Educational Administration, Department of


First Advisor

Barbara LaCost

Date of this Version



Hanamaikai, N. K. K. (2016). Critical college experiences of the middle third of the high school graduating class (Doctoral dissertation).


A DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Major: Educational Studies (Educational Leadership and Higher Education), Under the Supervision of Professor Barbara LaCost, Lincoln, Nebraska: October, 2016

Copyright 2016 Nathan Kaoru Keikiokamakua Hanamaikai


Seven recent graduates from a large, open access university in the Western United States who also graduated from high school in the middle third of their graduating class were interviewed to examine what they considered critical decisions during college and what effect those decisions had on their progress towards graduation. More than 45 critical incidents were identified by the participants. All incidents involved interaction with another person to some degree. All but 11 of the incidents were with people outside of institutional employees. Of the 11 incidents, the majority involved faculty members in either positive or negative situations. Upon further review, 301 experiences were identified by the researcher, but these were not deliberately identified by the participants as critical incidents. These experiences impacted the collegiate experience of each participant and will, therefore, be discussed in the present study.

An incident of falling out of a moving vehicle is used as a metaphor to highlight the subtleties in the differences between staying in college and dropping out. The behaviors exhibited by the participants as they described them are compared. Four basic themes of critical incidents emerged: basic needs, type and nature of experiences, common participant traits shown through the experiences, and short- and long-term effects of their individual experiences. Participants were found to share two common needs, experience six types of incidents, and express two common personality traits that appeared to have an impact on their decision-making processes and outcomes. The effects of the decisions fell into four categories. Three of these categories are short-term and one is long-term in nature.

To summarize the relationship of these findings, three key drivers are identified. Careful examination of these drivers indicates that middle-performing students tend to be motivated to have a personalized educational experience or no experience at all. Because of this dichotomy, these drivers directly influence retention and completion among this group.

Finally, potential implications for institutional funding, academic advisement, retention and completion initiatives, and campus-wide interventions driven by staff and faculty are discussed.

Advisor: Barbara LaCost