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Academic and Student Affairs Collaboration to Impact Undergraduate Persistence in the Jesuit University Context: A Phenomenological Study


Higher education is under pressure to improve student success rates. These demands require postsecondary institutions to examine and evolve their practices to create learning environments where all students can succeed. One method to improve institutional persistence rates is to develop collaborations between academic and student affairs. Current evidence indicates that these partnerships are essential to improving student success, but can be difficult to cultivate. As the landscape of higher education is not monolithic, exclusively examining Jesuit universities provides valuable insight due to their unique organizational context. Therefore, this dissertation examined the phenomenon of collaboration through the experiences of 22 academic and student affairs officers involved in these partnerships to help answer a fundamental question. How are successful intra-organizational partnerships between academic and student affairs, focused on undergraduate persistence, developed, implemented, and sustained at Jesuit universities?

Using phenomenological methodology and organizational theory frameworks, this study used semi-structured interviews and document analysis to explore how student and academic affairs officers understand and experience cross-functional collaborations focused on undergraduate student persistence in the Jesuit university setting. Employing organizational theory frameworks of culture, structure, and open systems, I examined the factors that support or undermine collaboration’s success, and how these collaborations overcome barriers to sustainability. Furthermore, I explored how academic and student affairs officers evaluate the success of their collaborations and how the Jesuit mission relates to distinctive approaches to creating collaborations.

From the data collected, it became evident that participants perceived cross-divisional collaboration as a critical component to student success strategies, and crucial to realizing significant improvements in metrics like student persistence. However, on the campuses studied, organizational factors (i.e., resourcing, leadership support, institutional transitions, mission, academic/administrative cultures), individual factors (i.e., fostering trust and respect of expertise, collaborative competencies, ability to dialogue), and external factors (i.e., changes to student demographics, compliance, selection of board members) coalesce to produce an environment that can both support and undermine the sustainability of these essential partnerships. Collaborative structures, processes, and methods of evaluating student persistence partnerships varied across the campuses, however, there was a pronounced trend regarding their common purpose, which focuses on whole- student success grounded in the charisms of the Jesuit mission. The overwhelming commitment, alignment, and infusion of the Jesuit mission into daily practices was the most profound and prominent finding of this study.

This dissertation offers several recommendations for practitioners at Jesuit universities, as well as, educators from other types of postsecondary institutions desiring insight on developing successful cross-divisional collaborations for student persistence. Implications for educational practice and recommendations for educational leadership are also addressed.

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