Last spring, Bruce Tucker, associate professor and coordinator of SF’s leadership Institute, conducted a study at Santa Fe College about SLS coursework and graduation rates over a 35 year period. The study and results were summarized in a short article, published below. For more information, contact Bruce Tucker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Study of the Impact of SLS, Life Skills Classes, on Graduation Rates
Bruce Tucker Poorya Shidfar
Ph. D. – Purdue University M.S. – University of Florida
Instructional Research and Development Mechanical Engineering
Professor of Student Development Instruction Assessment Coordinator of Institutional Research
Santa Fe College Santa Fe College
The purpose of this study was to see if the graduation rates were higher for students who successfully completed SLS, Student Development Instruction, classes when compared to students who never completed a SLS, Student Development Instruction, class. The results indicate this to be true.
Purpose of the Study:
An ongoing discussion in many colleges concerns the relevance and effectiveness at the college level of life skills courses, often described as “soft skills classes”. Many people hold the perspective that these courses provide little academic benefit, and are often easy classes used by students to boost their GPA’s, but should not be emphasized in the college curriculum. A significant issue at this time in academics is the success and retention of students in college. Those who teach life skills classes are confident that these courses do benefit students in more ways than just succeeding in college, but also are very relevant to a student’s ability to successfully engage in lifelong learning, a priority and value in education today, as well as function more successfully in their careers. Those who view such courses with a more negative view often claim that these courses cannot be justified with anecdotal stories from individual students and from those who teach these classes. Solid statistical proof is demanded. In the past such research was done demonstrating academic success followed students who successfully completed life skills classes, but those studies are often set aside as outdated. While one could make the case that longitudinal studies have showed continued success, and that there is no reason why this pattern would drastically change in the last few years, the need for more current data has often been cited as a reason to set aside those earlier studies. The purpose of this study is to see if life skills courses do have a positive impact on the graduation rates of college students at the community college level.
A Brief Review of the Research:
There are several examples that support the benefit of college students completing life skills coursework. Let me highlight just a few. Sung-Woo Chi and Melinda Karp published a study in 2013 that demonstrated that, “Students who enrolled in a student success course in the first semester were more likely to earn any college level credits within the first year and were more likely to persist to the second year. The study also finds that students who were referred to developmental education were more likely to earn any college-level credits within the first year if they enrolled in a student success course in their first term.”[i]
Schnell and Doetkott discovered that students who completed a freshman seminar persisted in greater numbers than those who did not take the seminar.[ii]
A. Michael Williford, Laura Cross Chapman, and Tammy Kahrig conducted a longitudinal study covering ten years at Ohio University to evaluate the effects of orientation classes on student performance, retention and graduation. “In most years of the study, participating students’ year-end GPAs were higher than nonparticipants, retention rates were higher, and four-, five-, and six-year graduation rates were higher.”[iii]
Dr. Patricia Windham at the Florida Department of Education studied the impact of life skills classes, SLS courses, on students. This study is one of the more relevant studies in determining the benefit of SLS classes on student success in college, and similar to the study that I conducted. Those students who completed a SLS course were compared to those students who did not. Those who completed the SLS courses were more likely to achieve one of the following three indicators of success: earning a community college credential, transferring to the state university system, or remaining enrolled in college after five years.[iv]
A report released in 2005 by the Division of Community College’s and Workforce Education and the Office of Student and Academic Success indicated that the academic success rates for students who had completed life skills coursework, identified as SLS classes, when compared to students who had not taken life skills classes, were more successful. The study was based upon 36,000 community college students, 1,300 were Santa Fe College students. Academic success was determined by continued enrollment, transfer to other colleges, and student awards.
Design of the Study:
All students who matriculated in the fall semester of 2008 at Santa Fe College and who were not transferring into Santa Fe College from another institution were followed for five years through the spring of 2013 to determine their graduation rates. Students were not randomly assigned to this study, but every student in the college meeting the requirements of the population being studied were included in the study. A five year span was chosen because of the varying characteristics of community college students, many of whom attend college part time because of their ages, backgrounds and employment situations. The specific dates for this five year span were chosen because the study ended before the change initiated by the Florida legislature affecting developmental education coursework was implemented. The number of students in this study who met the criteria was 2,135 individuals. One cohort was comprised of all students who never enrolled in a life skills course at Santa Fe College. The courses identified for the purpose of this study were from the department of Student Development Instruction. Those courses were: SLS1101 – College Success, SLS1260 – Basic Leadership Skills, SLS 1269 –Introduction to Personal Leadership, SLS1301 – Life and Career Development, SLS1531 – Standards of Academic Progress, SLS1601 – Living Effectively, and SLS2261 – Leadership Development Studies. A second cohort comprised those students who had successfully completed one SLS course, and a third cohort were those students who successfully completed two or more SLS courses. Successful completion was defined by the student earning a grade of “C” or better. This study also reviewed the impact of students who were taking college preparatory classes as well. The graduation rates of the various groups were determined and compared with each other. While many factors may affect graduation rates, keeping the primary variable single and simple over the entire population would minimize the effects of those other potential confounding variables.
The Results of the Study:
The graduation rates of these cohorts demonstrated that those who successfully completed SLS classes had a much higher graduation rate than those who did not. The graduation percentages are listed as follows:
Without an With one With one or more With two or more
SLS class SLS class SLS classes SLS classes
Total Students 1,166 703 969 266
Number Graduating 374 290 436 146
Percent graduating 32.08% 41.25% 44.99% 54.89%
Comparisons were also made with those students in developmental education classes, and the impact of SLS courses on their graduation rates. This is particularly relevant because many students in what are called prep classes also take SLS courses. Of the 2,135 students in the study 810 graduated. What impact did those SLS classes have on graduation rates of prep students? Those prep students in each cohort who completed SLS coursework comprised a greater percent of the graduates in each cohort.
Students without Students with Students with Students with
SLS class one SLS class one or more two or more
SLS classes SLS classes
The percent of students 34.21% 36.69% 39.73% 47.74%
who were prep students
Total number of students 374 290 436 146
Students who were in 47 57 106 49
prep classes who graduated
Percentage of the graduates 12.56% 19.65% 24.31% 33.56%
who were prep students
Percentage of prep students 11.78% 22.09% 27.53% 38.58%
who graduated from the
population of prep students
The two cohorts comprising students who took one or more SLS classes had much higher graduation rates than the cohort where students took no SLS classes. While the percentage of students who completed one SLS class was 9.17% greater than students who did not complete any SLS classes, the statistical increase for students completing one SLS class was 28.58%. While the percentage of students who completed two or more SLS classes was 22.81% greater than students who did not complete any SLS classes, the statistical increase for students completing two or more SLS classes was 71.10%. These numbers are very significant. Even more significant is the fact that the cohort where students took two or more SLS classes had a much higher percentage of students who were enrolled in prep classes, and yet still had much higher graduation rates. This was in spite of their initial educational deficit. Furthermore, the more SLS classes one completed, the higher the graduation rate. I once heard it said that SLS classes should be few and limited because students may take more SLS classes as electives, and not take a more “academic” curriculum. However, the evidence indicates that taking more than one SLS class will actually increase graduation rates even further. Therefore, providing multiple, attractive, and varied course offerings in Student Development Instruction is not a negative practice, but quite the contrary, a significant benefit to the student success and graduation rates. Moreover, SLS classes had a very positive effect on students in developmental education classes. In the cohort where students enrolled in no SLS classes, the percentage of those students who were in prep classes, and who graduated in that cohort was much less than the percentages of prep students who graduated in the two cohorts who did take SLS classes, demonstrating that one, and more importantly, more than one SLS class produced better graduation rates for those students in developmental education programs.
[i] Sung-Woo Chi and Melinda Mechur, Student Success Courses in the Community College: Early Enrollment and Educational Outcomes, Karp Community College Review 2013 41:86; originally published 11 January 2013
[ii] Schnell, C. A., Seashore Louis, K., & Doetkott, C., The First-Year Seminar as a Means of Improving College Graduation Rates, Journal of the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, 15 (1), 53-75
|[iii] A. Michael Williford, Laura Cross Chapman, and Tammy Kahrig , The University Experience Course: A Longitudinal Study of Student Performance, Retention, and Graduation; Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory and Practice, Volume 2, Number 4 / 2000-2001, pages 327-340|
[iv] Florida Department of Education. (2006). Taking Student Life Skills Course Increases Academic Success. Data Trend # 31, Tallahassee: Author. Available online at: