Researcher Insights: Publications with a Purpose

Ryan Leibowitz is an SMU graduate student studying Applied Statistics and Data Analytics and serves as the graduate research assistant within the RLSH’s Office of Academic Initiatives. He began researching with the Academic Initiatives program during his undergraduate career at SMU. 

“What drew me to this team was the ability to use my data analysis skills from my statistics courses and writing skills from my University Honors Program (UHP) courses to produce original research and ultimately, improve the experience for those living on campus,” Leibowitz said.

This year, Leibowitz is working on two research projects: one with Engage Dallas, the other studying the reasons students depart SMU before graduation.

Engage Dallas, the Residential Commons-based service and community engagement initiative recently completed its first year of operation. SMU created the program to represent its commitment to addressing community needs in South and West Dallas. Engage Dallas is student-led and partners with local residents, organizations, and other leaders to positively impact the community. With the program now in full swing, Leibowitz’s team is conducting research “evaluating the impacts of Engage Dallas on participants and student leaders.”

“We are hoping that this study will help us illustrate the impacts that place-based community engagement can have on the campus community,” Leibowitz said.

The research sub-team for this project includes Leibowitz, Dr. Dustin Grabsch, Dr. Caitlin Anderson, and Jennifer Ebinger, and is housed within the larger Engage Dallas implementation team on campus. This supplemental research arose with the holistic development of the Engage Dallas program. 

“When Engage Dallas was conceptualized, one of its main tenets was equal emphasis on campus and community impact,” Leibowitz said. “As Engage Dallas came into being, we realized that we wanted to measure its effects on both the students participating in community service and the student leaders directing the service to quantify its impact on campus.”

The team hopes to expand upon this project and develop new research studies concerning the impact of Engage Dallas on the community in the future. 

The second project, which is in its final stages, worked to “characterize non-returning college students and their Departure intentions.” In other words, understand why students left SMU before they graduated. 

“This research will help us recommend improvements to institutional practices at SMU  – and other universities – to improve the student experience,” Leibowitz said. 

The research team for this project consisted of Leibowitz, Dr. Grabsch, Zak Waddell, Dedeepya Chinnam, Lauren O’Brien, Caroline Kirschner, and Michelle Madsen. The group derived this project from another study that looked at the motivations of students who leave SMU, and the need to categorize these students based on why they left. 

“Prior to 2019, when an academic success office was created, university forms that documented student reasons for departing campus were not widely circulated and so this project was focused on improving data collection and organization practices that were started in recent years,” Leibowitz said. 

The team hopes that the study’s findings will aid SMU and other institutions in decreasing student attrition and providing more resources to students on campus. 

“The main conclusions we’ve drawn from this study are that it is necessary to divide non-returning students into subpopulations based on departure intentions; certain student demographic groups experience disproportionate numbers of non-returning students, and it is essential to capture student voice through intentionality-focused questions at the time of departure,” said Leibowitz.

The original study covered student attrition and the reasons why these students left SMU was accepted and published within the Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory, and Practice on Thanksgiving Day. 

I’m so excited to have a project accepted for publication because our team spent a lot of time over the summer working through data, and it feels good to see our results recognized by the higher education community,” Leibowitz said. Overall, the research Leibowitz is involved with on-campus contributes to a greater purpose of improving the SMU student experience.