Is Retention Improvement Within Colleges' Reach?

June 4, 2008

Low graduation rates. High transfer rates. Students who never graduate. Gaps -- sometimes embarrassingly large -- between minority and white students’ retention rates. Are retention problems just too difficult to solve?

Actually not, according to speaker after speaker Tuesday at the “National Dialog on Student Retention,” a conference in Atlanta organized by Education Dynamics, which advises colleges on enrollment and retention issues. The theme of speakers was that enough research has been done that colleges know what they need to do to get more students through their degree programs. The problem appears to be in execution, especially on a large scale.

“We find things that work and we only do them with six dozen students,” said George D. Kuh, director of the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University at Bloomington and the founder of the National Survey of Student Engagement. When colleges determine that certain actions will encourage graduation, “we’re shy about asking and requiring and cajoling” students into taking those actions.

In addition, too many colleges are satisfied to know that the right kinds of programs -- say undergraduate research or internships or learning communities in which students live and study together -- exist on their campuses. It’s not enough that these programs are around, Kuh said. The question to be asking is: “How many students do those things?” Additionally, colleges need to ask whether all students equally take advantage of these options, or whether some of these key efforts are largely devoid of minority students.

Many academics familiar with the reports done on NSSE will not be surprised by Kuh’s advice for colleges. He urges them to be more clear with students about what they need to do to succeed, to better link classroom and out-of-classroom experiences, and to make sure students have a significant connection -- to a professor, to a program or activity -- that creates roots on a campus.

Kuh stressed the importance of what happens in the classroom, and of the need for colleges to take action very quickly based on certain danger signs. For instance, he noted that there is overwhelming evidence that students who don’t complete at least 18 credits in their first year enrolled see a significant drop in their chances of earning a bachelor’s degree within six years.

“Early warning systems” are essential, he said. “But many campuses think an early warning system is midterm grades,” he said, when actions are needed in the first two weeks of courses. “Who is showing up?” Or, in online courses, “Who is logging on?”

While much of Kuh’s advice focused on actions colleges can take, he also said that colleges need to accept that there are factors beyond their direct control. Especially for first generation, low income students, family members are the most trusted advisers about colleges -- even if those family members have no knowledge of colleges and may not view dropping out as a bad thing. In most cases where such students drop out, the first person they talk to about such a decision is a family member, so if colleges want to keep these students, they need to pay more attention to families.

Other speakers discussed how parts of Kuh’s message played out based on their areas of expertise.

Carol Aslanian, who consults with colleges about adult students and how to serve them, said that for older students, the classroom is everything. “Classroom instruction has to be superb,” she said. “Not theoretical, but more applied, with teamwork. Your best faculty have to be in those classrooms,” she said. Because adult students are making particular sacrifices of their time to be there, they will leave if they aren’t getting what they want.

“Your students are savvy buyers as consumers,” she said.

Asked if it mattered if many colleges use adjuncts for evening programs that serve many older students, Aslanian said without hesitation that adjuncts aren’t a problem – it’s all about quality teaching. “Good teaching is good teaching.”

Similarly, Kenneth Hartman, academic director of Drexel University Online, said that to retain students online, teaching is also key -- and he too said that adjunct or tenure-track wasn’t the relevant factor.

The reality, Hartman said, is that for online programs, “the people are not your senior level faculty,” nor are they junior professors who are focused on earning tenure. Members of both groups may experiment with hybrid courses, but they aren’t the instructors online program directors rely on, who are adjuncts.

Colleges that want high retention rates in online programs, he said, need to “motivate and train adjuncts,” Hartman said. That means taking real time to be sure people have the skills and support to teach online, and spending more time on making sure courses have been designed for online formats and aren’t just created by putting handouts on a Web page.

“If you have a course that sucks on campus, it’s going to suck online,” he said.

Kristina Cragg, assistant to the president for research and analysis at Valdosta State University, said her institution is taking to heart the advice about early interventions, so that students have better odds at success. She noted many surveys find that students realize that academic support is important, but don’t take advantage of the resources that are offered.

Valdosta State has taken to inviting, strongly, certain students to use academic support centers -- rather than just having tutoring and advising services and seeing who shows up. Some students are invited because they have characteristics that make it more likely they will not graduate. Others are invited based on performance (or lack thereof) in classes.

While this is a significant change, Cragg said it was necessary if colleges want to raise retention rates. “We are now telling students who need assistance that it’s not optional,” she said.

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