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Number of Facebook friends…a reliable retention rate predictors?

From the Chronicle:

You’re in the middle of writing a 10-page term paper, it’s 11 p.m., and there’s no end in sight. Looks like it’s time for Facebook.

That ever-beckoning distraction has led some people to see the combination of the popular social network and studying as an academic disaster. However, a recently published study in the Journal of College Student Retention finds that frequent Facebookers are actually more likely to return to their initial college after their freshman year. It’s the latest in a series of studies exploring possible links between Facebook and academics.

In a survey of 375 randomly selected students at Abilene Christian University, those who were more active on the social network were likelier to return for their sophomore year. On average, returning sophomores had 27 more friends and 59 more wall posts than did students who didn’t return.

Richard Beck, an author of the report, says there is often an “Animal House paradigm” associated with college students, meaning that all their time is either spent studying or slacking. But “it may be more complex than that, as students are trying to find both a vibrant academic and social life on campus,” he says.

The Facebook effect on college campuses is twofold, Beck says: Not only does the network make it easier for freshmen to find friends, but it also increases the likelihood of students’ developing deeper friendships following chance encounters. [emphasis mine]

The number of Facebook friends one has as a reliable predictor for whether one will return for his or her sophomore year?

While silly in and of itself, I think the findings are significant in that they validate the argument that retention is a multi-faceted issue. While the UA’s efforts to increase retention in the status quo are one-dimensional and, purportedly anyway, address the academic shortcomings of students ill-prepared for college level work, the fact remains that there are lots of reasons why students don’t return for their sophomore year.

Want anecdotal evidence? Look at the story of business student James Blair Emert, the subject of the Wildcat’s “On the Spot” segment in today’s paper. A transfer from Marquette University in Milwaukee, he claims to have come to the UA because Milwaukee “was too cold” and “a bunch of my friends go here [UA].” In addition to validating the importance of social integration as a marker for satisfaction with one’s college life, Emert’s story highlights another fundamental issue with the admissions policy in general. Reputation is important, and while I am sure that Emert  is a very bright, friendly individual, the fact that he chose the UA because he saw it as a refuge from the cold, friendless north is indicative of the “admit first, ask questions later” mentality that has driven enrollment policy in recent years.

Students are simply no longer drawn to the UA because of the quality of its undergraduate education. Instead, we are now measured, for better or for worse, by the ASU draws of “sun, chicks, friends and booze.” While all of the aforementioned factors are undeniably good and critical to becoming an educated, well-rounded citizen, I struggle to understand how, in the absence of massive ASU-type institutional rearrangements or a dramatic drop in academic standards, Vito et al. can continue to express even the slightest degree of shock when students decide to call it quits after a year of fun in the sun.

Alternatively, by virtue of the good climate and generally high quality of life, the UA is uniquely placed to simultaneously ratchet up enrollment while increasing admission standards. While the UA’s academic reputation precedes us when it comes to in-state students, out of staters will continue to apply in droves for decidedly non-academic reasons. In other words, there is simply no need for the UA to try and compete with ASU for the same students in a race to the bottom, when there are a plethora of comparatively academically meritorious students who, although they appreciate their healthy dose of sun, booze, etc, also want a more rigorous college education.

Vishal Ganesan blogs The Desert Lamp and is a member of the Student Free Press Association.

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