Student Retention: Understanding Its Importance and Identifying the Intervention Team
In the past, student retention was a concern primarily at institutions where rates of retention were at the low end of the spectrum. These institutions were mostly urban public universities and community colleges. In recent years, however, other institutions have focused on student retention as a result of the increased expectations of higher education accountability and resource restrictions. This renewed interest is exemplified by the number of sessions on student retention that were on the agenda of the 2016 CCAS (Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences) annual meeting. Examination of the content of those sessions reveals that the newcomers have learned much from the pioneering work done by urban publics to improve retention.
The root causes of low retention are many and varied, as are the potential interventions needed to make real progress toward improving retention rates. In examining the rosters of freshman classes of urban public and community colleges, one finds significant numbers of students who enter higher education academically underprepared, as are first-generation students who are members of underrepresented groups and those who have complex lives compared to freshmen attending State U. These varying features make it a challenge to develop programs and interventions to improve retention in significant ways.
Academic preparation issues like low high-school grades and test scores might be addressed in a variety of ways that combine developmental course work, special programs, alternative classroom pedagogies, and additional sessions beyond the classroom that are sometimes led by students who have been successful in overcoming their own lack of preparation.
The barriers to success that exist for underrepresented minority and first-generation students require different sets of interventions that may include acculturation to higher education regarding expectations, strong mentoring support, firm accountability, and appropriate cocurricular programs that support identity.
Finally, the idea of complex lives boils down to having the appropriate monetary resources to attend school and meet personal obligations. For some of our students, this may mean supporting their own families or helping with the care of siblings and/or parents. In addition, need-based aid rarely covers 100 percent of the cost of attendance. The resulting pressures translate into the necessity for outside work that distracts students from giving their best efforts in the classroom. Intervention here could involve exploring further financial aid opportunities, on-campus work, personal fiscal counseling, and social agency referral.
What are the institutional rewards for successfully tackling this thorny issue? Once the institution has made initial investments and put successful interventions in place, it should see some monetary rewards. Greater success means more students continuing to years two, three, and four. A 5 percent increase in retention at an institution with a freshman class of 3,000 and tuition of $15,000 per year could (assuming persistence to graduation and no tuition discounting) generate over $6.5 million in additional revenue. In addition, there are indirect ways that improved retention can help the institutional bottom line. Poor retention results in the need to recruit more students in the next cycle. Because student recruitment is a competitive enterprise, the institution must go deeper into the talent pool to make its enrollment number.
Improved retention rates will lead to better rankings and improved reputation. The organizations that rank US colleges and universities use retention and graduation rates as measures of institutional performance. Needless to say, a poor retention rate pretty much dooms the graduation rates.
Improving retention can also raise local credibility. It is easier to speak before an audience of potential students and their parents and say that the former dismal retention rate is now 15 points better and still improving than to avoid the subject or minimize the importance of the data. Enhanced reputation and positive visibility of local good work can impact student recruitment and elevate the quality of the student body.
The final reward for taking on low retention is knowing you are doing the “right thing.” When we offer admission to our campus, we are saying that we believe that the student can be successful. Further, when a student is admitted with marginal credentials or is otherwise seen to be “at risk,” it seems we are obligated to do what is necessary to ensure the student’s success. Otherwise, we are violating the public’s trust by accepting their tuition (paid by students, their families, or state and federal government) when we are not committed to doing our best to help and support them.
These rewards have been prominent drivers of student retention for years. Recent changes have resulted in additional incentives for higher education to expand the focus on student retention. These inducements are the result of increased resource restrictions and increased accountability, and they may account for institutions that previously were not recognized as having a retention problem now developing programs to improve their numbers. Such institutions still have room for improvement in retention, and they recognize that even small movements of the needle can generate significant income. The income driver is further accentuated by many states adopting performance-based funding for public universities. In many cases, the fiscal rewards are based on degree growth and student persistence, both of which are negatively impacted by low retention rates.
A final consideration for higher education in the retention arena is student debt. While it is unfortunate that some students with four-year degrees and the debt to go with them seem destined to have jobs with salaries that make it difficult to pay back loans, it is quite another thing for a student to leave with no degree and still have loan payments.
Launching an initiative to combat poor retention rates requires strong leadership from campus administration, on-the-ground participation from faculty, the oversight of deans, and the critical work of chairs in selling the importance of retention to the faculty and in orchestrating campus-wide and department-level programs and interventions. In addition, there should be mobilization of members of the student services staff, including advisors. The process is usually headed by the provost, who consults with key deans to identify faculty and chairs from departments that have large enrollment introductory classes to form the retention committee. It is critical that this working group be composed of faculty and chairs who see the big picture and are widely known and respected as excellent campus citizens. An important outcome of the first meeting is the announcement of the investment that campus will make in the project. If this meeting were to have taken place 20 years ago, the support pledge would have been a general one because there were few proven strategies to combat low retention, thus requiring grassroots ideas and real experimentation. Today the announcement may be that certain widely proven strategies will be a major part of what will be piloted locally.
It is important to recognize that programs associated with retention may not work equally well across all institutions. This is due to differing institutional and student cultures; the availability, or lack thereof, of other support programs; and the subtleties of implementation. Thus, retention programs often require local testing and tinkering. If positive trends do not emerge after two or three tries, it may be wise to move to something else. Finally, the individual or committee that selects interventions and programs for pilot funding should choose the best ideas that spring from the faculty. Doing so demonstrates institutional confidence in the faculty and their ideas that could be tomorrow’s best practices. Faculty ownership will also foster the scholarship aspect of this work, including grant writing.
The role of department chairs is essential to the success of the project. From day one to completion, they must be well versed in the necessity and advantages of the project and must be public champions for the work being done locally. For that first campus meeting, the chair should formally invite those faculty members who teach those large beginning classes to attend. This sends a message of importance about the work to be done and sets a level of accountability for its outcome.
Chairs must also “sell” the project to the faculty who will not be actively engaged yet. Those teaching at the upper undergraduate and graduate levels may be critical of the dollars being spent on those students in the margins and may even question why those students were admitted in the first place. Chairs should be able provide the rationale and justification for these expenditures. Having these conversations early should alleviate any negative impact that these criticisms may have on those doing the heavy lifting. What may be helpful, in addition to the “invest now and generate more income later” reasoning, would be for chairs to negotiate a revenue-sharing plan that would generate, for successful departments, base support for conference travel or for graduate student support. Improving student success can be a win-win situation for all.
This article is the first part of a two-part series on undergraduate student retention. Part two, appearing in the June issue, will describe programs and interventions that have significantly increased retention at an urban public institution.
N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is associate dean for planning and finance, professor, and former chair of biology at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.