Why is “social integration” considered important for college persistence?

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Several theories address why social integration is considered to be an essential component of college persistence, particularly amongst under-represented groups (URG). In 1970, Spady asserted that dropping out of college can result from a lack of close interaction with others, holding values that are dissimilar to those of the general social collectivity, and lacking a sense of compatibility with the social system of the college. However, he suggested the link between social integration and dropping out is mitigated by a student’s satisfaction with college experiences and commitment to college. Further, whether students decide to drop-out is largely influenced by extrinsic performance criteria, such as academic performance. His continuing research in 1971 suggested that students’ interactions in social and academic systems are conceptually distinct from their own personal sense of integration. This idea of a subjective sense of integration is considered helpful in examining the wide variety of social interactions on campus and their value to particular under-represented student groups (Hurtado & Carter 1997).

In 1993, Vincent Tinto further developed a theory of student departure that became a central framework for understanding in higher education. He suggested that alignment between a student’s motivation and academic ability and an institution’s academic and social characteristics influence students’ commitment to their educational goals as well as their commitment to remain within their institution. Tinto discussed this as:

Later, alternative hypotheses were developed surrounding the role social integration plays in college persistence. Tierney’s critique (1992) challenges Tinto’s suggestion that URG students must “break away” from their former communities and learn to behave consistently with a college’s dominant culture in order to achieve successful integration. In contrast, Tierney argues these transitions are intracultural and specific to social groups. He argued that Tinto’s theory places an undue burden on URG students to adapt, attributing little or no responsibility to institutions to modify their policies and practices (Braxton 2000).

Hurtado and Carter (1997) suggest that researchers in higher education have complicated social integration by developing an overwhelming variety of engagement measures in formal and informal social activities. Many of these measures capture information on students’ academic and social participation in college—constructs intended to be theoretically distinct from a psychological sense of integration (as suggested by Spady). That is, not all academic or social activities illicit the same level of sense of belonging particularly among URG students and, therefore, may not appropriately capture the complexity of interactions between students and institutions that affect persistence. The data collected by BUILD institutions, in terms of tracking participation in activities, also requires a measure of sense of belonging in college (currently on student surveys) that is critical in transition experiences for aspiring biomedical students (Hurtado, et al, 2007). Together, these measures should be a valuable extension of work contributing to understanding the many factors surrounding college persistence—especially for URG students. 

The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.
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