Rethinking Retention

New strategies to raise graduation rates.

December 9, 2014

A college degree has never been more valuable. On average, a graduate from a four-year college earns 84 percent more annually than a high school graduate.

As a college degree’s wage premium has risen, so, too, has enrollment in post-secondary institutions. But college graduation rates havebudged only marginally. Over the past decade, the proportion of 25-to 29 year olds with a college degree has risen quite modestly.

Today, roughly four in ten college freshman fail to graduate after six years.

Why do too many students fail to graduate and why do many who do take six years or even more?

Although many blame this on under-preparation, a lack of focus and motivation, shifting student demographics, or various distractions, whether extracurricular or social, these do not appear to be the dominant factors. The top problems are financial, institutional, curricular, and socio-cultural.  Let’s look briefly at each of these impediments.

By age 24, 82 percent of those in the top income quartile have earned a bachelor degree, compared to just 8 percent in the lowest quartile. Among the factors that explain this gap, one stands out: Unmet financial need. 

Only six U.S. institutions practice need blind admissions for all students, whether U.S. citizens or international students, and provide for their full demonstrated financial need. Another 39 practice need blind admissions for U.S. students only, and fully meet their financial need. An additional 21 colleges and universities are not need-blind, but meet the full financial need of those they admit.  Altogether, only 66 colleges and universities meet the full demonstrated financial need of admitted students.

The result? Economically disadvantaged students must work more hours, borrow more money, and take a reduced course load. A financial emergency leads many to drop-out.

The situation is particularly dire among community college students. Roughly 98 percent from families in the bottom income quartile have unmet financial need.

For many lower-income students, the need to take a full-time job to support their family or themselves often trumps the desire to earn a college degree.

When asked, students say that the primary reasons they left school were that “the college doesn’t care,” that they received “poor service and treatment,” that college was “not worth it,” and that courses did not fit their schedule.

Specific institutional impediments to graduation include:

  • Difficulty in transferring courses
    The path to a degree is far more circuitous than in the past, with many students taking courses at multiple institutions.  Often, courses taken elsewhere do not transfer, or, if they do, count only as electives. The challenge is especially grave for community college transfer students. Only 58 percent of community college transfer students succeeded in transferring more than 90 percent of their credits to four-year institutions.
  • Inadequate advising
    Students who generally need 120 credit hours to graduate accumulate on average nearly 137, partly as a result of wasted credit hours, shifting majors, but often the result of poor advising.
  • Unavailability of prerequisite courses
    For some students, graduation is delayed because essential courses are oversubscribed or are not offered at a time that fits the students’ schedule.

Any effective effort to address retention and graduation issues must ensure that courses transferred from other institutions count toward a degree and well prepare the student for more advanced classes; that support services are available whenever students need them, that advising is timely, accurate, and helpful, that courses are accessible when students need them, and that a degree offers a clear value proposition.

At many institutions, the curriculum consists of a grab bag of disconnected courses. It is rare for a curriculum, even within a single major, to be purposely and coherently designed, with carefully considered learning goals, thematic or methodological interconnections among classes,  and courses ordered in a meaningful sequence. 

Lacking a well-defined academic roadmap, many students take courses that do not count toward graduation or that do not provide the knowledge and skills sought by employers.

Meanwhile, weed-out courses and grading on a curve demoralize many students before they have developed effective study skills. A fixation on grades during the first year discourages collaboration and leads many students to shift majors or simply give up.

The answer lies in part in clear articulation and alignment of courses across the high school, community college, and four-year university divide; in structured pathways optimized to eliminate wasted or redundant courses; and an outcomes focus that encourages students to work harder rather than abandoning their career objectives.

Student motivations and attitudes, as well as such non-cognitive factors as grit and resilience, have a significant impact on graduation rates. Students who feel disconnected from an institution are especially likely to drop-out. Students who have a low sense of self-efficacy – that is, limited confidence in their ability to successfully perform specific tasks -- are also likely to flounder in college.

Successful efforts to retain and graduate students must address the attitudinal and motivational dimension, by engaging students, fostering a sense of community, and by convincing students that they have the capacity to successful do the required work and that their courses offer a clear value proposition.

Current Strategies
To address the challenge of persistence and completion, institutions have adopted a number of common strategies.  These include:

  • Emergency loans, to help students navigate financial emergencies.
  • Summer success academies or bridge programs to prepare at-risk students for college-level courses.
  • Mandatory academic orientations to inform students about available support services and provide study skills, time management, and student success strategies tips.
  • Freshman learning communities to provide an immediate connection to other peers who share common interests.
  • Expanded on-campus jobs, to provide students with academically friendly work schedules and the opportunity to obtain valuable references.
  • Incentivizing a full-course load, to encourage students to graduate in four years.
  • Early alert systems to identify students who are not attending class or who are receiving poor grades.
  • Supplemental instruction, including peer tutoring and small group study sessions, to provide additional support in especially challenging courses.
  • Redesign of gatekeeper courses with historically high DFW rates.
  • One-stop access to assistance with admissions, course registration, academic records, degree planning, billing, and financial aid.

Next-Generation Strategies
At such institutions as Georgia State, Cal State - Northridge,  and University of Maryland Baltimore County, strategies such as these have succeeded in raising retention and completion rates.  But if institutions are to dramatically move the needle on student success among a wide range of students, it might make sense to specifically address the issues of affordability, curricular design, motivation, and student support services that lie at the heart of the challenges many students face.

Here are a few “next-generation” strategies.

  • An online course and courseware clearinghouse to ensure that students have ready access to essential courses when they need the classes.
  • Articulation of early college, community college, and university general education and pre-major courses to ensure transferability and curricular alignment.
  • Streamlined, structured pathways to a degree.

One such model is the “meta-major,” widely adopted in Florida, which encompasses multiple majors that share a foundation of common courses and which point to a broad cluster of careers, for example, in health, business, or engineering.  A tailored selection of course options ensures that all classes taken count toward graduation, thereby reducing wasted credit hours. 

  • Competency-based, personalized adaptive degree programs as an option.

Competency-based education can be a game-changer. It identifies explicit, measurable learning outcomes that students must achieve.  If defined in collaboration with professional associations and employers, students will realize that these learning objectives have “real world” value.

Embedded diagnostics and remediation can customize students’ learning pathway to build on their strengths and remedy weaknesses.

Because competency-based programs are retro-engineered through a process of backward curricular design, these programs offer students a clear pathway to a degree without wasted credit hours.

  • The use of open educational resources to reduce or eliminate textbook costs.  Adaptive search and recommendation technologies can tailor readings and applications to students’ interests and their learning preferences, styles, and needs.
  • A progressive student profile that encompasses a students’ trajectory from secondary school onward to chart progress across the student lifecycle, combined with fine-grained learning analytics to identify at-risk behavior, toxic course combinations, areas of confusion or misunderstanding, and the effectiveness of student support interventions.
  • Online access to support services including academic advising, career services, center for students with disabilities, counseling, Veterans support services, and writing center, preferably available any time on any device.

Steven Mintz is the Executive Director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning and a Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.


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