- Early Identification of Students’ Social Networks: Predicting College Retention and Graduation via Campus Dining
Colleges and universities have long sought to improve their students’ adjustment, retention, and likelihood of graduation (Berger, Ramírez, & Lyons, 2012). To help with this goal, institutions have increasingly attempted to identify students who are struggling early in college so that they can provide timely support and assistance. These early efforts can include a variety of institutional assessments or commercial tools. Some research has shown that social adjustment and engagement measures gathered approximately 1 month into the first semester can predict short-term college retention (Bowman, Miller, Woosley, Maxwell, & Kolze, 2019; Sun, Hagedorn, & Zhang, 2016). These results support the potential importance of understanding these initial experiences and perceptions; however, a problem with this strategy is that it depends on students voluntarily completing a survey, and students who are struggling to adjust may be the least likely to respond. A second problem is that surveys are introspective by nature, so even data obtained from students who do respond are prone to error (e.g., Herzog & Bowman, 2011).
Therefore, the present study explored an alternative to traditional early-alert systems at residential institutions: using campus dining data to create an indicator of students’ social networks. Key benefits of this approach are that students do not need to respond to institutional requests to provide information and that data collection is automatic and starts almost immediately when students arrive on campus. As a result, it is possible to use student behavior from as early as the first week or two of classes to inform individualized outreach efforts and support.
THEORY AND RESEARCH ON STUDENTS’ INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS AND COLLEGE SUCCESS
Various theories of student attrition emphasize the importance of social relationships for promoting college adjustment and persistence, particularly at residential campuses (see Braxton, 2000; Melguizo, 2011). Systematic reviews have also found that social integration and adjustment are positively related to [End Page 617] college retention, and this effect mostly occurs indirectly by increasing students’ commitment to their college or university (Credé & Niehorster, 2012; Mayhew, Rockenbach, Bowman, Seifert, & Wolniak, 2016). These social relationships can develop in different ways and can vary in strength from close friends to acquaintances. Overall, living on campus seems to promote social engagement and integration, which ultimately leads to greater retention (Mayhew et al., 2016).
The nature of the link between friendships and college success depends upon with whom these relationships occur. According to Fischer (2007), on-campus friendships and socializing were positively related to persistence, whereas off-campus ties were not. Moreover, students with a greater number of close campus friends were more likely to graduate from college (Bronkema & Bowman, 2019). Similar patterns are evident when considering relationships and interactions through social media. For instance, the number of on-campus Facebook friends predicted greater social adjustment and (indirectly) retention, whereas the overall number of friends did not predict these outcomes (Gray, Vitak, Easton, & Ellison, 2013). Moreover, students who used Facebook primarily to communicate with campus friends had higher retention rates than those who interacted more with off-campus friends (Morris, Reese, Beck, & Mattis, 2009). Although Facebook is losing popularity among teenagers and young adults (Berr, 2018), the role of friends within and outside of one’s college is likely to remain relevant today.
That said, the presence of college friendships does not automatically lead to benefits, since some studies have found no significant association with retention (e.g., Dewberry & Jackson, 2018; Swenson Goguen, Hiester, & Nordstrom, 2010). As Mayhew et al. (2016) argued, the quality of these friendships is likely to be more important than the mere quantity of friends. In support of this interpretation, the strength of students’ emotional connection with their close campus friends—who were already defined narrowly in terms of interpersonal relationships—predicted graduation above and beyond the number of close campus friends (Bronkema & Bowman, 2019). In addition, friendship may have a different meaning in the era of social media, where many students have hundreds (or even thousands) of people who are listed as “friends.” In light of these research findings about friendship quality and...