experiences because of racial and social class differences in degree completion rates. The six-year graduation rate for White students starting at four-year institutions is 61.65%, compared to 39.5% for Black students, 50.1% for Hispanic students, and 39.4% for Native students. Family income and parents’ level of education are two effective ways of describing students’ social class, but, regardless of which criteria are used, higher social class translates into higher college degree completion rates.

Although Astin’s and Tinto’s models are widely cited in the student persistence literature, neither really describes the college experiences of nontraditional college students or students of color. The second part of this posting introduces two models of nontraditional student persistence and discusses how each model uses peer mentoring to promote student success.

Peer Mentoring Helps Nontraditional Students Retain Home Cultural Values and Connections While Still Succeeding in College

Guiffrida (2006) adapts Tinto’s model to make it more culturally sensitive and applicable to students of color and other underrepresented students. Guiffrida’s student connection model emphasizes that for these students to persist, they must remain connected to their families and home social systems as well as successfully negotiate the university’s academic and social systems. Peer mentoring programs can help mentees feel more socially connected on campus by linking them to networks of similar students from their same cultural backgrounds.  Peer mentors, particularly those from the mentee’s same racial/cultural group, can also validate mentees as legitimate college students by modeling a version of the college student role that emphasizes the importance of maintaining home community connections while staying actively engaged at college.

Peer Mentoring Provides Nontraditional Students With Cultural Capital and College Success Strategies

Collier and Morgan’s (2008) two-path model of student performance emphasizes how family-based cultural capital— particularly in the form of knowledge of how the college environment works—has an impact on student success in colleges’ academic systems. Student success in this model depends upon knowledge of the explicit and implicit aspects of the college student role. Explicit knowledge of the college student role is acquired in classrooms and other formal learning settings; implicit knowledge of the role is typically acquired through interpersonal relationships (e.g., within families) that occur outside the classroom.

Regardless of the reason, a student who does not understand his professor’s expectations ends up with a demonstrated performance that does not accurately represent all the student actually knows. Students who begin college with more family-based cultural capital in the form of understanding how to be a successful college student are more likely to make sure they understand what their professors expect from them and act accordingly. First-generation and other nontraditional students may unintentionally demonstrate less than they actually know in a class assignment simply because they were not clear on the professor’s expectations for that assignment.  Peer mentors can help mentees understand what professors expect and achieve positive outcomes by sharing their college student expertise. Role modeling is the key. When mentors model the successful college student role, they share practical problem-solving knowledge and backstage information on how the culture of higher education works. When the mentor recommends that the mentee try a strategy that worked in the past, the mentor is sharing his or her understanding of professors’ expectations and a specific solution with an excellent chance of successfully addressing the issue in question. Because the mentor’s recommended strategy is time tested, it is likely to have a better chance of strategically addressing the issue than any strategy the mentee could have developed on his or her own. In addition, the mentor provides the mentee with a step-by-step script for turning the professor’s expectations into mentee work that demonstrates content mastery and understanding of the professor’s expectations.

In both of these student persistence models, peer mentoring promotes nontraditional college student success and degree completion.

Pete Collier

Dr. Peter Collier, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Portland State University (PSU) and director of Dr. Peter J. Collier Consulting, brings more than 20 years of experience in program design, evaluation and promotion of college student retention and academic success to assist practitioners interested in developing new or refining existing peer mentoring programs.

Author of the new title, Developing Effective Peer Mentoring Programs: A Practitioner’s Guide to program Design, Delivery, Evaluation, and Training, October 2015, Paper, 978 1 62036 076 7, $37.50

To learn more about Dr. Collier’s approach for using mentoring to promote college student success and degree completion, please visit his website, Dr. Peter J. Collier Consulting, and the College Student Mentoring Matters blog.

For more about Developing Effective Peer Mentoring Programs contact Shaqunia Clark.


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