Going all in : an explanatory sequential mixed methods study of the impact of social engagement on the success and sense of belonging of first-generation college students.


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First-generation college student success is a matter of significance to college leaders across the United States. According to a recent study, over half of all undergraduate students are first-generation (RTI International, 2019). The problem, however, is that first-generation college students are more likely than continuing-generation students to drop out of college and never return (Cataldi et al., 2018). College leaders must find ways to retain and graduate the first-generation college students who enroll in their schools. College leaders can address retention issues by ensuring their students are socially integrated into their college and feel they belong there (Strayhorn, 2019; Tinto, 1975). Therefore, leaders of colleges that enroll first-generation college students need to actively provide academic and social engagement opportunities for their students. In this explanatory sequential mixed-methods study, I deployed a three-pronged theoretical framework to investigate how social engagement affected first-generation college students’ success and sense of belonging at a small, Catholic, private, all women’s college in the Midwest. I collected quantitative data first and then collected qualitative data to further explain the quantitative results. To conduct the study, I used the work of Ishitani (2003) to define the status of first-generation college students. I then framed my study in Tinto’s (1975) theory of student integration that concluded that students must be academically and socially integrated into their college to succeed. I also positioned my research in the context of Strayhorn’s (2019) work on student sense of belonging and supported that by applying Nodding’s (2012) work on caring as an additional lens. Through my research, I studied how first-generation college students chose to engage socially at their college. I examined the impact of their social engagement on their social integration and their sense of belonging. Through quantitative research, I found that the participants were actively engaging socially. Then, my qualitative follow-up revealed how the students became socially integrated and developed a sense of belonging through their engagement. College leaders can use the results to inform their student engagement strategies, recognizing that social engagement affects the social integration and sense of belonging for first-generation college students, as displayed in my study.



First-generation college students. Success. Sense of belonging. Social integration.