Persistence toward College Completion
When considering issues of inequity in higher education, much research focuses on points of access, asking questions such as “who is getting in?”. However, in the process of focusing on access, many may overlook the challenges of persistence for underrepresented and/or marginalized populations. Astin (1991) poses that outcomes (such as college completion) are often the results of inputs (i.e. a student’s identity and background) and environments (that is, college campuses and support structures). This paper considers aspects of college environments as they relate to student support, exploring four key areas of campus life: (1) multicultural centers; (2) residence life; (3) recreation centers, and; (4) counseling and wellness. In particular, we focus on what is happening in Franklin County, and how these areas of campus life may help overcome the inequities we find in the county’s higher education system. We utilized information available through websites as well as personal correspondences with staff members at the respective institutions.1
Research has shown, time and again, that retention goes beyond academic performance: students, especially those in the minority, may face many barriers on the road to graduation, including (but not limited to) stereotype threat and lack of social belonging (Gieg, Oyarzun, Reardon, & Gant, 2016; Massey & Owens, 2012; Strayhorn, 2012; Walton & Cohen, 2011). It is these barriers and more that can cause inequities in higher education — and that multicultural centers seek to overcome.
Multicultural centers may take on different appearances or roles, depending on the institutions in which they reside. Overall, these centers offer support to various students, ranging from students of color, to women, to religious minorities, to Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities. While these centers serve students in unique ways, they ultimately facilitate shared and inclusive learning environments on the college campus, where students can engage in dialogue and build collaborative relationships. In this section, we review some strengths and areas for improvement for key higher education institutions in Franklin County, specifically focusing on how these centers may address present inequities.
The first step to offering student support and increasing student retention through multicultural centers is to provide a multicultural center. In the five institutions examined, we found that two institutions — The Ohio State University (OSU) and Columbus State Community College (CSCC)– do well at offering a central hub out of which multicultural organizations, events, and programming can operate. Both of these institutions house the physical space for these centers in prominent buildings on campus that students can access: the student union, and the main administrative building, respectively. The location and the accessibility of these centers matters for utilization by students as well as positionality on campus. OSU and CSCC do well in offering a space for staff to further support minority students on campus.
Second, some institutions provide not only space for multicultural centers to operate but staff to lead such centers. Dedicated staff members may prove pivotal in overcoming disparities in Franklin County, as these members are trained in items such as cultural competency and inclusive programming. The strength of these centers hinges on those trained not only to support diverse student populations with programming but who also understand the nuance of campus cultures and help minority students navigate an otherwise predominantly White space. OSU has a professional staff of more than ten people prepared to support specific student populations along with graduate and undergraduate student workers. CSCC is the other institution that mentions dedicated staff on the website, highlighting three professional staff members as well as diversity peer educators. While there are certainly best practices in student affairs work, the people make the difference. Institutions with the resources to hire additional staff often have a greater reach in programming for and supporting students.
Third, we find differences in the numbers and types of programs offered across institutions. In one study at Indiana University, researchers found that students felt a higher sense of belonging when they were involved in at least one student group on campus, compared to none, and when students were involved in at least four groups, students reported feeling like a member of the campus community (Gieg et al., 2016). If we were to apply these ideas to Franklin County, then those institutions that perform well in this area and offer more opportunities to get involved through their multicultural centers (such as at OSU) likely have a better sense of belonging among their students.
Areas for Improvement
Although there are many things being done well at institutions in Franklin County, there are also many areas for improvement. While we mention that two of the five institutions reviewed offer multicultural centers on their campus, we found this to be a missing component from the other three institutions. This is not to say that these three institutions do not offer multicultural programming — in fact, all three offer organizations for students to join and various supports — however, none of them seemed to have a centralized office or location that is utilized by both staff and student groups for programming and engagement opportunities.
Second, while some institutions, such as OSU, are able to provide a robust staff to cater to various student demographics represented across campus, this is not necessarily the case at every institution. At many institutions, there may be only one or two staff members who advise numerous student groups on campus, leaving much of the programming in the hands of the students rather than trained professionals. Otterbein, Capital, and Ohio Dominican University (ODU) offer many resources as well as information on student groups, however, they each list only one director for their respective multicultural offices.
Third, there remain disparities in the programming offered from institution to institution and where those programs may focus their attention. Programmatic offerings and support services at OSU are widespread. However, at an institution such as Capital University, fewer opportunities exist, as student groups often take the lead. The offices at ODU, Capital, and Otterbein provide an overview of programs and services offered but lack specific information regarding dates and times on their respective websites. When students search for support from these offices, they might not be able to find it. This furthers the conversation regarding budgets and resources. Institutions that do not have access to resources like OSU, for example, must rely on student leaders and organizations to develop and execute programming on campus. This programming can be essential to student success and retention. If minority students on these campuses struggle to locate and receive support, they are less likely to persist. Again, this is not to demean the work being done, but rather highlight the disparities in opportunities across institutions in Franklin County.
Graduation rates are an important measure of success of academic programs and one criteria used to calculate a college’s national ranking. As institutions aim to increase student success and consequently positively impact these standings, they are considering holistic approaches to help students grow and develop during their collegiate experience. Attention has expanded to include the impact of campus environments and out-of-classroom experiences on student persistence and success.
The co-curricular experience has garnered focus in an effort to quantify aspects of the collegiate environment that best supports student success. Current research finds “students living on campus are more likely than those living off-campus to interact with faculty, participate in extracurricular activities, and use institutional resources” (Turley & Wodtke, 2010, p. 508). The same study concludes that students’ ability to think critically and likelihood to persist until graduation is increased as a result of living on campus (Turley & Wodtke, 2010). An increasingly popular co-curricular practice in residence life is learning communities. In Franklin County, these communities are found at OSU, ODU, and Otterbein, ranging from honors-focused communities to specific academic themes such as nursing or global business.
Learning communities can take a variety of forms. These are facilitated solely through residence life staff, others in collaboration with an academic unit, and some have created faculty-in-residence programs to facilitate community building for student support (Davenport & Pasque, 2014). Engstrom and Tinto (2008) have studied learning community models and their impact on “academically under-prepared” (p. 47) students’ persistence. As a result of their research, they conclude that the ability of “students to thrive in college lies not just in the students but also in the ways they [colleges] construct the [learning] environment” (p. 50).
Aside from structured learning communities, all residential life staff members have the opportunity to interact with students in their campus home setting. Staff members who create a safe living environment may also support students’ academic success and resulting persistence to graduation. Institutions like OSU collaborate with the Office of Enrollment Services to receive GPA reports each semester. Residential students with a GPA less than 2.5 connect with a residential life staff member for conversations to discuss campus resources and next steps for improvement in the future. Research shows that a weekly conversation with at-risk students living in residence halls ultimately improves their academic performance (Johnson, Flynn, & Monroe, 2016).
Depending on the institutional type, colleges require on-campus housing for different lengths of time. This requirement is dependent upon space, financial feasibility, and the institution’s commitment to a residential model. Research suggests that the longer students are able to live on campus, the better their sense of belonging, which in turn affects their ultimate success and persistence until graduation. Residence life provides a controlled environment which supports students through each academic year and resulting transitional stages such as choosing a major or career development (Kranzow, Foote, & Hinkle, 2015).
Areas for Improvement
Of the five institutions reviewed, only OSU developed a program with intentions of fostering student relationships with faculty members: the Second-Year Transformational Experience Program (STEP). Institutions in Franklin County and beyond have faculty members who mentor for improved student success (Kranzow et al., 2015). By facilitating these interactions through residence life, students and faculty have the opportunity to improve their connection to the campus community. More institutions could consider the faculty-in-residence model to achieve this goal (Davenport & Pasque, 2014).
Student recruitment and retention are determinants in measuring institutional success within American higher education (Kampf & Teske, 2013). Campus resources like recreation centers directly connect to recruiting and retention success by increasing a sense of belonging among students (Miller, 2011). Once students are on campus, their integration into scholastic and social communities are factors that influence institutional retention rates (Danbert, Pivarnik, McNeil, & Washington, 2014). Schools assist students in developing a sense of belonging to both academic and social environments (Danbert et al., 2014). Miller (2011) discovered that recreation facilities serve as a space for students to socially engage, become involved, and network with peers. Each institution reviewed for this paper offers a recreation center on campus for students to engage in fitness activities.
Student involvement within their campus community contributes to the continued persistence at their respective institution. The number of activity offerings and their variability across institutions may contribute to which is best supporting student persistence. All of the higher education institutions within Franklin County offer opportunities for students to engage in physical activity. Over 60% of college students mentioned that recreation programming and facilities had affected their decision to attend and continue to attend their respective institutions (Forrester, 2014).
Areas for Improvement
University leadership may view collegiate recreation as beneficial, but ancillary to the academic success and retention of college students (Danbert et al., 2014). Campus recreation needs to develop a stronger connection to the academic mission and functional purpose of higher education institutions. Furthermore, risk of loss of funding for vital campus resources is a concern, especially for smaller institutions in Franklin County.
Counseling and Wellness
In order to provide mental health and wellness support individual, relational, and group counseling are offered in addition to outreach programming and consultation services. Counseling services are shown to positively affect retention rates of freshmen and transfer students, as many who seek services have lower cumulative GPAs (Lee, Olson, Locke, Michelson, & Odes, 2009). The two largest institutions, OSU and CSCC, have a more robust offering of services and on-campus workshops. The three private universities in Franklin County are significantly smaller and promote slightly different offerings of services. Free sessions that focus on holistic and comprehensive care increased student accessibility to counseling programs.
Areas for Improvement
A primary concern for students is access to counseling services based on availability. First-generation and transfer students have shown a higher difficulty transitioning to college (Lee et al., 2009; Stebleton, Soria, & Huesman, 2014). All of the universities only had initial appointments during business hours, which made them inaccessible to students with full-time jobs. Of all universities, only OSU addressed concerns of availability with regard to language and cultural differences; on the Columbus campus several language options are offered, which may increase access for non-domestic students.
Regarding wellness, there is a gap in addressing the needs that emerge from the overall environment and campus culture. Concerns about wellness in small liberal arts colleges are best addressed by increasing physical activity, as opposed to larger research universities where social accepts is the most important factor influencing wellness (Baldwin, Towler, Oliver, & Datta, 2017). None of the institutions address specific identity wellness needs. Older students of color also score lower than traditional-aged White students on multiple wellness and coping factors while students of color, in general, outscored White students relative to cultural identity (Myers & Mobley, 2004). The ability of students to take part in diverse programming should be strongly considered.
Lee et al. (2009) stressed the impact of the initial in-person intake “to provide brief therapeutic interventions to students in need of immediate guidance” (p. 309). Otterbein and OSU counseling emphasized the reliance on off-campus partners to accommodate the student population. Transportation and inconvenient hours are the largest barriers for first-generation student’s (Stebleton et al., 2014). Additionally, OSU, due to required phone screenings, has the longest time-to-appointment delay. CSCC, facing a similar challenge is unable to accept walk-in appointments due to a small staff. ODU’s staff of one and lack of support departments may experience similar delays. The goal for all institutions is appropriate utilization of counseling services; retention is viewed as unethical if students are unable to succeed in the college environment (Bishop, 2016).
This brief study is a snapshot of the unlimited factors that contribute to student retention and educational success at these intuitions. It is, by no means, a comprehensive gauge of the good work being done. While we were able to glean quality information from the websites and personal correspondence, significant limitations hampered our search for information. Much of the discussion consequently came back to funding and whether the institutions had the resources necessary to support the student populations through these various services. Budgeting and financial reports are either difficult to gain access to or a taboo topic to discuss with professionals. For this reason, a further, more detailed investigation is needed into the personal experiences of the students, faculty, and staff living, working, and growing at these institutions. It is no secret that, despite the environmental inequalities between The Ohio State University, Otterbein University, Ohio Dominican University, and Columbus State Community College, good work is being accomplished and students are being supported. The staff at these institutions make up for the inequalities through their devotion to the students and commitment to the work.
 For the purposes of this paper, we focus on five key institutions in Franklin County: The Ohio State University, Columbus State Community College, Capital University, Otterbein University, and Ohio Dominican University.↩
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