Exploring Black Student Success with a Mixed Methods Investigation of Retention in the Second Year of College

Although significant gains have been made in recent years with regard to increasing access to higher education for African Americans, with 38.4% of Black 18 to 24 year-olds enrolled in college as of 2016 compared to just 25.4% in 1990, completion rates have not kept pace. The national six-year graduation rate for Black students at four-year institutions in 2008 was 40.9%, considerably lower than their White peers’ rate of 63.2% (National Center for Education Statistics, 2018). Students that persist at their institutions through the first two years are significantly more likely to graduate (Adelman, 2006), but retention in the first two years is a particular challenge for Black students: one-fifth of all Black students who successfully complete the first year leave before the beginning of the third (Consortium for Student Retention Data Exchange, 2015). Focusing on this second year, then, could provide a meaningful path to increasing graduation rates for Black students at four-year institutions. This study focused on the second year but narrowed that focus further to Black second-year students using an explanatory sequential mixed methods approach, starting with a quantitative inquiry into the factors that contribute to retention for all second-year students at a regional, comprehensive, four-year institution in southern California. The follow-up qualitative phase concentrated on Black students at the institution and their second-year experiences. The results of the quantitative phase suggest that second-to-third year retention is influenced by students’ senses of belonging and connection to the institution, which positively influences both their commitment to the institution and their academic engagement, which has its own direct, positive effect on retention. Belonging is, in turn, strongly influenced by positive relationships with student peers and faculty. The qualitative results highlight Black student experiences across six themes that suggest the importance of student involvement, membership in multiple campus communities, relationships with faculty, and positive self-concepts, as well as the strong negative effect of racial separation. The implications of these results benefit practitioners and researchers who are looking to make positive changes for second-year students on their campuses and improve both experiences and outcomes for Black students.