So, You Want to Increase Student Retention?

By Dr. Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scientist, Educational Policy Institute

We talk with people at campuses across the US about issues related to student retention and success. Over the years, we have worked with thousands of people and hundreds of institutions. Everyone, to the person, wants to see their retention, persistence, and graduation rates increase.

Rarely do they succeed.

If everyone is so driven to make this work, why doesn’t it happen? Here are five observations from my experience which curtail our ability to collectively and individually impact the retention of students in our system.


The Issues are Deep and Intractable

Some students do not persist because they do not take their studies very seriously. They have too much fun, do not study hard enough, ditch classes. They aren’t “college” students. And while individuals like this are the easy target for blame, they represent a remotely small minority of the student population. If we could make everyone more serious about college, we would perhaps see a bump of 0.2 percent in retention rates.

The real issue is the years of below-par learning that hinders many students. They are educated, but they aren’t college-ready educated. According to ACT, only 38 percent of high school graduates met at least three of the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in the four core subject areas.[1] And the readiness levels in math and English have been on a steady decline since 2014. One perspective would be of a deficit model, but the reality is that if these students are enrolled at your institution, you are responsible for getting them to the end.

Fixing the educational pipeline will take decades and decades, and that won’t really fix it; we might improve it, but there will always be those who have a better education and better opportunities than others. What institutions must do is identify students with academic issues at the start and provide the necessary supports to help them succeed. If the institution isn’t willing to pull out the stops for that level of intrusive support, then they shouldn’t admit those students. (See “Culture” later).


Students Aren’t Always the Best Self-Advocates

It’s true. Most students are not taught to be good advocates for themselves or for those in their inner circle. They do not always ask for help when they need. This was the central thesis in Uri Treisman’s work on the Emerging Scholars Program, which worked to get students out of their isolation and create learning communities.

Similarly, institutions need to work with students to get them to understand the opportunities and supports that the institution has available. There is a bit of a marketing edge, here, and the institution must understand that simply creating solutions doesn’t mean that they are solutions. They are, at best, strategies to help students succeed. But if students don’t know about them or aren’t aggressively encouraged to use them, they are empty solutions.

Part of creating great students is about teaching them to be their own best advocates. If we truly believe in holistic learning and subscribe to the philosophy that a higher education is about the whole person, then we must color outside the lines of our syllabi. If we want our youth to grow, then we need to help point the way to success by establishing clear pathways along the way.


Institutions Aren’t Very Good Learning Organizations

Everyone knows this and it hurts to offer, but institutions of higher education are horrible learning organizations. The case in point is how much we do things differently than we did 10, 20, or 30 years ago. Not very much, which isn’t the sign of an effective learning organization. Colleges and universities are cut up into sections so they are both more manageable and also more focused on their uniqueness. They are separated mostly by their professions, although not exclusively. This makes sense. But it also makes it difficult to create change at the institutional level, and student success is about the institution. Sure, it is about the departments or faculties, but I’ve always found that student success was a campus-wide product. There are variances between departments, but mostly, the issues and challenges are mostly similar and need to be tackled in unison, not in seclusion, much like Uri Treisman found. There is strength in numbers and it comes from working together in a coordinated pathway to success.


Institutions Focus on the Wrong Targets

Institutions do not always identify the right targets for student retention and success. I often encounter arbitrary targets for both retention and graduation rates used for grant applications or simply for organizational improvement, and it is sometimes horrifying to see the targets that leadership creates; targets that are simply unattainable in the best situation, and considering that the issues of retention and graduation challenges are not best situations, this is problematic. It is imperative that institutions first identify where the major issues are; that is, where are students leaking out of the system. Most often, for example, the gatekeeper courses are a main culprit. If students cannot get through the gatekeepers, they cannot graduate. Thus, the answer must be simplify and water down the content, right? No. That’s what some faculty members would like us believe we are trying to do, but that isn’t the goal at all. The goal is multi-fold. First, figure out how the content can be taught in a fashion where more students can comprehend and learn the information. This requires rethinking of pedagogy as well as an important second step: create safety nets for student success. Tutoring, mentoring, lab work, learning communities, Supplemental Instruction: whatever is necessary to provide broader support so that students can learn. Remember, students aren’t typically their own best advocates. Thus, make the pathway to success vivid and easy to see. Finally, review gatekeeper courses and valuate which courses should really be part of the core. I find it ridiculous that an Arts major needs to take a mathematics class. Sure, holistic learning, I get it. But some people aren’t good at math and never will be. So let’s not put up an incredibly arbitrary barrier to success. Reading? Yes, everyone needs reading and comprehension skills. Math or bio? No. Just not so. Keep that for those who need math and bio skills. And this is coming from a math guy.


Installing a New Culture of Excellence

Some campuses have a learning and high-level culture that permeates the college. You sense it. You feel it. You know it. There is no magic wand or silver bullet to make this happen; it is cultivated over decades, if not centuries. But you can strategize and work towards improving your culture today. It starts somewhere, and it can start now. The central tenet of a positive culture is high expectations. This doesn’t simply mean raising the bar and letting students sink or swim. It is about raising expectations and ensuring that the supports are in place so that students can meet those expectations. Changing culture is sending a clear message to students, faculty, and staff that everyone matters and we all have our collective backs.

College culture emanates from the highest offices of leadership all the way down to the physical plant staff. It is everywhere and is connected. In time, students catch the culture and strengthen it. They become it. And they take this belief and framework forward with them in the careers and personal lives. What we do here matters greatly for students, families, and our society writ large.

Surely, I can add more thoughts to this, but enough for now. I remain interested in what you think.


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