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Student Retention (and Success): Effective Programs, Interventions, and Strategies

Faculty Development Students

Student Retention (and Success): Effective Programs, Interventions, and Strategies

Student Retention and Success

In the last issue of Academic Leader, I discussed the reasons student retention is important to colleges and universities and to the institutional individuals who are responsible for assuring that the issue is addressed. In this article, I present an outline of specific campus-level programs that have proven or have strong potential to be efficacious in increasing retention and other performance metrics of success (e.g., GPA) at an urban, public campus.

It is important to note that not all interventions described will be effective on every campus due to variations in student culture, other institutional support available, and the way interventions are locally applied. Student retention is a complex issue that does not necessarily respond to a single intervention. Thus, institutions that wish to increase retention should be prepared to implement several interventions to effectively solve problems

We have reviewed several of the programs described. However, since that time, combinations of interventions and additional programs have been developed. In addition, we have obtained new data that identify other factors as contributing elements to low retention.

 Institutional context

Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) is an urban, public research university formed in 1969 that has struggled with low retention for much of its history. The reasons for this are many and include the lack of a community college (until 2002), thus making IUPUI open admissions; a low percentage of adults holding college degrees (a low value placed on higher education); and students who worked more hours and had greater family responsibilities than those from peer institutions. Much has changed at IUPUI. The heavy lifting on improving retention has been done by the University College (UC) through the development of and experimentation with retention strategies both alone and in collaboration with academic units. The UC serves as the portal of entry to campus for all students and serves as the home for exploratory students, students who do not meet the admissions standards of their intended schools, and students whose schools do not admit freshmen.


FLAGS is anearly warning system that plays two roles at IUPUI. It plays a compliance role by verifying the attendance of students receiving federal financial aid. This provides information on student performance early in the semester. Those who are not making progress receive contacts referring them to tutors, advisors, and so on. FLAGS is a work in progress with 60 to 90 percent of course sections reporting. Part of the issue is that faculty must administer a quiz or make and grade an assignment early in the semester, and that is not routinely how most courses are structured. In addition, feedback to faculty on the outcome of the student contact is missing. Once these issues are resolved, we can determine FLAGS’s efficacy in terms of a comparison of the outcomes of those who take advantage of the intervention to those who do not. In a limited study in a mathematics course, the pass rate among those who attended tutoring was significantly higher.


Themed Learning Communities (TLCs)

TLCs are composed of three to five courses that include a First Year Experience seminar and are linked through a common theme. This requires collaboration among instructors to cross-emphasize information, establish common topics scheduled for discussions, and generate assignments that support the theme. The seminar component is a team taught by a faculty member, a librarian, an advisor, and a peer mentor. Those students who have yet to select a career path might choose a TLC called Exploring Majors, Careers, the Real World and YOU!, would-be doctors might select Molecules to Medicine, whereas those suffering from a “Gaga” moment can enroll in Baby I Was Born This Way (Human Anatomy and Intro. Psychology).

TLCs have shown efficacy in improving student course performance and retention. Over a nine-year period ending in 2015, TLCs showed an average annual gain in retention of 1.6 percent. In 2014 and 2015, the average GPA of students enrolled in TLCs increased by 0.07 (n = 859) and 0.09 (n = 833), respectively, compared to those not enrolled in TLCs (n = 2,212 and 2,480). Of particular interest is the fact that TLCs have a disproportionately positive impact on African Americans (+18 percent in retention and 0.41 in GPA) and low-income (Pell Grant–eligible) students (+5 percent in retention and 0.23 in GPA) but showed no effect on Hispanic students.

Recently, the UC has combined TLCs with a high-impact practice, Service Learning (SL), to achieve even more impressive gains in retention and student success. In 2104 and 2015, students enrolled in TLCs with SL earned GPAs that were 0.19 and 0.11 higher and were retained at 3 percent and 8 percent higher rates, respectively, than those in TLCs alone. A differential impact of TLCs plus SL was noted for African American (4 percent retention gain but no GPA gain) and low-income students (no retention gain with an increased GPA of 0.15), whereas the interventions together had no effect on Hispanic student retention or GPA.

 Summer Bridge

The Summer Bridge (SB) sessions, offered over eight days in the two weeks prior to the start of the semester, are designed to create a smooth transition to college and facilitate student connections to faculty, staff, and other students. Topics covered include team building, campus writing, IT, support, as well as  time, stress and money management.

SB raises the retention of all students but is particularly effective on African American students (Fall 2105 cohort was retained on campus at 74 percent, whereas nonparticipants were retained at 52 percent). When combined with a TLC (maintaining the same student cohorts) retention and GPA (75 percent, 2.94) were raised beyond the values for TLCs (70 percent, 2.82) or SB (72 percent, 2.76) alone.

 21st Century Scholars Success Program

In 1990, the Indiana legislature established the 21st Century Scholars Program (21CSSP) as a way to make college affordable for low-income families. Potential recipients were identified in middle school and were guaranteed 15 free credits of enrollment per semester for four years at an Indiana public university or community college if they graduate from high school with a minimum GPA of 2.0 and maintain at least a 2.0 while in college. In addition, IUPUI provides a $2,000 grant to all eligible scholars to reduce their unmet financial need. Students must maintain a minimum GPA of 2.5 to continue receiving the grant.

A significant improvement in outcomes resulted from refining the programming to provide tutoring, peer mentoring, career advising, personal enrichment opportunities, social activities, and an expectation of participation in SB. The data indicate that those who participated in peer mentoring or SB are retained at higher rates (by 15 percent in 2103 and 12 percent in 2014). Overall, despite having lower GPAs and SAT scores and more first-generation and minority students, the 21CS cohort reached a retention rate in 2014 that was only 2 percent lower than that of the general population at IUPUI. Another recent finding is the importance of fiscal resources, as the $2,000 grant plays a role in the increased retention of these students.

Finally, it is worth reporting on an experimental intervention conducted using 21CSs who registered too late to be eligible for SB and peer mentoring. IUPUI has data showing that late registration is linked to nonsuccess, thus making this group of students very high risk. Inside Track Coaching is a collaborative effort among the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, the local community college, and IUPUI. An Inside Track coach scheduled phone conversations, engaged in text messaging, and even had occasional face-to-face meetings with 100 21CS students to discuss topics such as adjustment to college and any obstacles the students were experiencing. The coach would refer the student to the appropriate university person/office for assistance. When matched by academic preparation, ethnicity, income level, no mentoring, or SB to similar-sized groups of 21CS students from recent years, coaching delivered gains in retention (13 percent over one year) and GPA (average of 0.12 over two years).

 Diversity Enrichment and Achievement Program

The Diversity Enrichment and Achievement Program (DEAP) is available to all students but was designed for and is almost exclusively populated by African American and Hispanic students. To get these at-risk students off to a good start they are provided with a $500 scholarship to attend SB. DEAP students must commit to participate in two, two-hour study tables (or equivalent) per week, four personal development workshops per year, and monthly group meetings. In addition, they are required to have weekly contacts with their peer mentors. The program offers holistic support and is attentive to the academic, social, and personal needs of the students.

Because the program is new, there are few students who have participated in it, and statistical significance is problematic. However, there are definite and positive trends within the data thus far collected. Included are trends showing increased retention and GPA gains along with a lower percentage of students earning GPAs below 2.0 (the latter was a statistically significant finding).

The quest at IUPUI to improve performance metrics is far from over, and new approaches are regularly under development and revision. Faculty and staff are expected to provide support and be committed to increasing the prospects for student success.


Thanks to Dr. Michele Hansen of Institutional Research and Decision Support (IRDS) for sharing these research reports and to the faculty and staff of the University College who work tirelessly on behalf of our students.


Lees, N. D. 2017. “Student Retention: Understanding Its Importance and Identifying the Intervention Team.” Academic Leader, 33(5): x-y.

Atkinson, S. and Lees, N. D. 2015. “Creating and Supporting Best Practices in Student Retention.” Academic Chairpersons Conference Proceedings, 65: 11 pgs. http://newprairiepress.org/accp/2015/Trends/3/

N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is associate dean for planning and finance, professor, and former chair of biology at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.

David J. Malik, PhD, is special advisor to academic affairs and institutional improvement and former chief academic officer (Indiana University Northwest), dean, and chair at IUPUI.



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