Policy and Persistence: An Exploratory Mixed Methods Case Study of "Last Mile" Students at Portland State University
Wubbold, Joseph Mark
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Wubbold, Joseph Mark
In an extension of educational attainment research, this exploratory mixed- methods case study examines the influence of institutional policies on the behavior of five cohorts (n=925) of traditional first time, full time (FTFT) freshmen – called “Last Mile” students – at one urban research university located in the Pacific Northwest. Last Milers are defined as FTFT students who persist to the fifth year of enrollment but do not graduate by the end of their sixth year; the cut point for federal graduation rates. Punctuated Equilibrium Theory (PET) was chosen as the theoretical framework for this study as the case subject is undergoing a period of internal change brought on by external forces beyond its control. In a classic PET response, the university has overcome its institutional inertia and is working to improve an area of perceived weakness – graduation rates – before resetting itself. Both quantitative and qualitative data were collected for this study. Extant student and institutional characteristic data were provided by the case subject. Additional data were collected from Last Mile students via a researcher created online survey. This study supports four findings: 1) Formative interviews, contextual institutional data and student success expenditures data affirm the use of PET as the study’s theoretical framework; 2) Student survey data confirm that most of PSU’s planned interventions are supported and likely to yield the desired results of improved graduation rates, over time; 3) Difficulty obtaining complete student data supports the need for a more systematic approach to centralized data collection, particularly as PSU begins a transition to strategic enrollment management; and 4) As PSU enters the era of managing to metrics, it would be wise to consider the cautionary principle of PET; that organizations treat the time following a change as a trial rather than a reset period. While a trial-period does not guarantee the success of the organizational change, it does provide the necessary conditions for an organization to enact change when it is in the midst of punctuation. These findings have practical application to internal PSU policy and may have theoretical implications for college graduation rate research as well.