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«The Journal of Higher Education, Volume 79, Number 5, September/October 2008, pp. 540-563 (Article) Published by The Ohio State University Press DOI: ...»

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Unmasking the Effects of Student Engagement on First-Year College

Grades and Persistence

George D. Kuh

Ty M. Cruce

Rick Shoup

Jillian Kinzie


The Journal of Higher Education, Volume 79, Number 5, September/October

2008, pp. 540-563 (Article)

Published by The Ohio State University Press

DOI: 10.1353/jhe.0.0019

For additional information about this article


Access Provided by York University at 03/29/11 6:30PM GMT

George D. Kuh Ty M. Cruce Rick Shoup Jillian Kinzie Robert M. Gonyea Unmasking the Effects of Student Engagement on First-Year College Grades and Persistence A college degree has replaced the high school diploma as a mainstay for economic self-sufficiency and responsible cit- izenship. In addition, earning a bachelor’s degree is linked to long-term cognitive, social, and economic benefits to individuals—benefits that are passed onto future generations, enhancing the quality of life of the families of college-educated persons, the communities in which they live, and the larger society.

Unfortunately, too many students who begin college leave before completing degrees. Only half (51%) of students who enrolled at four- year institutions in 1995 –96 completed bachelor’s degrees within six years at the institutions at which they started. Another 7% obtained bac- calaureate degrees within six years after attending two or more institu- tions (Berkner, He & Cataldi, 2002). Degree completion rates are con- siderably lower for historically underserved students (Carey, 2004). The six-year completion rate for African American students and Latinos is only about 46% (Berkner et al., 2002). Although greater numbers of We are indebted to Lumina Foundation for Education for support of this project.

However, the views expressed in this article are solely those of the authors, not Lumina.

George D. Kuh is Chancellor’s Professor of Higher Education and director of the In- diana University Center for Postsecondary Research. Ty M. Cruce is Senior Policy Ana- lyst in the Indiana University Office of University Planning, Institutional Research, and Accountability. Rick Shoup is a Research Analyst at the Center for Postsecondary Re- search at Indiana University Bloomington. Jillian Kinzie is Associate Director of the Center for Postsecondary Research and the NSSE Institute at Indiana University Bloom- ington. Robert M. Gonyea is Associate Director of the Center for Postsecondary Re- search at Indiana University Bloomington.

The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 79, No. 5 (September/October 2008) Copyright © 2008 by The Ohio State University 541 Unmasking the Effects of Student Engagement minority students are entering college than in previous years, fewer earn degrees compared with non-minorities. Stagnant college completion rates and unacceptable racial-ethnic gaps in college graduation rates coupled with external pressures for institutional accountability for student learning (Bok, 2006) have intensified the need to better understand the factors that influence student success in college.

Students leave college for a mix of individual and institutional reasons: change of major, lack of money, family demands, and poor psycho-social fit, among others (Astin, Korn, & Green, 1987; Bean, 1990; Braxton, Hirschy, & McClendon, 2004; Cabrera, Nora, & Casteneda, 1992; Kuh, Kinzie, Buckley, Bridges, & Hayek, 2007;

Pascarella, 1980; Peltier, Laden, & Matranga, 1999; Tinto, 1993). More recent theoretical formulations of student persistence (Braxton, 2000;

Braxton et al., 2004; Hurtado & Carter, 1997; Titus, 2004) move beyond the interactionalist approach to studying retention, underscoring the critical role that institutional characteristics and context play in influencing student persistence. For example, Braxton et al. (2004) recommended that alternative theoretical propositions are needed to better understand student departure at residential and commuter institutions, and to specify differences in the ways students from underrepresented racial ethnic backgrounds experience college.

Although many studies focus on persistence and baccalaureate degree attainment as the primary measures of student success, Braxton (2006) concluded that eight domains warrant attention: academic attainment, acquisition of general education, development of academic competence, development of cognitive skills and intellectual dispositions, occupational attainment, preparation for adulthood and citizenship, personal accomplishments, and personal development. In their review of the literature conducted for the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative, Kuh et al. (2007) proposed that student success be defined broadly to include academic achievement, engagement in educationally purposeful activities, satisfaction, acquisition of desired knowledge, skills and competencies, persistence, attainment of educational objectives, and postcollege performance.

Most models that examine aspects of student success include five sets of variables: (1) student background characteristics including demographics and pre-college academic and other experiences, (2) structural characteristics of institutions such as mission, size, and selectivity, (3) interactions with faculty and staff members and peers, (4) student perceptions of the learning environment, and (5) the quality of effort students devote to educationally purposeful activities (Kuh et al., 2007). To better understand the causes and consequences of student success in colThe Journal of Higher Education lege, more must be discovered about how these factors interact with gender, race and ethnicity, and first generation status (Allen, 1999; Gaither, 2005; Person & Christensen, 1996). Race and ethnicity along with family income are especially important because the nature of the undergraduate experience of historically underserved students can differ markedly from that of majority White students in Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) (Allen, 1999; Gloria, Robinson Kurpius, Hamilton, & Willson, 1999; Rendon, Jalomo, & Nora, 2000).

Another line of inquiry is the research linking student engagement in educationally purposeful activities to such desired outcomes as grades and persistence (Astin, 1993; Braxton et al., 2004; Kuh, 2001, 2003; Kuh et al., 2007; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Milem and Berger (1997) proposed a persistence model wherein student behaviors and perceptions interact to influence academic and social integration. Similarly, Braxton et al., (2004) expanded the linkage between Astin’s (1993) theory of involvement and persistence by proposing that students’ “psychosocial engagement,” or the energy students invest in social interactions, directly influences the degree to which they are socially integrated into college life. The student engagement construct used in this study is consistent with the theoretical models that feature the interplay between student behaviors and perceptions of the institution and psychosocial engagement.

Student engagement represents both the time and energy students invest in educationally purposeful activities and the effort institutions devote to using effective educational practices (Kuh, 2001). Some studies (e.g., Hughes & Pace, 2003) show that students who leave college prematurely are less engaged than their counterparts who persist. However, most of the research examining the connections between student engagement and college outcomes is based on single institution studies that do not always control for student background characteristics, limiting their generalizability to specific institutions or institutional types.

Few studies are based on large, multi-institution data sets using studentlevel data (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). In addition, it is not clear to what extent student engagement and other measures of effective educational practice contribute to achievement and persistence over and above student ability.

Purpose of the Study

–  –  –

engagement and two key outcomes of college: academic achievement and persistence. A second goal was to determine the effects of engaging in educationally purposeful activities on these outcomes for students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Two questions guided the


• Does engagement during the first year of college have a significant impact on first-year grade point average and chances of returning for a second year of college, net of the effects of student background, pre-college experiences, prior academic achievement, and other first-year experiences?

• Are the effects of engagement general or conditional? That is, do the effects of engagement on the outcomes under study differ by such student characteristics as race and ethnicity (for GPA and persistence) and prior academic achievement (for GPA only)?

While we recognize that student success has multiple dimensions (Braxton, 2006; Kuh et al., 2007), the institutions participating in this study did not have available common measures in addition to grades and persistence.

Methods Data Sources The data for this study are from 18 baccalaureate-granting colleges and universities that administered the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) at least once between 2000 and 2003. These institutions were selected because they met two key criteria: an ample number of respondents to ensure enough cases for the analytical methods used to answer the research questions and reasonable racial and ethnic diversity among the respondents. Eleven schools are Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs), four are historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and three are Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs). Seven of the schools focus exclusively on undergraduate education, seven are master’s granting universities, and four are doctoral granting institutions. Four of the institutions have 90% or more of their first-year students living on or near campus, six institutions fall between 75% and 89%, four institutions fall between 50% and 74%, two institutions fall between 25% and 49%, and two institutions fall below 25%. None of the campuses was exclusively commuter.

Multiple sources of information were used in the analysis: information about students’ backgrounds and pre-college experiences including 544 The Journal of Higher Education academic achievement, collected at the time the students registered for the ACT or SAT; student responses to the NSSE, collected during the spring academic term; and campus institutional research records including student academic and financial aid, collected at multiple time points during the academic year. Taken together, these sources of information provide a longitudinal look at students from before college entry to the fall of their second academic year. Only the 6,193 students who had complete data for all the variables of interest were included in the analysis.

Student Background and Pre-College Experiences. We originally asked institutions to provide us with ACT/SAT score reports for students who met the criteria for inclusion in the study. These reports contain a wealth of information, such as background characteristics, high school experiences, prior academic achievement, educational needs, and college preferences. Because only a few of the participating institutions preserved complete ACT/SAT score reports, we obtained this information with permission from the participating institutions from ACT and the College Board.

Student Engagement Data. NSSE is an annual survey of undergraduate students at four-year institutions that measures students’ participation in educationally purposeful activities that prior research shows are linked to desired outcomes of college (Chickering & Gamson, 1987;

Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). It is typically administered in the spring via the web or paper versions to randomly sampled first-year and senior students. Given the specific purposes of this study, only first-year students were included in the analysis.

Student Academic and Financial Aid Information.1 To expedite data collection from the participating institutions, we asked for student information readily available from the registrar, financial aid, and admissions offices, which permitted us to account for the potential confounding influences of financial aid and pre-college academic achievement on the relationships between student engagement, college academic achievement, and persistence. We also used this information to create reliable measures of the two key outcome variables: academic year grade point average and college persistence.

Variable Specification Student engagement. For this study, student engagement is represented by three separate measures from the NSSE survey: time spent studying, time spent in co-curricular activities, and a global measure of engagement in effective educational practices made up of responses to 19 other NSSE items2 (Appendix A). Each of the items on the global engagement measure contributes equally; all are positively related to 545 Unmasking the Effects of Student Engagement desired outcomes of college in studies of student development over the years (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Also, these questions represent student behaviors and activities that institutions can influence to varying degrees through teaching practices and creating other conditions that foster student engagement.

Academic and financial aid information. Academic year grade point average and persistence from the first to second year of college were based on aggregated information taken from detailed student course-taking records provided by the participating institutions.3 We calculated these measures to ensure that both were computed in the same way for all students in the study. Returning to the same institution for the second year of study was defined as enrolling in one or more courses the following academic year.

Appendix B provides descriptive statistics for all study variables.

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