Community (in) Colleges: The Relationship Between Online Network Involvement and Academic Persistence at a Community College*

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1 Community (in) Colleges: The Relationship Between Online Network Involvement and Academic Persistence at a Community College* Eliza D. Evans, Daniel A. McFarland Graduate School of Education, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA Cecilia Rios-Aguilar Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, CA, USA Regina Deil-Amen The University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA Keywords community colleges, higher education, social networks, retention *ACKNOWLEDGMENTS *FUNDING This material is based upon data collected through a grant funded by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and work supported by the Stanford Graduate Fellowship Program and the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program under Grant No. DGE *Corresponding Author: Eliza D. Evans, Stanford Graduate School of Education, 485 Lasuen Mall, Stanford, CA 94305, USA

2 2 Abstract This study explores the relationship between online social network involvement and credit completion at a community college. Prior theory hypothesizes that as students become socially integrated into a college, they are more likely to persist. This theory has weak empirical backing in community colleges, due primarily to ill-defined or absent communities. Online social networks offer a new and viable forum for social integration on these campuses. Does involvement with online social networks positively influence academic persistence at a community college? This study finds evidence of peer influence in online friendships: the academic performance of a student s online friends is predictive of the student s likelihood of academic persistence. However, contrary to expectations, an increasing number of network friendships reduces the likelihood that the student completes all attempted credits. In light of these findings, we offer new ways of thinking about the contents, costs, and benefits of social networks at community colleges.

3 3 INTRODUCTION Community colleges are the mass educators of the American higher education system, teaching a wide range of students for a low cost. In fall of 2012, 45 percent of American undergraduates were enrolled in community colleges (American Association of Community Colleges 2013a), and for their education, they were paying a much lower average cost than that paid by students in other sectors of higher education. 1 As a result of the low-cost, open-access education they provide, community colleges have become a primary focus of national programs for increasing access to and completion of postsecondary education (Lewin 2012). Community colleges, however, have a weak history of retention and academic performance (Braxton, Hirschy, and McClendon 2004; Rosenbaum, Deil-Amen, and Person 2006), a history that makes it difficult to fulfill their educational goals. As measured in the fall of 2005, only 21 percent of students at public two-year colleges were completing their associates degrees within three years (Aud et al. 2011). For both students and community colleges, this level of attrition is a problem. Completing a degree or certificate is associated with better earnings for students (Belfield and Bailey 2011; Hout 2012), and colleges, in addition to falling short of their educational goals and missives, lose out on tuition money that keeps them financially solvent. What can community colleges do to stem the flood of students out of their institutions? Tinto (1993) theorizes that most students who voluntarily withdraw from higher education do so because of a lack of social and academic integration within their postsecondary institution. They feel isolated from other members of the institution, and as a result, they leave the community. Based on Tinto s suggestions, fostering better academic or social integration for students could help to alleviate the retention problems at community colleges.

4 4 However, in a review of empirical studies that have tested Tinto s claims, Braxton et al. (2004) find that Tinto s theories receive varying levels of empirical support across different classes of postsecondary institutions, especially when measuring the role of social integration in student persistence. While empirical studies strongly support a positive relationship between social integration and persistence in residential colleges, social integration appears to have no relationship with persistence in non-residential institutional settings a classification that includes 75 percent of community colleges (American Association of Community Colleges 2013b). Braxton et al. conclude that this differential role of social integration arises because there is little to no social community present in non-residential schools. In-person, on-campus social communities are difficult to foster at non-residential community colleges, where students do not have access to the foundational social networks that develop through dorm residence (Festinger, Schachter, and Back 1950; Schudde 2011) or take classes part-time, which limits their exposure to the college and reduces the opportunities for community formation. Without a community, students at non-residential community colleges have no social space into which they can socially integrate and, as a result, have no access to the positive influence of social integration on persistence that benefits their peers at residential colleges. Some community colleges are trying a new platform for fostering stronger campus communities and social integration: online social networks. Online social networks like Facebook or Twitter provide a well-defined and omnipresent space in which social community can develop for students at community colleges. The characteristics of online networks specifically offset the barriers to community formation present in community colleges. An online platform creates a space in which social contact is unbounded by the physical distances between students homes and their campus. Even if students work part-time or live far from each other,

5 5 they can contact each other through the online network as long as they have internet access. The two-way, unrestricted, and often public communication offered by online networks allows for information exchange and community building. We argue that online social networks serve as a viable community through which students at non-residential community colleges can socially integrate with their peers. As a new space for social integration, the online networks are unlike the weak or absent communities that Braxton et. al (2004) observe in non-residential colleges. An online network is omnipresent, well-defined, and facilitates two-way communication among students, no matter their physical location or part-time status. As a novel and untested space for social integration on nonresidential campuses, online social networks merit empirical testing of how student activities online are predictive of their persistence, offline. We hypothesize a positive relationship between increasing online network involvement and student persistence at a non-residential community college, as Braxton et al. (2004) saw in the empirical studies of social integration at residential colleges. To test our hypothesis, we estimate a series of logistic regression models using data from the academic year and model the relationships between academic persistence and social network involvement on the Schools App network, a Facebook-based network for college students. We explore the association between Schools App involvement and 100 percent credit completion, testing for heterogeneity in this relationship based on the distance a student lives from the college and three different kinds of network activities: joining the network, making network friendships, and joining interest groups on the network. In subsequent analyses, we investigate different contents and structures within the network itself. We ask if the mean academic performance of a student s network friends influences her likelihood of completing all

6 6 her attempted credits, and we look for variation in the level of influence, based on the structural characteristics of a student s network structure. Through these analyses, we test multiple theories about the relationships between different modes of online social network participation and academic persistence in a previously unexplored setting of online networks at a community college. We explore a new platform for social integration that is accessible to the students of community colleges and may be positively related to persistence, as we see for their peers on residential campuses (Braxton et al. 2004). Our findings fill a gap in the research literature, suggest new directions for future research, and provide empirical evidence for administrative decision-making about the implementation and influence of online networks at community colleges. LITERATURE REVIEW Social Integration and Academic Persistence According to Tinto (1993), fewer than 15 percent of students leave college because they fail to meet minimum academic standards. Instead, he finds that students leave because they feel a lack of social or academic integration into the community. He argues that, in attending college, students undergo a rite of passage in which they become members of a new society and community at their school. Tinto theorizes that voluntary withdrawal from higher education occurred in response to a failure to incorporate into this new community. Student withdrawal, then, is based on social or academic misalignment, not academic performance. Based on his theory, Tinto suggests that institutions should reach out to make personal contact with students beyond the formal domains of academic life (1993:139) to improve retention. The ways in which this kind of outreach facilitates social and academic integration are

7 7 subtle and small. Tinto emphasizes the need for repetitive contact (1993:98) if students are to integrate into their colleges, because casual and frequent interactions with faculty, staff, or students are the pathways through which integration takes place. While having deep, strong ties among students or between students and faculty mentors can be important for integration, a student s general sense of alignment with and belonging to the institution (or, at the least, a subset of people within the institution) is the key aspect of both types of integration. Tinto s theories have become paradigmatic in the study of student persistence (Bensimon 2007), but Braxton et al. (2004) contend that Tinto s theories may not have empirical support or, if they do, may not apply evenly to all students across all types of postsecondary institutions. For example, a positive relationship between academic integration and student persistence is not strongly supported by empirical work in any of the types of postsecondary institutions that Braxton et al. review; social integration, on the other hand, has varying empirical support across types of institutions. In the case of social integration, Braxton et al. (2004) find strong empirical support for its positive relationship with student persistence in residential colleges and universities, but that in non-residential colleges, social integration is much less if at all related to persistence. The authors state that the absence of residentiality results in weak or nonexistent social communities at commuter colleges and universities (2004:81) and that this lack of well-defined social communities provides an explanation for the failure of social integration to positively impact subsequent institutional commitment (2004: 19-20) at nonresidential colleges. Social integration, then, is not necessarily unrelated to persistence in nonresidential colleges, but instead, received indeterminate support or [was] not the subject of empirical testing (Braxton et al. 2004:17) on non-residential campuses, since there were few communities and little variation in social integration to analyze.

8 8 We argue that online social networks provide the well-defined and vibrant social communities that non-residential colleges may lack and are a setting in which we can empirically test social integration and its relationship with student persistence in non-residential colleges. In this study, we perform this analysis, empirically testing Tinto s theory of social integration in an online community at a large, non-residential community college. Before we do so, we must address other theoretical questions that undergird our study. First, are online networks communities in the same sense as the offline networks in which conventional social integration occurs for the students of residential colleges? And, if so, can the mechanisms behind social integration and its positive relationship with persistence occur on an online platform? Below we address these questions in turn. Communities: Online vs. Offline Although different disciplines and scholars conceive of it differently, community can be loosely defined as a social network based upon the social exchange of information or goods. If social exchange is happening, community exists to a greater or lesser extent (Wellman and Hampton 1999). This definition does not require any place-based interaction or face-to-face communication, which allows it to work equally as well for online communities as it does for offline communities. However, some scholars dispute this all-encompassing definition of community. They argue that community requires face-to-face interaction, and online activity harms its formation, rather than acting as an instance of community in and of itself (Fox 1995; Slouka 1995). Nie (2001) was a particular critic of online networks, finding that internet users do not become more social through their internet use, but rather are already more social than an average person, because users tend to be younger, wealthier, and more educated than non-internet users. Nie goes

9 9 on to argue that, since time is a finite resource, time spent online inevitably lowers face-to-face sociability, decreasing a person s real networks, not enhancing them. Wellman (2001) disagrees. Due to widespread internet access, Wellman argues that computer-mediated communication has become a part of everyday life and social networks; online sociability is no longer (if it ever was) a separate, different network from face-to-face networks. Increasingly, people engage in networked individualism (Wellman 2002), which connects individuals in a person-to-person manner, regardless of spatial or temporal restraints. Haythornthwaite s (2005) findings support Wellman s arguments. In a study of members in an academic research department, Haythornthwaite shows that stronger ties are not either on- or offline, but rather that the stronger the tie, the greater the number of communication media that the two people use to communicate. Online networks, then, have the potential to bolster and extend offline networks, rather than deplete them. This debate is far from limited to only the scholars discussed above. For every study that finds negative or no effects for online networks (e.g., Byrne 2008; Raacke and Bonds-Raacke 2013; Valkenburg and Peter 2007) on the sociability, friendships, or academic well-being of adults and students, alike, there is an answering study with positive findings (e.g., Ellison et al. 2007; Hampton and Wellman 2000, 2001; Howard et al. 2001; Parks and Kory 1995; Trepte et al. 2012). With so many conflicting findings on online networks and their effect on members, what should we conclude? For the purposes of this study, we heed the warnings of the critics of online networks, keeping in mind the limitations of the technology and its inability to capture the presence, quality, or substance of offline interactions. However, we also draw on the positive findings about online networks to argue that they can still allow for communication, information exchange, and friendship formation perhaps better than offline networks can, given the unique

10 10 institutional characteristics of community colleges. We see online networks as a viable environment in which social integration can occur, as we describe below. Social Integration for Students in an Online Setting In addition to Tinto s work, there is a broad literature exploring the relationship between students social networks and their actions in an academic setting (e.g., Antonio 2004; Bean 1980, 1982, 1983, 1990; Bers and Smith 1991; McFarland and Pals 2005; Rios-Aguilar and Deil- Amen 2012; Thomas 2000). These studies often find that social interactions and integration can influence students behavior, academic identities, and aspirations. However, these studies focus on offline, in-person, self-reported interaction. Do the theories and evidence for the importance of offline social integration for academic persistence and performance translate to their online counterparts? One thing is undeniable: students are going online and communicating with each other often using social network sites. Researchers find that around 90 percent of college undergraduates use Facebook (Dahlstrom et al. 2011; Junco 2012b), and undergraduates report that they spend more than an hour each day on the site (Junco 2012a, 2012b; Ellison et al. 2011). While Junco (2013) finds that students self-reported Facebook usage is greater than their actual usage, the overestimation in the self-reports may speak to a heightened attention to and interest in the social network: subjectively, Facebook is a larger part of students lives than it measurably is. Studies show that online social networks are, indeed, impactful for teens, who are a large demographic in community colleges. Researchers find that the hours spent using online networks help to shape identity, achieve status, and learn norms, all of which are important for social integration (e.g., Bessière et al. 2008; Boyd 2007; Valkenburg and Peter 2007). Additionally, Liu

11 11 and Larose (2008) find that perceived online social support has direct, positive effects on school life satisfaction in an academic setting. Previous studies of online social network involvement that specify its relationship to social integration and social capital have been based in residential colleges. In a study of students at a four-year, public, residential college, Ellison et al. (2007) find a positive association between Facebook use and the maintenance and generation of social capital. Junco (2012a) finds that, more than the amount of time spent on the social networking site, the specific activities that students pursue on Facebook are of greater predictive value for their sense of engagement with their college and other institutional outcomes like time spent preparing for class and participation in extracurricular activities. Using Facebook for sharing and collecting information was associated with positive academic outcomes, but using it for purely social purposes was negatively associated with academic measures (Junco 2012a, 2012b). These findings, though in residential, four-year institutions, lend weight to our hypothesis that online networks are capable of facilitating social integration for students at non-residential community colleges. However, as a caveat, not all social integration positively affects youth in the classroom. Tinto (1993) notes the potential to become socially integrated into a school, but for the socialization to be heavy on the social. Theories of hedonistic youth culture (Eisenstadt 1956) suggest that if student networks are used only for social activities, they may ultimately detract from academic achievement and persistence, rather than encouraging it. But, on the whole, Tinto argues that social integration into schools is more likely to have positive than negative effects, and findings by Ellison et. al (2011), Junco (2012a, 2012b), and other authors suggest the potential of online social networks to foster social integration and have a positive relationship with persistence.

12 12 HYPOTHESES Hypotheses 1 and 2: The Role of the Network If online networks facilitate social integration into community colleges, we would expect to see a relationship between increasing online network involvement and increased academic persistence, consistent with Braxton et al. s (2004) reviewed findings for residential colleges. Based on this potential link between online network involvement and retention, mediated through social integration, we test two hypotheses that compare network users to non-users, examining full credit completion as an outcome variable. As we describe in greater detail below, we operationalize retention as a student completing all of the credits that he or she attempts in her first semester of network exposure. The first of our hypotheses focuses on the relationship between network usage and credit completion among all students. The second examines this same relationship, but specifically tests for heterogeneity in the relationship based on the distance that a student lives from the college. Because online networks are not place-based, this may tease out particular benefits of an online network for a commuting student population. Below, we describe each hypothesis in detail. Network Involvement and Academic Persistence Social Support Hypothesis (H 1 ): Online network involvement is associated with better academic persistence. We argue that online social networks provide present and well-defined communities that many non-residential colleges lack (Braxton et al. 2004) and hypothesize that their presence will enable a positive relationship between student involvement on the network and persistence. Unlike prior analyses of social integration (e.g., Bers and Smith 1991; Deil-Amen 2012; Thomas 2000), we look at an online network, rather than students self-reported, offline friendships.

13 13 Based on Junco s (2012a) findings that different social network activities are variably predictive of student engagement, we test three different forms of social involvement within the network that may foster social integration: 1) joining the network; 2) forming relational friendship ties; and 3) joining interest groups on the network. By differentiating among these three forms of network involvement and analyzing each separately, we gain a finer-grained understanding of the mechanisms of social integration and the relationship between online network involvement and student persistence. The Role of Distance An early touchstone work of network analysis took place in the dormitories of a college campus. Festinger et al. (1950) studies the friendship patterns of students living in married students housing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and finds that students are more likely to befriend others who live physically closer to them in the dorm, net of shared beliefs or interests. Propinquity arguments grew from this work, looking at the importance of physical location and proximity in the development and subsequent influence of social networks. Propinquity arguments complement Braxton et al. s (2004) emphasis on nonresidentiality and its role in the relationship between social integration and student persistence. In light of these theoretical and empirical groundings, our second hypothesis focuses on the distances between students homes and their college campus: Distance Hypothesis (H 2 ): Students who live farther from campus experience a stronger relationship between network involvement and full credit completion. If the online social network can serve as an alternative to on-campus options for social integration and community building, we hypothesize that students who live farther from campus will experience a stronger relationship between network involvement and persistence. While

14 14 students who live close to the campus may have previously benefitted (and continue to benefit) from on-campus social interactions (limited though they may be), the network provides the first forum for social integration to distant students. As a result, we anticipate a greater relationship between online network involvement and persistence for more distant students. Hypotheses 3 and 4: Intra-Network Dynamics In the first two hypotheses, the relationship between online network involvement and persistence is operationalized in a binary way: students are either involved in the network or not. We then test this binary difference and its association with student persistence. The second two hypotheses take a more refined view of network involvement, seeking to understand if specific arrangements or contents of online social networks might facilitate social integration differently and change the relationship between network involvement and persistence. Rather than arguing that involvement, structured in any way, may have an effect on credit completion, we consider the content and structure of a student s friendships in the network. Network Autocorrelation and Peer Influence To examine the contents of a student s online friendships and their relationship with academic persistence, we consider the role of peer influence. In many social networks, people tend to be friends with others who are similar to themselves, and some researchers have argued that having similar characteristics may be predictive of friendship formation (McPherson, Smith- Lovin, and Cook 2001). Feld and Grofman (2009) disagree and argue that this observed similarity between connected actors is not a cause behind friendships, but instead results from associations as actors change their behaviors and preferences to be more like their friends. Feld and Grofman call this process network autocorrelation, but it can also be thought of as peer influence. Empirical work suggests the importance of attending to peer influence among

15 15 students. For example, McFarland and Pals (2005) find that among adolescents, network connections are a driving mechanism behind identity development and social conformity among friends. Specifically in the context of college academics, Hasan and Bagde (2013) find evidence of roommates influencing each other s academic performance. The network and student data in this study allow us to look for peer influence within the online network. In particular, we focus on academic influence in the form of credit completion. Mayer and Puller (2008) find that the average GPA of a student s Facebook friends is predictive of the student s own GPA. The time lag in our data allows us to search for influence, rather than just homophily. If friendships in the network have the potential to influence a student s academic behavior, the past credit completion of a student s friends may have a role in predicting a student s likelihood of completing all attempted credits after she joins the network. To examine this, we test a third hypothesis for students in the network: Peer Influence Hypothesis (H 3 ): Within the network, the mean completion percentage of a student s friends is predictive of his or her probability of completing all attempted units, controlling for prior completion percentage. By computing the mean prior completion percentages for all of a student s friends on the network, we can look for evidence of peer influence on students college persistence after joining the network. Tight-Knit Groups and Norms of Behavior The prior hypothesis focuses on the content that might transfer through a student s relationships with her friends. The following hypothesis focuses on the structure of these friendships and how that might influence the flow of behaviors among peers. As an example, Feld (1981) argues that social networks develop around foci, which are common interests or

16 16 activities that organize people into groups. As groups organize around the foci, certain norms develop within each group, and members of the group adopt these norms. In making this claim, Feld studied the parenting techniques of a group of families, all living in close quarters in graduate student housing. Though propinquity arguments (Festinger et al. 1950) would suggest that one prevailing community norm would guide parenting behaviors, Feld finds that three different norms prevailed, all derived from different families smaller, foci-centered networks. Peer influences on the parenting styles, then, were determined by the networks that were more tightly-knit and bound to a single foci, rather than looser, propinquity-based networks. Thinking about this finding in the context of an online social network at a community college, it may not be that the academic characteristics of a student s friends generally influence his or her academic performance, but rather that the influence of peers varies according to variations in the structure of a student s personal network. The idea that smaller, tightly-knit groups may have a stronger influence on a student s academic behavior leads to a fourth hypothesis to test within the network: Structural Hypothesis (H 4 ): Within the network, closure amplifies the peer influence on a student s probability of completing all attempted units. Within clusters of friends that are increasingly dense in their connections to one another, are students more likely to shape one another s academic behavior? Coleman (1988) examined students academic behavior based on intergenerational closure among students and parents; here, we focus on the closure among peers. We compute a closure score for each student, based on the number of the student s friends that are friends with each other and interact it with these friends past credit completion percentages. From this parameter, we can analyze how the structural characteristics of a student s network might interact with the influence of peers.

17 17 DATA The Community College (henceforth, CC) provided us with all student-level demographic and academic data for the academic year. CC is a large, accredited, nonresidential community college in the Midwest that enrolled an estimated 30,065 students in fall 2011 (U.S. Department of Education 2012). All of its 11 campuses are located in an urban setting with a population of nearly 400,000 people. There is no on-campus housing, but over 90 percent of students do live within 20 miles of a CC campus. CC offers a variety of majors, workforce training, college credits that transfer to four-year institutions, certificates, and associate s degrees. Sixty-five percent of the students in 2012 were part-time students, carrying an average course load of 8.8 credit hours. CC has a high job placement rate for its graduates: 90 percent of graduates from the career programs find employment, and 83 percent of those employees have jobs in their field of study (CC website 2012). We study CC not because it is a representative example of all community colleges nationwide, but rather because it is a particularly good case for exploring our research questions relating to Tinto s theory of social integration, Braxton et. al s (2004) review findings, and the relationship between online social network integration and academic persistence at two-year colleges. First, CC s retention problems are greater than those of an average community college in the United States. In , CC had a retention rate for full-time students of 47 percent, 9 percentage points and 0.89 standard deviations below the mean for all American public two-year schools (U.S Department of Education 2012), and from , CC had a combined transfer and graduation rate of only 15.5 percent (CC Website 2012). Additionally, CC is larger than most community colleges and has multiple campuses in a suburban setting, characteristics which increase the obstacles to place-based community formation at the college. Most importantly for

18 18 our research questions, CC has implemented an online network that is limited to use among its students and faculty in an effort to actively foster social networks and improve retention. In the college s strategic plan for the upcoming years, retention is a primary goal, and the purchase and implementation of an online network can be viewed as an active step towards this goal. Given its retention problems and implementation of the online network, CC is an excellent setting for investigating our research questions about social integration, online networks, and boosting academic persistence in a setting with low previous persistence. We now turn to describing CC s online network in more detail. The online network at CC is Schools App, an application that operates on the Facebook platform and is available for purchase from an engineering firm in San Francisco, California. The application is marketed to colleges as Facebook for College Enrollment and Retention (Uversity, Inc. 2013), and the main webpage is clearly geared towards college administrators: there is a section addressing institutional needs, including references to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) restrictions and data security. Schools App presents itself as a tool for improving retention and academic performance but has not yet offered rigorous, empirical evidence that it does so. Schools App is similar in structure to the larger Facebook site, but is limited to the students at a particular college. Students can join the network to see public postings, ask questions, and interact with other students on the app. Schools App also offers users the opportunity to friend other users, either virtually reflecting relationships they have already established offline or providing a method to contact new people. Users may search for friends, or the app will suggest potential friends, all of whom are also students at the college and users of Schools App. Once a student friends another student, that friendship is reflected on both the

19 19 Schools App platform and the student's Facebook page. Schools App also offers the opportunity to join interest groups, which are a collection of forums based on a wide variety of topics, activities, and identities. If a user joins an interest group, stories linked to that group will appear on the user's home page. The stories are open-ended questions that are based on the interest group's topic and provide users a low-risk way to engage with other students online. Schools App is available to all students at the college, free of charge. Schools App was launched at CC in August All students and an unspecified number of faculty were invited to join Schools App with an solicitation. Admitted students and currently enrolled students were both invited, but in this study we only focus on students who had prior academic records at CC; 22,263 students meet this selection criterion. As of May 2012, 2,690 students of the 22,263 students from the year with prior academic records at CC had joined the Schools App network, which is 12.1 percent of the total number of students in the study. Community, as defined by social exchange, has developed at CC on the Schools App platform: students have been actively forming friendships, joining interest groups, and responding to the story questions on their home pages. METHODOLOGY To test the hypotheses that we identify above, we estimate a series of logistic regression models predicting students credit completion as a function of network, demographic, academic, and socioeconomic attributes. In all of the analyses, the dependent variable is a binary value based on the percentage of attempted credits that a student completes in her first semester of network exposure. If a student completes all of her attempted units, she receives a value of 1; if she completes under 100 percent, she receives a value of 0. 2

20 20 We define persistence as a binary variable based on one semester of credit completion for four reasons. First, completing all attempted course units is the building block of academic retention. Credits must be passed and completed in order to stay in a program, transfer credits to a four-year institution, or complete a degree. Operationalizing persistence as a completion percentage captures the concept at its root. Second, community college students are often not full-time students and take a reduced number of credits. Thinking with an eye toward retention, the emphasis should be on completing what you attempt, which a percentage captures, rather than attempting more, which a raw count of units captures. Community college students may take fewer units or enroll for non-consecutive semesters, giving a third reason to operationalize persistence as we do. For example, there are 8,072 students who are enrolled in CC in the spring with prior records, but do not appear in the fall records, indicating that they enrolled in nonconsecutive semesters. By looking at credit completion in a single semester of network involvement, the analysis captures persistent behavior in its most fine-grained instance and does not misclassify students who take a semester off as dropouts. Fourth, our data come from a single academic year, limiting the ability to examine persistence over a longer time scale. Given these four reasons, full credit completion serves as the operationalization of academic persistence for our study. Figure 1 is a histogram of the dichotomized credit completion percentages for all students at CC during their respective first semesters of network exposure during the school year. The figure shows that 58 percent of students (N=12,949) completed all of their attempted units during their first semester of network exposure, while 42 percent of students (N = 9,314) did not. 3 [FIGURE 1 ABOUT HERE]

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