Retention, From Beginning to End

April 26, 2010

NEW ORLEANS -- A few years ago, most of the enrollment-related sessions at a meeting like the annual conference of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers were related to getting students in the front door. Some still are -- colleges still must keep up a steady flow of entering students, of course.

But an unmistakable shift toward worrying about retaining existing students was in evidence at last week's AACRAO meeting here, with the agenda studded with sessions on how institutions can do a better job educating students in whom they have already made an investment -- and vice versa.

Two such sessions showed the full spectrum of the retention cycle. One focused on how institutions can more successfully help new students stick around. In a presentation called "Improving First-Year Retention Through Research," K. Celeste Campbell, university registrar at Oklahoma State University, described a study the institution had undertaken aimed at figuring out which factors most contributed to the higher-than-desired levels (23 percent in 2007, up from 20 percent in 2006) at which freshmen at Oklahoma State did not return as sophomores.

While there is lots of national research on why students don't persist in college, "retention is so complex, we really needed to spend some time figuring out what are the most important factors in our particular institution so we can expend our energy on those," said Campbell.

University officials compared all full-time freshmen in 2006 and 2007 to see which factors most differentiated the students who returned for a second year from those who did not.

Characteristics such as race, age, and whether students lived in residence halls did not emerge as statistically significant factors, but five things rose to the top: Students who did not return had lower first-semester grade point averages (1.99 vs. 3.06), earned significantly fewer credit hours during that semester (9.28 vs. 13.41), were more likely to have unpaid bills (22 percent vs. 4 percent), had withdrawn from more credit hours (2.32 vs. 0.71), and came into Oklahoma State with significantly lower high school GPAs (3.34 vs. 3.57).

Based on that finding, the university put in place an "intervention effort" in the 2008 academic year in which it directed extra advising to students who displayed those factors or developed them as the year wore on. Students who had more than one of those factors -- came into Oklahoma State with a low high school GPA and then had an unpaid bill after the first semester, for instance -- were a higher priority for help, said Campbell. "We don’t have the resources to do everything we want to do, so we focused our advising attention on areas that would make the most difference."

First-year retention rose slightly in 2008, to 78.7 from 77.4 in 2007, although Campbell acknowledged that Oklahoma State officials can't say for sure that the intervention made a difference. But at the very least, she said, the university is basing its actions on data in a way it had not before.

"We sometimes make our decisions at any level based on isolated incidences, or interactions with just one or two students," she said. "We see their stories and say, 'Let’s go in this direction, without really knowing how many people it’s going to help.' The advantage of having data analysis is that with all these directions we could go, it helps us decide where should we focus our time and energy."

Getting Them Back

The second session focused on a very different part of the college pipeline -- the very end. Kathi M. Baucom, associate provost for enrollment management at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, described her institution's efforts to recapture a group of students it had been unable to retain in the past -- seniors who finished the vast majority of their course work but left without earning a degree.

The 49er Finish Program, modeled on similar programs at the University of New Mexico and the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, focused on nearly 2,500 students who had left the urban public university in the previous seven years having accumulated at least three years of academic credit and GPAs of at least 2.0. With the university striving to improve its retention and graduation rates, this was a logical group to target, said Baucom.

"This is the perfect group for you to recruit back," she said. "The students had already invested a lot of time with us. They were academically successful anyway, and you didn't have to decide whether they could do the work. Plus, they were older and wiser -- they were not the 18-year-olds who came because of mom and dad. This is their time, their money, so they’re going to do better."

Baucom had grand plans for the program, proposing a "glorious" version of it in her budget for the 2005-6 academic year. When the project did not get funded, her office proceeded with a scaled-back version of it anyway, using $5,000 it scrounged from the enrollment management office to send a survey to about 1,200 students seeking information about why they had left. (About 1,400 students were excluded because they owed the university money from their previous time there, and UNC-Charlotte was not in a position to forgive the money.)

About one in 10 of the recipients returned the survey, offering helpful insights into their primary reasons for leaving: inability to get "the courses they needed at the times they could take them," difficulty balancing school and life/work demands, inadequate advising, insufficient financial aid -- and dissatisfaction with parking. More than 100 of the 133 also sent back an accompanying postcard asking the university to contact them about finishing their degrees.

The provost's office provided another $10,000 in one-time funds that allowed the university's adult education office to reach out to those who had expressed an interest in returning. A total of 55 students of that initial pool ultimately returned to the campus to complete their degrees, generating $83,000 in tuition revenue that first year.

At this point, Baucom said, a total of 311 students attracted by the program have graduated, and 131 more are currently enrolled. The university has now funded a full-time position to oversee the program, which has also earned a $50,000 grant (now renewed) from the Bernard Osher Foundation's Reentry Scholarship Program, allowing Charlotte to offer small grants to those who return.

The university is now looking to expand the program, reaching further back to those who left the institution even earlier.

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