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Academic probation: A detour on the road to college success

ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 2009
Author: Loretta A Zost
Students who earn academic probation are at a higher risk of not graduating from college than their peers. There are a host of factors that appear to make a person more at-risk of failure. But not all who end up on academic probation are doomed to failure. Some students show remarkable resiliency in the face of adversity. For them, academic probation is merely a detour on the road to academic success. This study looks at resiliency factors exhibited by participants who once found themselves on academic probation and have successfully worked their way off of it. While some people are naturally resilient individuals, studies show that resilience can be fostered. The focus of this study is primarily on the factors that build resiliency in post-secondary students.

v Table of Contents Acknowledgments iv List of Tables viii List of Figures ix CHAPTER 1. INTRODUCTION 1 Introduction to the Problem 1 Background of the Study 2 Statement of the Problem 3 Purpose of the Study 3 Rationale 4 Research Questions 4 Significance of the Study 5 Definition of Terms 5 Assumptions and Limitations 7 Nature of the Study 8 Organization of the Remainder of the Study 9 CHAPTER 2. LITERATURE REVIEW 10 Introduction 10 What is Academic Probation? 12 Student Attrition Data 13 Comparing Probationary with Non-Probationary Students 15 Risk Perspective versus Resiliency Perspective 15 Situation Viewed from a Risk Perspective 16

vi Risk Research 18 Situation Viewed from a Resiliency Perspective 20 Resiliency Research 21 Resiliency Practices 23 Situating the Study 27 Conclusions 28 CHAPTER 3. METHODOLOGY 30 Introduction 30 Researcher’s Philosophy and Justification 30 Theoretical Framework 31 Research Design Strategy 31 Sampling Design 33 Measures 36 Data Collection Procedure 37 Ethical Issues 38 Pilot Testing 41 Data Analysis Procedures 41 Limitations of Methodology 42 Strategies for Minimizing Impact of Limitations 43 Timeline of Research Activities 44 CHAPTER 4. DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS 46 Introduction 46 Participant Composition 48

vii Summary of Participants’ Narratives 50 Primary Research Question 62 Motivation to Improve Performance 66 Impact of Academic Performance 70 Perceived Potential Attained 74 Perceived Potential Not Attained 75 Unmet Needs 78 Conclusion 81 CHAPTER 5. RESULTS, IMPLICATIONS, AND RECOMMENDATIONS 83 Introduction 83 Interpretation of Study’s Results 84 Implications for Advisors 95 Implications for Educators 96 Recommendations 103 REFERENCES 109 APPENDIX A. FACE SHEET 115



List of Tables Table 1. Participant Demographics 49

ix List of Figures Figure 1. Completion Rates 14

Figure 2. Selecting Participants for Study 46

Figure 3. Risk Factors 88

Figure 4. Resiliency Factors 91


CHAPTER 1. INTRODUCTION Introduction to the Problem There were many factors which contributed to a college student earning academic probation. Particularly in an open enrollment institution, students had a number of associated risk factors. Among these were irresponsible behavior, lack of support from family or friends, overwhelming demands on time and energy, financial concerns, course overload, poor study skills, and insufficient background knowledge in the subject. Two common risk factors often associated with academic difficulty are low socio-economic status and being under-prepared for college-level work. Peru State College is an open- enrollment institution. Many students are under-prepared upon college entry. Students from low income households were more apt to begin their college career under-prepared than their more well-to-do peers (Engstrom & Tinto, 2008). According to Tritelli (2003), over half of entering freshmen were academically under-prepared in at least one basic skill area. Engstrom and Tinto (2008) stressed that low income and under-prepared students needed additional support. Without the necessary support, they were being set up for failure. All too often, the student’s failure went unaddressed until he/she was placed on academic probation, at which point the student was at risk of being suspended from school. Mathies, Gardner, and Webber-Bauer (2006) stated that the graduation rate of students who have been on academic probation was considerably lower than that for the general college population. However, there were some students who persisted despite the

2 obstacles, self-imposed or otherwise, and succeeded. The goals of this study were to focus on those students who have been successful in overcoming the obstacles that led to their being placed on academic probation and understand the experience from their perspective. According to Mathies et al. (2006), less than one-third of students who have been on academic probation graduate within six years of starting. What contributed to the success of these former probationary students? What helped them succeed when so many others failed? Perhaps academic probation was just a temporary detour on the road to success. Background of the Study In order for change to occur, there must have been a catalyst or change agent. The student may independently have come to the realization that a change must be implemented. Perhaps this came about because of a critical situation, personal maturation, or a sudden increase in responsibility. Another possibility occurs when the student realized he/she needed to make a change because of personal dissatisfaction with the direction his/her life was heading. Other times it took outside intervention by concerned individuals to provide support in one or more of these three critical areas: personal and family, mental and physical, and/or academic. In each of these scenarios someone instituted a change in direction (detour) to get the student headed back in the right direction. This change in direction may have occurred during a moment of self- realization or it may have been instigated by other concerned individuals. This case study focuses on the resiliency-building process of students who have worked their way off of academic probation.

3 Statement of the Problem The following quote from Mathies et al. (2006) gives a clear indication of the scope of the problems associated with students earning academic probation. Only 62% of the students who earned probation after their first fall semester were retained after the first year. 51% of students who earned probation (ever) were retained after the 3 rd year compared to 86% of students who never earned probation. Only 31% of the students who had earned probation (ever) graduated within 6 years or less compared to 83% of students who never earned probation. (p. 10-11)

It was evident that students who have slipped to probationary status had a difficult journey ahead. Students who were facing dismissal from college due to poor academic performance were likely to adopt a negative view of themselves (Nance, 2007). Yet, some students displayed resilience in the face of adversity. Purpose of the Study The purpose of the study was to gain insight into the mindset of Peru State College students who were formerly on academic probation in an effort to examine personal characteristics and interventions that fostered resiliency. Did these students have special attributes, skills, or a particular mindset which increased their likelihood of success, making them more likely to graduate? The researcher’s goal was to understand the participants’ experience of redirecting their academic destiny and, potentially, their life course. The interview transcripts were summarized to give the reader a sense of who each of the participants is and an understanding of their personal and educational struggles to overcome not only academic probation but also the crisis that initially precipitated their academic decline. Further insight can be gained by looking for similarities between resilient participants.

4 Rationale Overcoming difficult situations is a complex process, one which involves sadness, distress, and great effort. Those who successfully navigated stressful situations may build resiliency by shifting from maladaptive or dysfunctional behavior to a more balanced or resilient response to adversity (Henderson & Milstein, 2003). Margolis and McCabe (2004) believed self-efficacy could be increased through success, learning strategies, determination, and positive role models. Perhaps, as Kirschenbaum and Perri (1982) suggested, students display increased academic competence when they perceived themselves as being in control of their destiny rather than at the whims of fate. It was believed that former probationary students would report similar personal growth experiences in their struggle to overcome the factors which led to their probationary status. It would also be viewed as a learning experience where they improved as a student, discovered what they were made of, and rose to face additional challenges. Research Questions The primary research question this study proposed to answer was: What changes did the participants perceive to have led to their ability to move off of academic probation and progress towards their educational goal? Subordinate questions this study proposed to answer were: 1. Were the changes from within or were they the result of outside intervention? 2. How has the experience of being on academic probation impacted the participants’ lives? 3. In which areas did participants believe they have lived up to or exceeded their perceived potential? 4. In which areas did participants feel they have yet to reach their potential?

5 5. If the student has yet to reach his/her perceived potential, what needs did he/she perceive as unmet? Significance of the Study This study could provide significant insight from the students’ point-of-view as to which personal experiences or interventions, in their opinion, contributed to the positive change in academic performance. The majority of the literature focused on the reasons students were failing, and there were many. This study provided insight gleaned from student experience as to which personal characteristics and outside interventions contributed to their resiliency and their ability to overcome difficulties. Failure has been costly; both to the student and the institution. “The cost of recruiting one new student to college approximates the cost of retaining 3-5 already enrolled students” (Tinto, 1993, p. X). This information could be useful both for students and the professionals who serve them. While this research was not intended to be a guide to instilling academic resiliency, the insights and conclusion may inspire other researchers and practitioners to greater understanding “that in turn can affect and perhaps even improve practice” (Merriam, 1988, p. 32). Definition of Terms The following terms were important in the discussion of this research topic: 1. At-Risk – students who were at increased risk of failure or dropping out of school 2. Academically under-prepared – lacking basic college-level skills in reading, writing, and/or mathematics

6 3. Familial risk factors – those include dysfunctional families, family responsibilities, family values, and financial concerns 4. Intervention – acting on the part of another to influence the outcome 5. Individual risk factors – mental, physical, psychological, or ability factors that may have played a role in scholastic failure 6. Non-traditional age student – college or university student age 25 or older 7. Open admission college – “admission policy under which virtually all secondary school graduates or students with GED equivalency diplomas are admitted without regard to academic record, test scores, or other qualification” (Common Data Set, 2008). In this study, the open admission policy applied to students who were residents of the State of Nebraska who graduated from an accredited high school in Nebraska. Outside the state of Nebraska, applicants must have a cumulative GPA of 2.0 and score a minimum of 14 on the ACT or 560 on the SAT. Students who did not graduate from an accredited high school must either complete the General Education Development (GED) test successfully, or score a minimum of 18 on the ACT or 870 on the SAT (Peru State College Catalog, 2006-2008). 8. Probationary – the student was placed on warning that his/her grades must improve in order to continue as a student 9. Remediation – the use of remedial methods to improve skills 10. Retention – measured by the number of students who enrolled in classes for the following academic year

7 11. Self-efficacy – belief that one could succeed (Margolis & McCabe, 2004); “people’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives” (Bandura, 1994) 12. Social risk factor – the student possessed conflicting values and/or beliefs or was experiencing difficulty in dealing with social situations 13. Stopping out – the student stopped attending school at some point and later returned Assumptions and Limitations The researcher is approaching this study with the following assumptions: 1. Understanding the students’ experience while on academic probation was important because students needed support in order to weather the difficult times. 2. Understanding the factors that contributed to students regaining non- probationary status was also important because advisors and educators could build on certain qualities students’ exhibit, thereby helping them become more resilient in the face of adversity. 3. This knowledge may lead to a greater understanding of how to promote resiliency in probationary students. The following limitations are inherent due to the limited scope and the qualitative nature of the study: 1. The study was limited to students at Peru State College; therefore, its results may not apply widely. However, it was hoped that the information gathered would contribute to the field of study and ultimately improve student outcomes. 2. A limitation of student reported data was that it was based on the participant’s perception and it may or may not accurately relate to the outcome. 3. Another possible limitation was that participants may not be entirely truthful, may fabricate details, or may not accurately recall details from the past.

8 Nature of the Study This study was qualitative in nature. “In a qualitative approach to research the paramount objective is to understand the meaning of an experience” (Merriam, 1988, p. 16). As noted by Stake (1981), “our experiences are rooted in context, as is knowledge in case studies” (Merriam, 1988, p. 15). This research paradigm was selected because the researcher agreed with the following statement by Merriam (1988), “I believe that research focused on discovery, insight, and understanding from the perspectives of those being studied offers the greatest promise of making significant contributions to the knowledge base and practice of education” (p. 3). The nature of the research questions focused on understanding the “hows” and “whys” of overcoming probationary status. The goal was to examine the phenomenon or process of successfully working one’s way off of academic probation. In this instance, research was focused on the resiliency-building process experienced by students who had worked their way off of academic probation. According to Merriam (1988), there were four essential characteristics of a qualitative case study. It should be “particularistic, descriptive, heuristic, and inductive” (Merriam, 1988, p. 11). First, the case study is particularistic because it focuses on a specific process or phenomenon. Next, it includes quotes from the participants, considers a wide range of contributing factors, and has “the advantage of hindsight yet…be relevant in the present” as suggested by Olson (1982) making it descriptive (Merriam, 1988, p. 11). Next, it is heuristic because there is the capacity to “explain the reasons for the problem, the background of the situation, what happened, and why” (Olson, 1982 in Merriam, 1988, p. 14). Finally, the case study was inductive, meaning that

9 “generalizations, concepts, or hypotheses emerge from an examination of the data—data grounded in the context itself” (Merriam, 1988, p. 13). Merriam suggested that one of the strengths of a case study was that “It offers insights and illuminates meanings that expand its readers’ experiences. These insights can be construed as tentative hypotheses that help structure future research; hence, case study plays an important role in advancing a field’s knowledge base” (Merriam, 1988, p. 32). Organization of the Remainder of the Study Chapter 2 contains a review of the literature on the characteristics of students classified as at-risk and probationary. Possible contributing factors are examined. Information is presented regarding when students departed the educational system. Suggestions for best practices, based on a review of the literature, are also presented. Similar studies are examined and the gap in research is identified. Chapter 3 explains the qualitative research method being utilized in this study. The research design, participant selection process, data collection and analysis procedures are explained. Ethical concerns and limitations of the research are also considered. In addition, a timeline for the research is presented. Chapter 4 discusses the findings of the study. Information will be organized based on the primary and subordinate research questions relating to resiliency of students on academic probation. Chapter 5 looks back on the study. A reflection on the value of the research is presented. Areas in need of further research are examined.


CHAPTER 2. LITERATURE REVIEW Introduction Small colleges, in general, attract a disproportionate number of students who were struggling against the odds to make a better life for themselves (McGillin, 2003). Open enrollment institutions, by their nature, have a higher percentage of students at-risk than selective institutions. Risk in higher education was defined by McGillin as “any factor that might interfere with a student’s ability to gain full measure from his or her education, one that might interfere with competent functioning or that might prevent him or her from becoming a successful graduate” (2003, p. 43). For instance, students struggling with financial problems, holding down a job, or lacking in certain skills were typical at-risk students, as defined by Santa Rita and Scranton (2001). Heisserer and Parette’s definition of at-risk students also included minorities and students from low socio-economic backgrounds (cited in Cruise, 2002). Often, at-risk students and probationary students were grouped together for research purposes. As a rule, probationary students were considered to be at-risk; but, at the same time not all at-risk students were on academic probation. King (2004) identified four sub-groups of students who were considered to be at-risk: academically under-prepared, those with individual risk factors, those with familial risk factors, and those with social risk factors. Tinto (1987) considered an early warning system to be important for identifying “high-risk” students. The rationale was to identify those who were most apt to experience problems in completing their educational

11 goals (Tinto, 1987). Cuseo (2005) from Marymount College submitted the following definition in a listserv discussion on early warning systems: Early-Alert (Early-Warning) Systems-formal, proactive, feedback systems though which students and student-support agents are alerted to early manifestations of poor academic performance (e.g., low in-progress grades) or academic disengagement (high rates of absenteeism), such as: (a) Midterm-Grade Reports: formal reporting of poor academic grades at midterm. (b) Pre-Midterm Alert Systems: identifying and connecting with students who exhibit disengagement very early in the term-before midterms grades are calculated, processed, and disseminated (e.g., students who miss class regularly, who are chronically tardy, who consistently fail to turn-in their assignments, or who rarely are prepared for planned class activities). The system utilized by Peru State College is similar to the one described by Cuseo. Fortunately, smaller institutions may present the ideal environment for at-risk students to work closely with advisors and build resilient qualities (McGillin, 2003). An example of a small, 4-year college implementing a pro-active early warning approach was Florida Southern College. Marie Pospichal, Director of the Office of Academic Support, contacted high-risk students at critical points during the semester. Faculty could make referrals at any point they noticed a student was experiencing difficulty. Ms. Pospichal, the Director of the Office of Academic Support, then contacted the student by phone or email to help the student establish the best solution. Students identified as academically at-risk were contacted in the first weeks. By the third week, Freshman Seminar professors submitted the names of students who are having difficulty with attendance, performance, or adjusting. The Director checked on transfer students during the fourth week. In the seventh week, professors submitted the names of students with two or more Ds/Fs in 100-

12 or 200-level courses. Students on academic probation were contacted during the first and second weeks and at mid-term. The Office of Academic Support reached out to students at mid-term with mass mailings of postcards with helpful tips and advice. Another way Ms. Pospichal’s office reached out to students was through donut and handout giveaways. The handouts informed students of resources available on campus (Pospichal, 2005). While it was true that at-risk students were at increased risk of being on academic probation, they were not the only students who achieved probationary status (Cruise, 2002). Likewise, academic under-preparedness did not necessarily preordain students to academic probation and/or suspension. A report from the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) revealed that over half of students entering college were lacking in at least one basic skill area (Tritelli, 2003). In fact, McCabe (2000) revealed that approximately half a million students who received remediation in basic coursework progressed on to college-level courses and performed equally as well as their peers who were initially on college-level. What is Academic Probation? Many colleges require students to maintain the customary minimum grade point average (GPA) of 2.0 on a 4.0 scale. Students who did not maintain a 2.0 GPA were placed on academic probation (Holland, 2005). The following description of academic probation makes clear the potential repercussions: “The category of probation is an academic warning for students whose academic performance falls below an institution’s requirement for good standing. If academic difficulty continues, it is possible for a student to be suspended or dismissed” (Higgins, 2003, paragraph 2). Obviously, this consequence could have far-reaching implications.

13 To understand the depth of the problem, consider the Miller and Sonner study (1996) which revealed only 13% of all probationary students go on to graduate. Keep in mind, not all students on academic probation were under-prepared for college-level coursework. Surprisingly, approximately thirty percent had ACT scores of 20 or better and “were projected as able college achievers” (Newton, 1990). Some of the most commonly cited factors for ending up on academic probation were: lack of attendance, money issues/work, personal/family concerns, lack of social skills, and goal uncertainty (Trombley, 2001). Tovar and Simon (2006) suggested that students on academic probation view it as a “dangerous opportunity” (p. 559). Specifically, it provided an opportunity to refocus and get back in control of their academics. The danger lies in not taking appropriate action and having to endure the consequences (Tovar & Simon, 2006). To put it differently, academic probation was a detour on the road to success. Student Attrition Data In order to understand the loss of students, it was important to understand where students exited the educational system. For the year 2004, only 18.4% of ninth graders who completed high school on schedule, enrolled directly into college, and re-enrolled the subsequent year will graduate within six years (The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, 2007). Data compiled for the year 2000 showed where along the “educational pipeline” high school freshmen were lost. In the final analysis, the greatest loss was between the ninth and twelfth grades where 32% of students dropped out. After high school graduation, 29% chose not to enter into a four-year degree program. Of the remaining 30% who did decide to pursue a degree, 21% dropped out

14 prior to graduating. Thus, only 18% of ninth graders earned a bachelor’s degree (Committee for Economic Development, 2005). Keep in mind that the previous numbers were based on the average for the nation. Percentages for Mid-Western states were above the national average with Nebraska coming in eleventh (Committee for Economic Development, 2005).

Figure 1. Completion Rates National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (The) (2007). Student pipeline – Transition and completion rates from 9 th grade to college. Retrieved February 7, 2008, from http://www.higheredinfo.org/

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (2007) 71.7 out of 100 freshmen graduated from high school in 1999-2000. Projected data on high school graduation rates was estimated to increase to 74.4 for the 2006-07 school year. According ♂♀




Fewer than two will complete an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree with 150% of the required time. Four will enroll in college… Fewer than seven will get a high school diploma… For every ten students who start high school…

15 to Diplomas Count 2009, the national graduation rate was 69.2 percent for the 2006 school year. Although the rate dropped a point and a half between 2005 and 2006, overall an increase of 2.8 has been maintained over the 1996 base of 66 percent (The Editors, 2009). Comparing Probationary with Non-Probationary Students How did being on academic probation affect the retention and graduation rates of students? In short, once a student’s GPA dropped below the 2.0 level, half drop out on their own. Of the students who earned probation, only 62% came back after the first year, only 51% came after the third year, and only 31% went on to graduate in six years or less. Contrast that to students who had never been on academic probation: 92% returned after the first year, 86% returned after the third year, and 83% graduated in 6 years or less (Mathies et al., 2006). Therefore, it can be concluded that academic probation had a significant impact on retention and graduation rates. Risk Perspective versus Resiliency Perspective Studies concerned with “high risk” groups were usually classified by the risk label whereas broader studies focus on positive experiences which are associated with resiliency (Waxman et al., 2003). An example of an article described by its risk label is McCabe’s (2000) Underprepared students. An example of a broader study focused on the positive experiences would be Student success programs: Where retention theory and practice converge (Stuart-Hunter, 2002). This researcher chose to focus more on the positive. What contributed to the participants’ resiliency? First, it may be helpful to define what resiliency is. There were many different definitions of resiliency. Part of that difference had to do with the framework or methodology of the study. Resiliency studies

16 gave emphasis to potential sources of resilience. Researchers focused on factors that could impact student success when altered (Waxman et al, 2003). According to Benard (1995), “We are all born with an innate capacity for resilience, by which we are able to develop social competence, problem-solving skills, a critical consciousness, autonomy, and a sense of purpose” (paragraph 2). The following three protective factors could alter the expected course of lives impacted by risk factors as evidenced by resiliency: supportive relationships, high expectations, and opportunities for involvement (Benard, 1995). Situation Viewed from a Risk Perspective How can at-risk students be identified? Crockett (n.d.) listed a number of indicators that were associated with students being at-risk. Late registration, poor grades, lack of adequate high school preparation, and low test scores were all indicators of potential risk. In other words, many students were starting college at a disadvantage. One way students were identified as being a risk of academic failure was through early warning. Early warning allowed students the opportunity to self-assess. Benard (1997) believed that to be a powerful tool. It was also a good time to have students evaluate whether they have adopted performance avoiding or self-sabotaging behaviors. These behaviors were associated with negative outcomes (Hsieh et al., 2007). This was a good time for students to consider their academic goals and make changes. When asked about early warning systems Lana Low, vice president of retention and assessment services at Noel-Levitz, explained, “We show the college what the risk factors are for students dropping out and help them to determine strategies that would actually be interventions” (Reisberg, 1999, Section: Early-Warning Systems, paragraph 3). Some

17 campuses utilized an early warning system that identified at-risk students before they even started classes (Reisberg, 1999). One area of concern was consistent faculty participation in the early warning process. Early warning was only effective if faculty participated consistently so advisors could implement interventions as soon as possible. McGillin (2003) divided risks into three categories: individual, familial, and community. Individual risks constituted any combination of factors related to mental, cognitive, psychological, and physical health. Familial risks arose from dysfunction within the family, discord, crises, and differing values related to education. As noted by McGillin (2003), community risks stem from conflicts due to ethnicity and/or culture, lack of positive role models and support within the home and/or community, negative influences (e.g. gangs, homelessness, drugs, and alcohol), and prior educational experiences (e.g., failure, sub-standard education, and academic low expectations). On the whole, Crockett (n.d.) found that students, who were the first in the family to attend college, have disabilities, language barriers, and/or economic concerns, had difficulty transitioning to the demands of college. Achievement of a college degree necessitated, first and foremost, dedication from both students and the institutions which served them. “Even in nonselective colleges, it calls for a willingness to commit oneself to the investment of time, energy, and often scarce resources to meet the academic demands which institutions impose upon their students” (Tinto, 1993). Another challenge faced by some freshmen was the need for remediation. The National Center for Education Statistics (2004) reports that one in five freshmen enrolled in a four-year institution was required to enroll in at least one remedial course. Students must successfully complete the remedial course before they are allowed to enroll in course basic math or English courses.

Full document contains 128 pages
Abstract: Students who earn academic probation are at a higher risk of not graduating from college than their peers. There are a host of factors that appear to make a person more at-risk of failure. But not all who end up on academic probation are doomed to failure. Some students show remarkable resiliency in the face of adversity. For them, academic probation is merely a detour on the road to academic success. This study looks at resiliency factors exhibited by participants who once found themselves on academic probation and have successfully worked their way off of it. While some people are naturally resilient individuals, studies show that resilience can be fostered. The focus of this study is primarily on the factors that build resiliency in post-secondary students.