This is a guest blog from Dr Nicholas Bowman. He is an assistant professor in the Department of Higher Education and Student Affairs at Bowling Green State University.
Higher education scholars and practitioners have attempted to determine what contributes to post-secondary student retention, persistence, and graduation. Unfortunately, some of the most common factors that have been examined (such as integration into the social and academic environment) have a surprisingly modest relationship with student persistence. It appears that current theories may be missing some important piece or multiple pieces of the “student departure puzzle” (to borrow a phrase from John Braxton).
In trying to figure out what this missing piece might be, I considered the concept of identity centrality from social psychology. As described by Robert Sellers and others, identity centrality conveys how important some aspect of one’s identity is to their overall self-image or who they perceive themselves to be. These identities may pertain to our life roles (such as being a parent or working in a certain occupation) and our demographic characteristics (such as race, gender, or sexual orientation). Drawing upon this framework, I suspected that students who see their identity as post-secondary students as central to their self-definition might be more likely to remain committed to staying in college or university and more likely to eventually complete their credential. Among those who are high in student identity centrality, persisting as a post-secondary student is critical for maintaining and actualizing an integral part of oneself.
Student identity centrality may also serve to buffer the potentially negative effects of challenges that may deter students from achieving their goal of completing a post-secondary credential. For example, students who face substantial stress from family or financial difficulties may be likely to drop out if being a student isn’t important to who they are, but those with high student identity centrality should be more likely to do whatever they can to remain in school and maintain this important aspect of themselves.
To explore this possibility, one of my students and I collected data from over 400 undergraduates at a large, public university in the United States; this institution is largely residential, and it primarily contains traditional-age, full-time students. Some of the findings from this initial study are intriguing, and a colleague of mine is currently collecting data at another institution to corroborate these results. In our questionnaire, we included some of the “usual suspects” of student success research (such as demographics and high school GPA) as well as some concepts that are understudied in higher education (such as stress from external sources and validation received from faculty and staff members, drawing upon the work of Laura Rendón and others).
In this study, student identity centrality was positively related to one’s commitment to the goal of receiving a university degree; this relationship was actually as strong for identity centrality as for social integration and academic integration, which are two of the most widely used concepts in research on student success. Student identity centrality was also associated with greater commitment to their current university and intent to persist until graduation. These patterns occurred even when statistically accounting for various precollege characteristics, college experiences, and social and academic integration. In addition, the effects of external stress, campus climate, social integration, and academic integration on goal commitment were all weaker among people who were high in student identity centrality. This finding is intriguing, because it suggests that students who are facing challenges on or off campus may be less affected if being a student is central to their sense of self.
So how can we promote student identity centrality on our campuses? This study’s findings show that campus climate and social integration are positively associated with identity centrality, so efforts toward those bolstering those attributes would be a good start. Encouraging certain forms of student engagement may also be helpful, since some roles on campus involve directly helping other students develop and flourish, including resident advisors, peer mentors, academic tutors, orientation leaders, and student government officers. By actually “seeing” themselves help with the post-secondary transition, these students will likely believe that being a student is important and hold it as more central to their own identity.
Finally, in many discussions of theories about student retention and persistence, people have debated whether the proposed factors that lead to student dropout are the “student’s fault” or the “institution’s fault.” In the case of student identity centrality, I believe that this is largely outside of students’ conscious control. As a thought experiment, is there a major part of your own identity that was previously unimportant, but you consciously decided to make it important?
Incoming undergraduates may be predisposed toward student identity centrality through various socialization processes that involve family members, peers, schools, neighborhoods, and media exposure. In addition, both before and during college and university, students from marginalized identity groups may receive frequent messages—whether explicit or implicit—that they may not be valued as students to the same extent as others, which could certainly affect identity centrality. And one could argue that post-secondary education is objectively more central to the lives of traditional-age, full-time students who live on campus than for part-time students with full-time jobs and substantial family responsibilities. It is very likely that many students who attend college or university part-time are high in student identity centrality, but having other life roles that are time consuming and personally important may decrease the likelihood of holding this particular identity as central. More potential factors may be involved in shaping this form of identity, and the ones listed here are speculative and have not been directly supported by research evidence.
Clearly, there is much more to discover about student identity centrality. However, this concept seems promising, and it may ultimately prove useful when seeking to understand and improve student success.