Dissertation

Social Networks and Learner Persistence in Adult Secondary Education

Much research has been done on student performance in K-12 and higher education, but historically adult students enrolled in Adult Basic and Secondary Education (ABE/ASE) programs have received little attention from educational researchers. With over one million national ABE/ASE participants every year, this is a critical population that warrants an empirical eye (National Center of Education Statistics, U.S. Dept. of Education, 2016). Given that these students experience 25% attrition within the first three weeks of participation, low learner persistence is considered in the literature to be amongst the most significant phenomena in adult education impacting student success (Beder, 1991; Comings, Parella, & Soricone, 1999; Merriam & Cafferella, 1999; Merriam, 2001; Quigley & Uhland, 2000; Gopalakrishnan, 2008; Nash & Kallenbach, 2009; Mellard, Krieshok, Fall, & Woods, 2013).
 One key factor that impacts adult learner persistence is relationships (Hunter, 2006). Students with stronger support systems are able to seek help as needed, lessening the likelihood of attrition. Relational data, explored through social network analysis, could provide a unique perspective on how relationships and student outcomes are interdependent. While this research is relatively new in adult education, it has gained popularity in the K-16 system in recent years (Bruun & Brewe, 2013; Blansky, 2013; Grunspan, 2014).
 This qualitative study investigated the impact of adult secondary education students’ social networks on learner persistence, as measured by course completion. A sample of 14 adult secondary education students (18 years or older) were purposefully selected from an adult high school program in Southeast San Diego. The sample included students from diverse racial/ethnic, economic, and physical backgrounds. Students participated in one-on-one, semi-structured interviews providing feedback on relationships that have helped them persist in the program. Limitations of the study, such as generalizability and positionality, were also discussed.
 Key findings of the study highlighted mechanisms within the program that addressed the conceptual framework of social capital as it promotes student persistence. The first dimension, structural social capital, centered on the structure of the sample network, yielding four main groups that supported adult secondary education student persistence: Counselors, Peers, Teachers, and Family. The data suggest that each group offered unique support to students in varying forms of emotional, motivational, and academic support (addressing the other two dimensions of social capital - cognitive and relational). Limitations of the study, as well as implications for practice, are also discussed.

Much research has been done on student performance in K-12 and higher education, but historically adult students enrolled in Adult Basic and Secondary Education (ABE/ASE) programs have received little attention from educational researchers. With over one million national ABE/ASE participants every year, this is a critical population that warrants an empirical eye (National Center of Education Statistics, U.S. Dept. of Education, 2016). Given that these students experience 25% attrition within the first three weeks of participation, low learner persistence is considered in the literature to be amongst the most significant phenomena in adult education impacting student success (Beder, 1991; Comings, Parella, & Soricone, 1999; Merriam & Cafferella, 1999; Merriam, 2001; Quigley & Uhland, 2000; Gopalakrishnan, 2008; Nash & Kallenbach, 2009; Mellard, Krieshok, Fall, & Woods, 2013). One key factor that impacts adult learner persistence is relationships (Hunter, 2006). Students with stronger support systems are able to seek help as needed, lessening the likelihood of attrition. Relational data, explored through social network analysis, could provide a unique perspective on how relationships and student outcomes are interdependent. While this research is relatively new in adult education, it has gained popularity in the K-16 system in recent years (Bruun & Brewe, 2013; Blansky, 2013; Grunspan, 2014). This qualitative study investigated the impact of adult secondary education students’ social networks on learner persistence, as measured by course completion. A sample of 14 adult secondary education students (18 years or older) were purposefully selected from an adult high school program in Southeast San Diego. The sample included students from diverse racial/ethnic, economic, and physical backgrounds. Students participated in one-on-one, semi-structured interviews providing feedback on relationships that have helped them persist in the program. Limitations of the study, such as generalizability and positionality, were also discussed. Key findings of the study highlighted mechanisms within the program that addressed the conceptual framework of social capital as it promotes student persistence. The first dimension, structural social capital, centered on the structure of the sample network, yielding four main groups that supported adult secondary education student persistence: Counselors, Peers, Teachers, and Family. The data suggest that each group offered unique support to students in varying forms of emotional, motivational, and academic support (addressing the other two dimensions of social capital - cognitive and relational). Limitations of the study, as well as implications for practice, are also discussed.

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