Date of Award

Fall 12-20-2019

Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Communication and Mass Communication/Interdisciplinary


John Sherblom

Second Committee Member

Kristin Langellier

Third Committee Member

Nathan Stormer

Additional Committee Members

Dylan Dryer

Stacey Sheriff


College student retention has been researched for over half a century. Much of the research about student retention has examined easily quantifiable factors, such as demographic variables, or presumably objective measures of student readiness, such as SAT scores. The results of these types of studies demonstrate the complexities of retention and attrition and underscore the importance of examining retention within the local contexts of institutions.

This study adopts a communication perspective to examine the intersection of three critical constructs: student retention, student writing, and identity. By observing the ways in which students constitute their identities in essays submitted as part of Thomas College’s Common Reading Program, this study demonstrates that features of identity work are related to first year retention. The study utilizes a content analysis approach to examine essays submitted by Fall 2014 and Fall 2015 entering students. Despite the brevity of these essays, the study demonstrates the nuanced ways in which students constitute their identities in essays written during the liminal period between high school graduation and college matriculation.

The study validates the College’s use of high school GPA as an indicator of retention. It also informs this practice by demonstrating that within the context of student academic background, some coping behaviors, including the engaged coping behavior expressing emotions, were associated with higher retention risk. Additionally, the thematic analysis demonstrates that students whose essays are associated with the athletics participation theme were more likely than their peers to be retained to the second year, whereas students who essays are associated with the themes of relationships and illness/injury were less likely to be retained.

The results of this study are relevant within the local context of the Thomas College Common Reading Program. However, the study does demonstrate that coders can be trained to identify with accuracy language associated with coping behaviors, even in brief essays. The study’s approach shows promise for reviewing large bodies of texts and for training staff members who review the essays to do so in more systematic manners and in manners that challenges individual biases about characteristics of the essays or their contents. The study also offers to inform institutional practices in the Common Reading Program.

Included in

Communication Commons