Purdue News

April 4, 2006

Study: Grief has impact on college students' academic performance

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — A recent study by a Purdue University researcher found that college students who experience the death of a family member or friends also experience a corresponding drop in academic performance during the semester the loss takes place.

Heather Servaty-Seib, an assistant professor of education, studied 227 Purdue students who had experienced such a death sometime between the summer/fall of 2001 and the end of the spring 2004 semester. All bereaved undergraduates had significantly lower grade-point averages than a comparative group of students.

Results of the study are published in the March/April edition of the Journal of College Student Development. The study was funded by a Purdue Research Foundation summer grant.

Servaty-Seib conducted the research with Lou Ann Hamilton, a counselor in Purdue's Office of the Dean of Students. They compared the academic data for the death-loss group to a comparative sample of students for the corresponding semesters.

The comparison group was selected from a list generated by the registrar's office of 227 students matched as closely as possible to the bereaved students based on sex, age, race, entering SAT score, grade-point average, semester of study and area of study.

The bereaved students were identified through their contact with staff at the Office of the Dean of Students. Some made the contact themselves; others made contact through either a staff member or a family member.

Just under half of the bereaved students studied had experienced the death of a parent, and about 22 percent had a grandparent who died. The precise dates of deaths were not collected, but the researchers note that it is likely the deaths near the time contact was made with the dean of students' office.

Among first-year male students who experienced a death, the mean grade-point average was 2.41 during the semester of the death, while their male peers had a mean GPA of 2.74. Among first-year females during the semester of the loss, the mean GPA of the bereaved students was 2.73, compared to 2.83 among the non-bereaved students.

First-year males in the bereaved group completed a mean of 14.34 credit hours the semester of the death loss, while the comparative group completed 14.64 credit hours. Among first-year females who experienced a death, the mean was 14.21, whereas their counterparts completed 14.84 credit hours. College courses generally are three credit hours each.

The study also examined whether the death affected students' overall academic standing. During the semester of death, 46 bereaved students were identified as honors students, compared to 57 students in the peer group. About the same number of bereaved and non-bereaved students were determined to have satisfactory standing. Slightly more bereaved students were deemed as "problematic" students, but Servaty-Seib said the difference was statistically insignificant.

Problematic students were defined as those on probation, who had dropped or withdrawn from classes, had taken incompletes in classes or had transferred.

In contrast to the semester in which the death occurred, the semester following the loss showed little difference in academic performance or academic standing between the bereaved and non-bereaved students.

"I didn't anticipate that the semester of the death loss would be the only semester where a difference emerged," Servaty-Seib said. "We have to keep in mind, however, that the analysis of the data in the semester following the death loss was done with only those bereaved students who persisted in their studies. It is possible that this result is affected by this fact."

She said the findings emphasize the importance of identifying and serving bereaved students in the semester of the loss and not waiting until later.

Servaty-Seib said grief can affect students' academic performance in a number of ways.

"It's the combination of grief interfering with the ability to concentrate and perform," she said. "It's important to remember that grief is not purely emotional. There are serious cognitive effects as well."

She noted that past research suggests that 22 percent to 30 percent of college undergraduates are likely to have experienced a death of a family member or a friend in the previous year, and 35 percent to 48 percent are likely to be in their first 24 months of grieving.

"In terms of their life phase, those numbers are not surprising," Servaty-Seib said. "The parents of many of today's college students waited longer to have children, and the natural effect is that there will be older parents and grandparents who are more likely to die when their children or grandchildren are of college age."

Servaty-Seib said these findings will be useful for universities as they consider how to help these students.

"College campuses can be difficult places to experience grief," she said. "It's important for faculty and staff to acknowledge the emotional and cognitive effect that experiencing a death loss has on students. With greater acknowledgement, students are likely to feel greater support, experience less isolation and, therefore, function more effectively."

Writer: Kim Medaris, (765) 494-6998, kmedaris@purdue.edu

Sources: Heather Servaty-Seib, (765) 494-0837, servaty@purdue.edu

Lou Ann Hamilton, (765) 494-1252, lahamilton@purdue.edu

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu



Educational Performance and Persistence
of Bereaved College Students

Heather Servaty-Seib and Lou Ann Hamilton

At any one point in time, 22-30% of college under- graduates are likely to have experienced a death loss in the previous 12-month period (Balk, 2001). Anecdotal evidence and intuitive impressions suggest that bereaved college students are at risk for academic difficulties and dropout (Balk, 2001; Rickman, 1996; Toth, Stockton & Browne, 2000). However, empirical research on this topic is lacking. Before universities can initiate interventions targeted at fostering the academic success of bereaved college students, determining whether or not this population is at risk for academic problems is necessary. Tinto (1975; 1993) described the process of dropout as a longitudinal one in which students cyclically evaluate their commitment to their academic goals and to the institution they are attending. According to Tinto (1975), the outcome of this evaluation (e.g. dropout vs. persist) hinges upon the level of both academic and social integration experienced by students. He acknowledged that "very frequently, events in the social system external to the college can affect integration within the more limited social and academic systems of the college" (p. 97). The impact of a death loss on academic and social integration acts as a catalyst for students to re-evaluate their commitments and may lead to decreased educational performance, academic probation, academic dismissal or voluntary withdrawal. Results from our study of 227 bereaved college students indicated that they exhibited lower GPAs during the semester of their death loss than a group of 227 matched "control" participants (matched as closely as possible on sex, age, race, entering SAT, semester of study, and school of study). Bereaved college students were, statistically speaking, no more or less likely to exhibit satisfactory, honors or problematic academic standing during the semester of their death loss than those in the matched group. However, the frequencies were in the anticipated direction, with bereaved students less likely to be recognized with honors and more likely to be identified with a problematic academic standing. The current findings provide empirical support for intuitive impressions that bereaved college students are at risk for decreased academic performance and substantiate arguments that colleges and universities should intervene on behalf of bereaved students (Balk, 2001; Rickman, 1996; Wrenn, 1999).


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