The Essential Role of Co-curricular Programs in Student Success, Retention, Persistence and Graduation
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“I assumed the most important and memorable academic learning goes on inside the classroom, while outside activities provide a useful but modest supplement. The evidence shows the opposite is true: learning outside of classes, especially in residential settings and extracurricular activities, is vital. When we asked students to think of a specific, critical incident or moment that had changed them profoundly, four-fifths of them chose a situation or event outside the classroom.” 
Co-curricular Engagement is a Key Variable in the Campus RPG Conversation
Student Success is often used as short-hand for the larger retention-persistence-graduation (RPG) conversation. The term student success can refer to a wide variety of things including precollege characteristics, quantifiable student attainment indicators, measures of academic achievement and personal and student development characteristics. Broadly, student success contains aspects of one or more variables related to academic achievement, engagement in educationally purposeful activities, satisfaction, acquisition of desired knowledge, skills and competencies, persistence, attainment of educational objectives, and post-college performance.  And student involvement and engagement outside the classroom is one of those essential, yet often ignored or unaccounted for, variables.
Student Involvement is a Statistically Significant Contributor to Positive Outcomes
When students participate in co-curricular events, they increase self-efficacy, make friends, develop an enhanced understanding of others, become oriented to campus, make important gains in critical thinking, increase their intellectual and affective development, improve their resilience and well-being and develop marketable skills.  Students engaged in experiences outside of the classroom are developing different skills (such as writing and editing reports, information processing, workflow planning, problem solving, decision making and the ability to influence others) and developing those skills more deeply than those who do not participate. Even so, student affairs professionals often meet resistance or indifference when attempting to showcase their contributions to the student success equation. Ironically, the absence of brick and mortar operations during the COVID-19 pandemic for typical student services and programs has heightened the awareness of the value of the co-curriculum for many senior-level administrators and faculty.
Student Engagement Equals Student Persistence
Numerous studies have shown that institutions failing to integrate students academically and/or socially will experience low student retention.  Higher levels of social engagement have demonstrated an increased probability of persisting in college while higher levels of academic engagement can even be negatively correlated to such probability.  Students who claim low involvement in activities rate lower in satisfaction towards aspects of student life, while students with higher involvement rated higher.  The more a student is involved, the more they will be satisfied with their college experience.  Higher levels of engagement in a variety of co-curricular activities significantly contributes to increased cumulative GPA and student perception of the overall academic experience. 
Co-curricular activities, programs and learning experiences complement what students are learning in for-credit courses, providing the opportunity for students to engage with the institution and meaningfully connect with others in the community. Astin defines involvement as “the amount of physical and psychological energy that the student devotes to the academic experience.”  In order for student learning and growth to occur, students must actively engage in their environment and educators must create opportunities for in- and out-of-class involvement. According to NSSE, engagement is the amount of time and effort students put into their studies and other educationally purposeful activities, but also how an institution deploys its resources and organizes learning opportunities to get students to participate in activities that decades of research studies show are linked to student learning. Engagement may be intellectual, emotional, behavioral, physical, social, cultural, spiritual, or civic and leads to students acquiring the knowledge, skills and abilities that manifest in their success at college and beyond.
Students Aren’t the Source of Their Failure
Much of the student success literature has emphasized individual attributes of students, like personality styles and student characteristics, leading to stereotypes that identify students as the source of their own failure:
“One of the most perplexing features of the studies and reports on student success that have emerged in recent years in higher education is that many are dominated by discussion of student failure. These narratives fixate on factors that identify students as “at-risk,” “vulnerable” or “disadvantaged.” Chief among these factors is some variation of the big three deficiencies: minority, low income, first generation.” 
Tinto’s longitudinal model of departure from institutions of higher education not only emphasizes individual attributes, skills and dispositions, but also describes the importance of how individual factors interact with institutional experiences, both academically and socially.  As Tia McNair and colleagues point out in Becoming A Student-Ready College: A New Culture of Leadership for Student Success, “instead of focusing solely on students being college ready and on students’ perceived deficits, educators must focus on what they can do to create educational environments that meet students where they are and eliminate barriers that hinder their success.”
How You Can Use the Co-curriculum to Increase Student Success and Improve Institutional RPG
- Download our whitepaper on using noncognitive data to address retention and success initiatives
- Follow the examples of the high performing institutions showcased in Student Success in College by aligning resources and structures with curricular and co-curricular offerings, continuously improving them through assessment.
- In addition to creating institutional learning outcomes and general education outcomes, use and align co-curricular learning outcomes frameworks such as CAS, Learning Reconsidered, LEAP, NACE, Wellness Wheel to organize and plan co-curricular programs and services.
- Create holistic, clearly articulated pathways to success so students can see the specific ways that they can develop skills that fit with their academic, personal and post-graduation goals.
- Empower student leaders to foster vibrant peer-to-peer relationships through clubs and organizations.
- Develop cocurricular transcripts that help students track and reflect on their learning outside the classroom.
- Conduct marketable skills assessment to understand how students view the connections between courses, out-of-class experiences and their on and off campus employment, leading them to discover how—and to what extent—those environments help them gain the skills employers seek.
- Conduct equity-minded assessment. One approach is to disaggregate co-curricular student data to gain an understanding of different student populations to ensure you are meeting their various needs. Who’s represented? Who’s missing? What patterns are revealed? Use this data to make change, especially for marginalized populations.
- Conduct meaningful Student Affairs assessment (including Program Review utilizing the CAS Standards) to showcase how the student affairs division impacts the student experience and is a key variable in the student success equation.
- Learn from other institutions, such as the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, about how they integrate the value of student affairs into the fabric of the institution.
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Anne E. Lundquist, Ph.D.
Dr. Anne E. Lundquist (she/her/hers), Managing Director of Learning and Impact for The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, is a white, cisgender, third-generation educated researcher, poet, yogi, and social justice advocate who draws on her 30-year career in higher education to help campuses use data for change. Previously, Anne served as Assistant Vice President, Campus Strategy for Anthology, Director of Strategic Planning and Assessment for the Division of Student Affairs at Western Michigan University as well as senior student affairs officer at four liberal arts colleges. She has taught diverse subject matter, including educational leadership, institutional effectiveness, higher education law, writing, and literature. Anne’s areas of scholarship and interest include strategic planning, enterprise risk management, student success, and equity-minded assessment. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and a doctorate in Educational Leadership, Higher Education, from Western Michigan University. She earned her B.A. in Religious Studies and English from Albion College.