Increasing Student Success

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

I write this week’s commentary from beautiful Hilton Head, South Carolina, where we are hosting our fall Retention Retreat. Not a bad gig, I must say. Most interesting is to hear stories from our participants, who hail from over 25 institutions across the US and Canada, from two-year, four-year, and proprietary institutions.

This is the choir, of course. The people who are here are those who believe in what they do and have some responsibility on campus to change the trajectory of student success. As I mentioned in my opening comments on Thursday, the easy part is coming to Hilton Head to learn about student retention. The hard part starts next week when they’re back in reality; when they must answer the difficult questions about what they should do to increase student retention and persistence.

Some of our attendees have been told to “solve’ the institution’s retention problem. Others are trying to be more proactive and get ahead of the game. We have dozens of TRIO Student Support Services people here. It’s refreshing to hear of institutions giving these TRIO directors a leadership role on campus, because they have been doing many of the right things for a long time. The trick is to expand SSS from 200 to 2,000 students.

At our Retention Retreats, we often, if not always, get the “silver bullet” question. That is, tell us the one thing we need to do to increase student retention; give us the easy answer and make “this” go away, or show us an institution that we can model. Unfortunately, the retention game isn’t so simple. George Kuh and his co-authors of Student Success, their 2005 book describing 20 successful schools, make the very astute comment that all 20 schools achieved success in very different ways. There is no easy way; no simple solution. Achieving success in student retention is about gaining collective buy-in that something must be done, followed by a process of investigation of what works on their campus, where they need improvement, and mapping a plan for making it happens. Not easy work.

To that end, we are in the final stages of developing the Institutional Student Retention Assessment (ISRA), funded by Lumina Foundation for Education and currently in beta testing. This web-based instrument will guide institutional teams through a process of self-analysis and documentation to better understand what they currently do for students and where they could improve. It also will help them prioritize strategies and activities, because, quite simply, one can’t do it all. But institutions must start somewhere. We hope the ISRA, a free resource to institutions coming January 2007, will help in that regard.

It is refreshing to hear of the newfound understanding of the importance of serving students well and graduating them. This, to me, is a positive change in the past decade that I trust will continue to grow over the next few years.

At this October’s meeting, some of the “best practices” offered by institutions include supplemental instruction, small learning communities, student tracking systems, and invasive counseling. The challenges, of course, are diverse. We are hearing from commuter institutions, especially two-year institutions, who only see students for classroom time–then they’re gone. How does an institution engage students who aren’t there but for perhaps a couple of hours a day or week? Others institutions are fighting the “resource” issue: having the funding to make necessary changes.

We certainly don’t have all the answers, but we do try to put participants through a process of how to think through these issues; how to build consensus on campus on what the challenges are and what can be done to ameliorate these issues.

We remind people to visit our sister site,, for information about student retention. Enjoy your weekend.

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