The Long Road: Adult Student Retention at a Rural Community College: A Case Study
To understand and enhance the adult student retention rates, Dyersburg State Community College (DSSC) contacted the Peabody College at Vanderbilt University to have graduate students conduct a study of the adult student retention. This is a case study deploying a mixed methods approach to diagnose a dramatic decline in adult student enrollment at a rural community college. Guided by Braxton, Hirschy, and McClendon’s (2014) Theory of Student Retention at Commuter Colleges and Universities, the researchers utilized a quantitative survey, regional trend analysis for comparison, qualitative interviews (with current faculty, administrators, and adult students), a process mapping session, and a review of extant literature. The quantitative survey did not yield compelling data that would be useful for the institution. The trend analysis showed that the institution suffered an adult student decline related to regional economic shifts, and a similar drop when compared with statewide and national data. The trend analysis also found that female adult students have higher retention rates than males, and White adult students are retained at a higher rate that African American students. While the qualitative interviews found that students were extremely positive about the institution, they also identified several places where the campus could improve experiences. The qualitative study found that adult students’ decisions to persist were based on a host of factors, including spousal support, financial circumstances, and the positive interaction with faculty and staff. Interaction with faculty and staff was positive and directly addressed both concepts of institutional commitment to student welfare and institutional integrity, which both are antecedents for persistence. After identifying key themes, challenges, and areas of concern for current adult students, researchers held a process mapping session with campus administrators, capturing the interaction between the institution and the student from first contact through the end of the first term enrolled. Drawing upon extant literature and examples of student-success-focused process mapping at Georgia State University and Michigan State University, the team identified several incidents of overcommunication, undercommunication, contradictory messages being sent, and where the campus could benefit from redesigning key student experiences to optimize the experience of incoming adult students. Guided by these findings, several recommendations are offered to the DSCC administration, staff, and faculty to inform practice and procedures. Campus administrators should convene cross-functional teams to redesign the admissions process, campus communication norms, and academic advising. Specific policy recommendations are made relating to book purchasing by students identified as low-income and the admissions application.