Supplementing traditional orientation with Facebook: examining the potential benefits for first-year college student retention at public, four-year universities

Starting college can be a challenging experience. Students accustomed to their home communities and the academic expectations of high school are asked to transition into completely different social and academic contexts. Traditional in-person orientation programs are meant to help ease this transition. However, despite current efforts, an average of 20% to 30% of first-year students at four-year public universities will not return for their second year (ACT, 2014; Kena et al., 2014). Tinto’s (1993) student departure theory and social capital theory together suggest that social network sites (SNSs) such as Facebook—currently the most popular SNS among American college-age young adults (Duggan & Brenner, 2013)—could help improve student retention. The purpose of this study was to identify whether Facebook could be used to supplement traditional, in-person orientation programs to improve retention for first-year traditional-aged students at four-year public universities. This study was conducted at a large four-year public commuter university in northern California. Out of 3,219 first-year students enrolled for spring semester 2014, all 1,629 who were enrolled in general-education English composition courses were invited to complete the 23-item quantitative online questionnaire. The questionnaire collected data about respondents’ demographics and their experiences with orientation programs, the first semester of college, and Facebook. With 87 respondents, the survey had a response rate of 5.3% and a margin of error of ±10.4% with 95% confidence level (The Research Advisors, 2006). Facebook-based supplemental orientation programs show much theoretical promise for improving first-year student retention. However, the results of this study show that these programs may not be as successful at commuter institutions, and may be better suited for residential campuses. Future research should test these results in other institutional settings. This study also found that students may feel ambivalent about participating such programs, and may need to be convinced to sign up. Finally, this study found that supplemental orientation programs are unlikely to solve student retention concerns outright. Instead, they should be seen as pieces of larger, institution-wide efforts to improve student retention.