Anecdotal evidence and clinical impressions suggest that bereaved college students are at risk for academic difficulties and dropout (Balk, 2001; Rickman, 1996; Toth, Stockton, & Browne, 2000; Zinner, 1985). However, no investigations have directly addressed the effects of a significant death loss on the educational performance or persistence of bereaved undergraduates. Before universities can initiate intervention programs targeted at fostering the academic success of bereaved college students, determining whether or not this population is at risk is necessary. As retention is a by-product of both academic and institutional success, the identification of at-risk populations is of utmost importance in the world of higher education.
Tinto (1975, 1993) described the process of dropout as a longitudinal one in which students cyclically evaluate their commitment to their academic goals and to the institution they are attending. According to Tinto (1975), the outcome of this evaluation (e.g., dropout vs. persist) hinges upon the level of both academic and social integration experienced by students. Academic and social integration are largely determined by the "interactions between the individual and the academic and social systems of the college during the person's experiences in those systems" (p. 94). In [End Page 225] essence, the more engaged a student is within both the academic and social realms of the university system, the higher the likelihood that he/she will persist. According to Tinto (1975; 1993) grade performance is the single best predictor of academic integration, while peer-group associations are the most directly related to social integration.
Tinto (1975) acknowledged that "very frequently, events in the social system external to the college can affect integration within the more limited social and academic systems of the college" (p. 97). Although he recognized that these events can lead to dismissal or withdrawal, he went on to emphasize his belief that the effects of such events are best understood with regard to their influence upon the student's ever-changing commitments to his/her academic goals and to the institution.
The experience of a death loss is a clear example of an event in the social system often external to the college that affects not only the academic and social integration of college students, but also their subsequent commitments to their academic goals and to the institution. The impact of a death loss on academic and social integration acts as a catalyst for students to re-evaluate their commitments and may lead to decreased educational performance, academic probation, academic dismissal, or voluntary withdrawal.
At any one point in time, 22-30% of college undergraduates are likely to have experienced a death loss in the previous 12 month period, while 35-48% are likely to be in their first 24 months of grieving (Balk, 2001). These numbers may appear counterintuitive and perhaps somewhat shocking as the college experience is often viewed as a time of youth, growth, and promise (LaGrand, 1985); however, they highlight the salience of bereavement as a critical issue for college students (Balk, 2001).
Despite the surprising lack of research on bereaved college students as a distinct group of grievers (Balk et al., 1998; LaGrand, 1981), there are some indications from the literature that grief affects the academic experience and peer-group associations of bereaved college students. The idea that bereaved colleges students are at risk with regard to academic difficulties is suggested by clinical experience and observations carried out on college campuses (Balk, 2001; LaGrand, 1981; Rickman, 1996; Toth et al., 2000). Two small qualitative empirical investigations were located that addressed the idea that bereaved college students experience difficulties with concentration and studying (Balk & Vesta, 1998; Silverman, 1987). Research focused on early and middle adolescents (i.e., middle and high school students), although somewhat mixed (Fleming & Balmer, 1996), does indicate academic difficulties as an aspect of the grief experience (Balk, 1983 as cited in Fleming & Balmer, 1996; Gray, 1987 as cited in Fleming & Balmer; Harris, 1991; Martinson & Campos, 1991). The current lack of quantitative investigations focused on actual educational performance is problematic and the present investigation seeks to address this disparity.
In relation to peer association, the literature on bereaved college students suggests that the...