In order to maximize student retention rates, higher education institutions should prioritize the first-year experience. Specifically, a student’s social integration within their first year is a major factor in their completion of their degree at that institution. 

The average first-year retention rate is 77%, with some variations depending on the type of school. Colleges statistically experience the highest rate of dropout during or after students’ first year. Since back in 1970, researchers have noted that dropping out can result from a lack of close interaction with others. It can also be a lack of compatibility with the social aspect of the college experience.

What is social integration?

Social integration is an umbrella term covering several factors. It’s defined as students’ degree of social and psychological comfort with their campus environments, association with or acceptance by affinity groups, and a sense of belonging that provides the security to join with others in common causes, whether intellectual or social.

Making friends is only the beginning. It also is important to form a connection to the school and the campus. Students develop a sense of belonging when they feel they’re developing a “home away from home.” This can be done through student engagement tactics and facilitating a collective university community, especially during the first year.

First year engagement tactics

Social integration can make or break a student’s experience. This generally happens during a student’s freshman year. The first year is key, so first-year experience programs are one of the strongest tools a school can use to boost retention.

It all starts before school even begins. School orientation programs are the unsung hero when it comes to students forming connections. When these programs involve students meeting each other, rather than just sitting in on information settings, they begin making friends. They are then able to start college already knowing some familiar faces. Encourage students to make these connections, even though the ice breaker-style activities can push them out of their comfort zones.

Similarly, advertise student clubs and organizations before school starts in the fall. When a school allows students to express interest in these early, it’s another way to begin social integration from the start. They are able to meet like-minded people easier than if they started school not knowing anybody. For example, advertise clubs relating to incoming students’ majors. Most sports teams are established before school starts, but allow club sports and intramurals to find members beforehand as well. Greek life is another big draw for freshman students to find their group of friends. School-organized Facebook groups and hashtags specific to the incoming class are more ways to engage them before they start the semester and encourage connecting with each other.

Schools that encourage on-campus living rather than commuting have a better chance of having socially integrated students. Train residence hall staff on how to create camaraderie on their floor, because the dorm environment is a major factor in social integration. Frequent floor meetings and events strengthen bonds between freshmen living in close proximity, making it a better experience.

Social integration is key for student persistence.

Realize that as a school, the time you spend developing first-year experience programs will have great ROI in the form of student retention rates. Socially integrated students fall in love with the college experience. They find their sense of belonging and stay connected to the school throughout their next three years.

Social health is an important part of overall wellness. When college students have trouble with social integration, this becomes a problem. At BetterYou, we’re able to measure some key signs that students are struggling with this and reach those who are at risk.