Rossier research team embarks on largest private grant-supported study in school’s history

August 5, 2015

By Matthew C. Stevens

In July, researchers from USC Rossier’s Pullias Center for Higher Education began the largest private grant-supported study in the school’s history. The six-year, $6.2 million project, funded by the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, will be a mixed methods examination of the Thompson Scholars Learning Communities (TSLC), living/learning student communities established in 2008 and housed on three campuses of the University of Nebraska—Kearney, Omaha and Lincoln.

Dr. Adrianna Kezar

Dr. Adrianna Kezar

The study—“TSLC Scholars: A Mixed Methods Examination of a Comprehensive College Transition and Success Program for Low-Income Students”—will explore how program experiences translate to greater success for participants, who are predominantly first-generation, low-income students. TSLC scholars receive academic support and individualized attention in order to foster academic success and engagement in campus life. Persistence to graduation is the ultimate goal.

Findings from the study will highlight traditional academic short- and long-term outcomes as well as any increases in student engagement resulting from the TSLC model. Assisting with the data analysis of the study will be the American Institutes for Research (AIR), one of the largest not-for-profit behavioral and social science research organizations in the world.

“It sends a very important signal that the Rossier School of Education and its faculty are committed to finding what works effectively for first-generation students to gain access to higher education and to persist and graduate from college.”
—Dean Karen Symms Gallagher

Dr. Darnell Cole

Dr. Darnell Cole

“In this longitudinal project, we’ll learn so much about the lives and experiences of a significant student population,” says USC Rossier Dean Karen Symms Gallagher. “The findings of our remarkable research team will not only help in the refinement of the TSLC program but will inform the design and implementation of learning communities around the nation. It sends a very important signal that the Rossier School of Education and its faculty are committed to finding what works effectively for first-generation students to gain access to higher education and to persist and graduate from college.”

The four-member research team represents the strengths of the Pullias Center, which has long contributed to knowledge about college access and success. This new study will add to a growing knowledge base specifically around the value of learning communities as an educational approach.

“Comprehensive intervention programs like the TSLC are usually not studied in rigorous ways,” says Pullias co-director Adrianna Kezar, who is the project director. “This six-year study of two full cohorts of students into and through college will add to our understanding of the best ways to support low-income, first-generation college students.”

Kezar has extensive knowledge of learning communities and factors that influence college student success. She is a national expert of change and leadership in higher education, and her research agenda explores the change process in higher education institutions and the role of leadership in creating change. She is also project director of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success.

Joining her on the new study are three other Rossier faculty members:

  • Associate Professor Darnell Cole will focus on the college experience of TSLC Scholars, bringing his strengths in quantitative methods to build on his extensive work studying classrooms, faculty-student interactions and mixed methods and survey research.
  • Associate Professor Tatiana Melguizo, a specialist in the field of economics of higher education, uses quantitative methods of analysis and large-scale longitudinal survey data to study the association of different factors such as student trajectories and specific institutional characteristics on the persistence and educational outcomes of minority and low-income students.
  • Professor of Clinical Education Kristan Venegas has expertise with the use of social and technological means and qualitative data analysis. She will work closely with Thompson Scholars on case studies, digital diaries and social media–related data collection.

“Our team is composed of top qualitative and quantitative researchers, and we purposefully are using a mixed-methods research design,” explains Melguizo. “This project will allow us to use very sophisticated methodologies not only to show the effectiveness of the program, but also the hows and the whys that are usually missing from rigorous evaluations.”

Dr. Tatiana Melguizo

Dr. Tatiana Melguizo

Cole, an expert on how diversity plays out in higher education, recently conducted research in Singapore and Malaysia, examining how diversity impacts students’ educational success in those two countries. That experience heightened his awareness of the complexities of student interactions around issues of diversity.

“My international work definitely informed how I’m approaching this new study with regard to making sure we ask our questions in very sophisticated ways and not just relying on the simple metric of ethnicity,” Cole says. “Living together in residence halls can be an important lever toward students’ critical engagement and thinking around many topics.”

“This project will allow us to use very sophisticated methodologies not only to show the effectiveness of the program, but also the hows and the whys that are usually missing from rigorous evaluations.”
—Associate Professor Tatiana Melguizo

Venegas’ previous qualitative work on college access and financial aid complements Melguizo’s quantitative approach to financial aid research. The four members reinforce one another in complementary ways, bolstering their mixed methods approach.

Dr. Kristan Venegas

Dr. Kristan Venegas

Venegas also has experience in student affairs and doesn’t underestimate the value of the practitioner experience shared by Kezar and Cole as well as by Matt Soldner of AIR. “We know what it is like to run these kinds of programs,” she says, “and we will come to this study with a depth of understanding of the ways academic coaching, tutoring and other structured interactions impact students’ lives on a daily basis.”

At the conclusion of the study of student outcomes and experiences, findings will help local stakeholders better design the programs for maximum impact. But more broadly, the study promises to provide a better understanding of college transition and success among first-generation college students and the efficacy and design not only of learning communities but of many other programs that will continue to be established to assist students in their success.